The conventional wisdom holds that Russia is not leaving Crimea; that Putin wants more; and that Putin has outmaneuvered Obama on the world stage.

The conventional wisdom is about half-right.

Russia Is Not Leaving Crimea

Since the Russian incursion into Crimea, Vladimir Putin's popularity within Russia has soared. CNN has reported that he enjoys an approval rating of 82%, not withstanding a very weak economy.

If Putin had done nothing after his friend and ally Viktor Yanukovych was unceremoniously run out of the country, it would have given the lie to the image of Putin as a strong leader willing to move swiftly to protect the interests and restore the grandeur of Mother Russia.

If Putin had not moved on Crimea, he would have shown himself to be less than a “regional power”. Russia would have been exposed as a country that could not even protect a vital interest on its border. Putin's approval rating at home would have been cut in half in a New York minute.

Putin will not relinquish de facto control of Crimea, because to do so would be fatal for him politically. Also, Putin is well aware that the US and our NATO allies (Ukraine is not a NATO member) do not have a sufficiently compelling interest in Crimea to force him out.

Crimea is a done deal.

Putin Wants More Than Crimea

There is no doubt that Putin wants more. The question is how much risk is he willing to take, and how much international isolation is he willing to endure in order to get it.

He has already sought to move the conversation away from Crimea onto what he says is the more important question of how the new government of Ukraine (which Putin claims has no legitimacy) should be constituted.

Putin prefers a federated Ukraine, with a weak central government and strong regional federations, possibly broken up along ethnic lines. All the easier for Russia to foment mischief and look for opportunities to intervene, particularly in eastern Ukraine, to “protect” ethnic Russians.

Putin views the breakup of the Soviet Union and the diminishment of Russia on the world stage as a disaster of historic proportions. Whether he feels he has been given a “messianic mission” to restore Russian greatness through territorial expansion is unclear to all except John McCain.

What is clear, however, is that Putin is an impressive, very self-contained operator. He's been photographed as often as anyone on the planet. His default facial expression is a stoic, frozen stare. There are pictures of him smiling, even winking, but one would be hard-pressed to find him in a moment of effusive good humor. In other words, he's no Joe Biden.

Who Putin is is far more difficult to discern. It is well-known that he has been a devoted martial artist since a very early age. He's also a logical thinker, trained in the law.

An interesting window into his thinking was on display in early March, in a freewheeling live televised press conference from Moscow. Putin took questions sitting down, on a variety of matters involving Ukraine. The only question that appeared to throw him off a bit was when a female reporter asked Putin, “Do you feel sympathy for deposed Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych?”

Putin shook his head and said, “No. No.” He went on to say, “It is the obligation and duty of a leader to implement the will of the people who have entrusted him with power.” What came through was that Putin recognized that Yanukovych had been a failure at implementing the will of the Ukrainian people, and that “sympathy” had nothing to do with it. Indeed, his facial expression seemed to indicate that “sympathy” was a concept with which he was largely unfamiliar.

So, yes, Putin wants more in Ukraine and elsewhere, but he will be patient and cautious about seeking to get more.

Putin Has Outmaneuvered Obama

The conventional wisdom holds that Putin has outmaneuvered Obama in Ukraine. I disagree.

On November 20, 2013, the day before demonstrations started on the streets of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, Putin had someone who he could call his friend and ally, Viktor Yanukovych, in power in Ukraine. Two months later, Yanukovych flees the country and the Parliament votes to remove him from office. Pro-Western leadership emerges in Kiev, and Russia makes a move on Crimea.

Obama counters with mid-level targeted sanctions, and the Russian stock market takes a serious hit. Capital flows out of the country at three times the usual rate. The New York Times reports that the sanctions are felt in the New York real estate market, as Russian oligarchs show a reluctance to draw attention to themselves by bidding on ultra-high-end properties.

Meanwhile, Russia finds itself more isolated than at any time since their invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The Russian position in Crimea is not materially different after the incursion than it was before.

Putin has received a short-term bump in his popularity at home and sacrificed a longer-term interest of his country in order to get it. He's maneuvered himself into a box. That's not a winning position.


I will post again on Wednesday, May 7, 2014 (or before, if the news flow dictates) and, for the time being, I will post on the first Wednesday of each month.

Comments are welcome at tomc[at]wednesdayswars[dot]com. Comments will be addressed in subsequent posts.