With the stroke of his pen, Russian President Vladimir Putin deepened the divide between East and West by signing a document that officially made Ukraine’s Black Sea region of Crimea part of the Russian Federation.
Some Russia experts see that act as a marking of the end of the post-Cold War era in Europe that the world has known since the days of Reagan and Gorbachev. It is no less than a tectonic shift, “one defined by ideological clashes, nationalistic resurgence and territorial occupation," wrote Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, in an opinion piece for the New York Times newspaper this week.
Speculation over whether or not Putin has nursed a desire to grab Crimea - a region with deep Russian roots – has sparked debate among Kremlin observers.
“This is not something that one could have predicted,” said Russian expert Thomas Graham, Senior Director at Kissinger Associates, Inc. “I think if you look at the record of the past few weeks – a month ago – Putin didn’t believe or know that he going to annex Crimea,” he said. “You know, a lot of this was a response to events that unfolded very rapidly.”
Those included street protests over ousted Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to back away from a deal to form closer ties with the European Union. Putin also saw it as an opportunity to divert attention away from what is becoming a problematic economy in Russia, Graham said.
And when the European Union (EU) and the United States responded to his moves with tough talk and threats of economic sanctions, it drove him to seize territory to use as a bargaining chip with the West.
“But also, as he [Putin] thought about it, he began to see an opportunity that this very vigorous action would play into Russian nationalism, but would also bring him significant domestic political benefits – particularly in the short term,” he said.
Considered by many as icy cold, Putin has often been described as a highly self-controlled, practical leader who does not rely on charm to get the job done.
"You see someone very intense, very focused, clearly a man with a mission, who believed that his goal was to rebuild Russia and to defend Russia's national interests,” said Graham, who met Putin when Graham worked in various posts as a Russia expert under the Bush administration.
“He was prepared to expend a lot of effort to do that. He was also prepared to suffer a lot of pain in order to achieve that goal," said Graham. "And I think you see those same characteristics today.” Journalist Adi Ignatius, who spent time with the Russian leader in 2007 for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, wrote that Putin was prickly and humorless.
But if Putin is unemotional in the political arena, he is passionate about restoring Russia to what he sees as its rightful place on the global stage.
The annexation of Crimea fits neatly within that worldview, according to Ariel Cohen, Senior Fellow of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation. “He views this action in historic context of correcting the wrong of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he [has] called the greatest geo-political tragedy of the 20th century,” Cohen said.
And Putin has been open about his concern for the plight of the estimated 25 million ethnic Russian’s who ended up living outside the borders of Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
But to really understand how Putin operates, one must keep in mind his KGB career, Cohen said.
“Mr. Putin is an intelligence officer and his specialty is what is called ‘human intelligence,’ so he had experience recruiting and running agents when he was in Germany and having these agents working for the Soviet intelligence apparatus,” he said.
“As such, I think he considers himself a judge of human character, and he took an assessment of [President Barack] Mr. Obama, [German Chancellor Angela] Mrs. Merkel and others and decided that this is a team he can play against and win,” Cohen said,
And that comes after years of engaging with three American presidents to work on U.S.-Russian relations, including with President Barack Obama on the administration's “reset” policy, said Russian historian Yuri Felshtinsky.
“I think Putin slowly, this took him several years, moved from a period when he was trying to be friendly with the West and be a partner with the West…to a period when he is trying to recreate the empire,” Felshtinksy said.
“Whether this is going to be Soviet empire or mini Soviet empire or Russian empire, it’s difficult to say because probably Putin doesn’t know himself what this empire is going to be,” he said.
Felshtinsky also believes, that Putin has calculated that Western leaders like President Obama and Merkel are politically unable to prevent Russian expansion.
A greater Russia
To understand what is driving Putin with regard to Ukraine, just think back to the days when former Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, weakened both physically and politically, plucked Putin out of the KGB to become his successor in 1999.
“It was very clear that he believed that Russia had gone through a period, -- a decade -- of socio-economic decline, national humiliation in the 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union,” said Graham.
Fast forward to 2014. After spending years successfully engineering a remarkable economic and military comeback, Graham says Putin revealed his intentions only days after Crimea was officially annexed.
His message, according to Graham: Russia’s period of geo-political retreat is now over.
The Ukraine drama has sparked Cold War jitters – and a revisiting of an era of deep political tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1950s and ‘60s, when fears of nuclear war were at their highest.
But unlike Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who squared off with former President John F. Kennedy over the Cuban Missile Crisis, Putin is no communist.
“He doesn't believe in state ownership of all the industrial assets,” Cohen said. “But he is a great Russian nationalist. He believes that the Crimea, for example, and possibly other places in the former Soviet Union, like Northern Kazakhstan, possibly Belarus, possibly Ukraine, belong to [a] greater Russia.” he said.
But despite reports of Russian troop buildups on the Ukraine border, Graham predicts that Putin will not grab more territory.
"He gains very little by absorbing Eastern Ukraine, with its large ethnic Russian population,” Graham said. “Because what he needs is all of Ukraine... he's not going seize territory,” he said. “What he wants to be able to do is project confidence, the ability, the capacity to use power and hope that those levers give him increasing influence in the states along Russia's borders."
And if Ukraine moves closer to the West, as its new government wants to, Putin will have lost strategically.
Since 2008, Ukraine has been a candidate to join NATO, said Henrik Larsen, post-doctoral research fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
“There is still a formal promise on the table they will eventually become members of NATO. So from a Russian perspective what happened in Kyiv was a new ‘orange revolution’ that over time could maybe lead to NATO membership,” said Larsen. “And for the Russian perspective, the prospect of U.S. or NATO troops in Ukraine is unthinkable.”
An earlier version of this story had a map that incorrectly labeled several nations as members of the EU. VOA regrets the error.