Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a gamble on Ukraine and is betting that U.S. President Barack Obama will blink first. Wounded by a personal political defeat in a battle for influence over Russia’s Slavic neighbour, Putin is fighting back, and presenting the crisis as a question of symmetry.
In his view, the West “stood by” and allowed armed men to direct events in the capital Kiev – now he is “standing by” as armed men extended their control over the Crimea region. The former KGB spy blames the West for stirring passions in Kiev, encouraging an opposition to break agreements to restore peace and allowing what Moscow calls “extremists” and “fascists” to dictate political developments in Ukraine. Now authorised by parliament to deploy Russia’s military in Ukraine to protect national interests and those of Russian citizens, Putin is taking on a West he feels has cut Moscow out of talks on the future of Russia’s Orthodox Christian brothers. How far he will go is the big question.
While Moscow has put 150,000 troops on high alert near Ukraine’s border, it has shown no signs, yet, of sending them and denies Ukrainian allegations it sent the protesters who have hoisted Russian flags in some eastern towns. Putin is saying nothing in public on Ukraine – and has not done so since Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich was deposed more than a week ago.
At the centre of attention as one Western leader after another calls to urge him not to use force, he is betting the West’s response will be weak. His calculation is that Obama has few levers at his disposal and no appetite for war over a remote Black Sea peninsula with symbolic and strategic value to Russia as home to a Russian naval base, but little economic significance.
The two presidents spoke by phone for 90 minutes on Saturday. The call appeared to have ended in a stalemate. Putin is banking on salvaging something out of a battle over Ukraine that he appeared to have won when Yanukovich spurned trade and political deals with the European Union in November, but then seemed to lose when Yanukovich was ousted after three months of protests.
“The West told Putin to get lost over Ukraine,” said Sergei Markov, a pro-Putin political analyst and director of the Institute for Political Studies in Moscow, underlining the depth of hurt Putin felt over Ukraine. Accusing Western powers and international organisations of trying to ignore Moscow in talks on financial assistance for Kiev, Markov said: “What we are saying is that if there are any U.N., IMF, G-8 agreements without consultations with us, then we will see them as illegitimate.”
Reclaiming Crimea, a former Russian territory handed to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, would win Putin kudos among core voters and especially continued…