No-Bluff Putin

Anyone who says Russia is losing in Ukraine doesn’t understand how this game is played.

Photo by YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

Who’s winning the battle for Ukraine? Despite continued signs of trouble in Ukraine’s eastern provinces, some pretty prominent people have recently offered a decidedly upbeat interpretation of events there. The first was U.S. President Barack Obama, who, during his commencement speech at West Point last week, cited the Western response to the crisis as a telling example of successful multilateral diplomacy. In his words, "the mobilization of world opinion and international institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda, Russian troops on the borders, and armed militias." It’s not over, he warned, but this effort "has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future."

A second optimistic appraisal came from New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who announced on May 27 that Vladimir Putin had "blinked" and proclaimed that the Russian leader "got pretty much everything wrong." According to Friedman, "Putin’s seizure of Crimea has weakened the Russian economy, led to China getting a bargain gas deal, revived NATO, spurred Europe to start ending its addiction to Russian gas and begun a debate across Europe about increasing defense spending." His close-to-gleeful summary: "the country Putin threatens most today is Russia."

There’s a grain of truth in these optimistic assessments, in the sense that Russia has paid a price for its recent actions. And Obama and Friedman are correct to remind us that Russia is not the looming geopolitical threat that some hawks tried to conjure up when it seized Crimea. But what both Obama and Friedman miss is the real — and completely normal — motivation behind Putin’s behavior. It ain’t rocket science: Putin was willing to pay a substantial price because Russia’s vital interests were at stake. On balance, I’ll bet Putin still sees this matter as a net win.

Just consider what Putin has achieved in the past few months.

First, he has put the idea of a further NATO expansion on the back burner for a long time, and maybe forever. Russia has opposed NATO’s march eastward ever since it began in the mid-1990s, but Russia was not in a position to do much about it. The brief 2008 war between Russia and Georgia was Putin’s first attempt to draw a red line, and that minor skirmish dampened enthusiasm for expansion considerably. This time around, Putin made it abundantly clear that any future attempt to bring Ukraine into NATO or even into EU membership will be met with firm Russian opposition and will probably lead to dismemberment of the country.

Second, Putin has restored Russian control over Crimea, an act that was popular with most Crimean residents and most Russians as well. The takeover entailed some short-term costs (including some rather mild economic sanctions), but it also solidified Russian control over its naval base in Sevastopol and will allow Russia to claim oil and gas reserves in the Black Sea that may be worth trillions of dollars. The United States and Europe can try to block development of these reserves by tightening sanctions even more, but they are more likely to let sanctions ease off once the situation in Ukraine cools. And if Russia eventually decides to start exploiting these areas, is the United States going to send the 6th Fleet to stop it?

Third, Putin has reminded Ukraine’s leaders that he has many ways to make their lives difficult. No matter what their own inclinations may be, it is therefore in their interest to maintain at least a cordial relationship with Moscow. And Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, got the message. As he told Lally Weymouth of the Washington Post before his election, "Without a direct dialogue with Russia, it will be impossible to create security." Since taking office, he has made it clear that he wants to expand Ukraine’s economic ties to Europe — something crucial to any hope of reforming its troubled economy — but he also intends to improve relations with Russia as well.

Fourth, Friedman’s tale of a "revived" NATO is wishful thinking at best and pure fiction at worst. The alliance did deploy a few warplanes to the east to reassure its Baltic members, and Obama offered the usual verbal affirmations and pledged $1 billion in miscellaneous defense measures during his visit to Poland this week. But the Poles seem less than reassured and continue to demand more U.S. protection; what they seem to want is a big NATO military base on their territory. The crisis also reminded observers that NATO expansion was never based on serious calculations of interest and capability: The United States and its allies simply assumed the Article 5 pledge to defend NATO’s new members would never have to be honored. I don’t think Russia has the slightest intention of expanding anywhere else, but doubts about the wisdom of NATO’s earlier expansion have never been greater.

Friedman also says Europeans are now debating increased defense spending, as if these discussions were going to make Putin lose a lot of sleep. In fact, NATO’s European members have talked about doing enhanced defense capabilities for years, but the level of actual spending has steadily declined.

Finally, Friedman seems to think Russia signed its new 30-year, $400 billion gas deal with China out of a sense of desperation and that the deal is a losing proposition. Hardly: The price China reportedly agreed to pay is slightly less than what Russia charges its European customers, but it is more than double the price that customers in the Commonwealth of Independent States cough up, and it will still earn Gazprom a tidy profit. More importantly, the deal strengthens Sino-Russian economic relations and diversifies Gazprom’s customer base, which will allow it to push for harder bargains elsewhere. Western sanctions may have made Putin somewhat more willing to cut a deal, but it is still a net win for him.

To sum up: Putin’s maneuverings look like a failure only if you believe his goal was to dismember Ukraine completely or re-create the old Soviet Union. By contrast, if you think his primary objective was to keep Ukraine from joining a U.S.-led "sphere of influence" in Europe, then his handling of the crisis looks adroit, ruthless, and successful.

In short, Putin’s tacit acceptance of the recent Ukrainian election and his other moves to de-escalate the crisis aren’t an example of his backing down in the face of coordinated Western pressure. Instead, he is lowering the temperature because he got the most important things he wanted and just about everything he could reasonably expect. Putin didn’t "blink"; he just knew when to pocket his gains and cash in.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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