Russian President Vladimir Putin is not happy. The government he backed in Ukraine has collapsed. The Ukrainian leader he favored, Viktor Yanukovych is on the run, accused of the “mass murder” of protesters.
I am not so bold as to predict what Mr. Putin will do next. That he will take action — perhaps very bold action — should be the working assumption of American policy planners.
On one level, Mr. Putin is a simple man: He likes to hunt, fish and ride horses bareback. Those who cross him end up in cages in Siberia — or worse. Employing Machiavellian principles, he has become, over the past 15 years, a neo-czar.
He also has demonstrated a remarkable ability to befuddle American leaders. In 2001, President George W. Bush looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes and came away with “a sense of his soul” — suggesting it resembled Thomas Jefferson rather than Ivan the Terrible.
Nevertheless, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convinced themselves that it was Mr. Bush’s cowboy swagger — not conflicting geopolitical interests — that were the root cause of Russo-American tensions. Their solution: “Reset” relations with the Kremlin. That this was a misguided policy became evident when Mrs. Clinton, with elaborate fanfare, presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a button inscribed with the Russian word “peregruzka.” She believed it meant “reset.” In fact, it means “overcharge.” (Reset is “perezagruzka.” True, that’s only a two-letter mistake, but spelling matters when one letter separates “Obama” from “Osama.”)
Two things to keep in mind about Mr. Putin: First, just as a U.S. Marine is always a U.S. Marine, so a KGB colonel is always a KGB colonel. Second, he believes — and in 2005 stated clearly — that the “demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
This does not imply that he is a communist. Ideologies — indeed, ideas — are of little apparent interest to him. What he does care about is power — for himself, certainly — but also for the Russian nation and people. Under both czars and commissars, Russia commanded an empire. If Mr. Putin does not restore Russian hegemony over a vast swath of Eurasia, it won’t be for lack of effort.
No territory is more central to this mission than Ukraine, which Mr. Putin sees as a Russian territory. Not entirely without reason: Rus’, the first eastern Slavic state, was founded around what is now the Ukrainian capital of Kiev in the 9th century. “Ukraine” derives from a Slavic root meaning “borderland.” You’ve been reading news stories about “Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine” and “Ukrainian-speakers in the west,” but the two Slavic tongues are actually more mutually intelligible than, say, the versions of Arabic spoken in Morocco and Egypt.
Don’t misunderstand me: Historic, ethnic and linguistic ties are no reason to deny a people self-determination. A few years back, Czechoslovakians decided they’d rather be Czechs and Slovaks. There are no longer Yugoslavs — just Serbians, Croatians, Bosnians and others.
If Ukrainians (most of them in the western part of the country) want to distance themselves from Russia, to become more like their freer, richer, less corrupt (though increasingly effete) neighbors in the European Union, should they not have that right?
On the other hand, if some Ukrainians (mostly in the east and on the Crimean Peninsula, home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet) prefer to remain joined at the hip with Putin’s autocratic and unproductive Russia, are they not entitled to make a bad decision?
Most of the media have characterized the Ukrainian crisis as has The Wall Street Journal: “a nationwide movement for wholesale democratic change.” I suspect it’s more about Ukraine’s crumbling economy and conflicted identity than democracy, though the available data leave room for uncertainty.
Perhaps the turmoil is best understood as a belated aftershock of the Cold War. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell (actually it was dismantled by hand; I have a chunk here in my office), and two years later the Soviet Union crumbled.
The Baltic States — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — had remained essentially Western despite years of Soviet and Russian occupation. They quickly became parliamentary democracies and members of the European Union. Muslim-majority (and not Islamist) Azerbaijan has benefited from petroleum resources and political stability. Other former Soviet republics, though, have been sinking into authoritarianism, poverty or chaos.
Twenty years ago, Ukraine’s major foreign policy objective was integration with the EU. Among the reasons little progress was made: Ukrainians failed to meet the EU’s economic and other standards, the EU was nervous about expanding into the heart of what had been Soviet space, and the United States, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, has been reluctant to get deeply involved. (Recall George H.W. Bush’s “chicken Kiev” speech of 1991.)
Last fall, just as Ukraine was about to sign an “association agreement” with the EU, Mr. Putin offered Mr. Yanukovych’s government a $15 billion bailout — if he’d put his pen back in his pocket. That was the spark that ignited the recent explosions.
I’d wager that Mr. Putin is willing to spend a lot more to keep Ukraine within Russia’s orbit. He may be willing to commit troops as well — as he did in Chechnya and Georgia.
Ukraine could descend into civil war. Or Ukrainians could choose, in a referendum, whether to integrate into Europe, reinforce their ties with Russia, split into separate eastern and western states, or attempt to sort out their differences in some other way.
Expect Mr. Putin to set “red lines” and do whatever is necessary to enforce them. He won’t ask permission from Mr. Obama, the EU or the United Nations. You shouldn’t need to look into his eyes to see that.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.