Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Limits of Putin's Ambitions

Is Ukraine the new Sudetenland?

In light of Russia's invasion of Crimea, which belonged to Ukraine, Zbigniew Brzezinski apparently thought so:
[Putin] initial success may tempt him to repeat that performance more directly in the far eastern provinces of Ukraine proper. If successful, the conclusive third phase could then be directed, through a combination of political unrest and increasingly overt use of Russian forces, to overthrow the government in Kiev. The result would thus be similar to the two phases of Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland after Munich in 1938 and the final occupation of Prague and Czechoslovakia in early 1939.
That quote, however, completely overestimates Russia's power and Putin's willingness to launch wars to regain the lost Soviet Empire.

For starters, Russia's power and ability to project isn't nearly comparable to Germany's capabilities in 1938. Germany had the ability to expand not only because Hitler was convinced that France, Italy and Great Britain would do nothing to prevent him (in France and Britain's case, it was more due to the lack of public appetite for another war), but more importantly, because at that time, the distribution of power was relatively equal.

In addition, keep in mind Putin's Russia is not an isolated hermit kingdom. It is deeply linked to international economy. Already the fallout from Russia's invasion led the Ruble to fall to a record low. Still, this does not mean that Putin is what Merkel termed as "in another world." In fact, Putin is a very rational leader who knows the limits of what he can and cannot do.

He knows that he needs Crimea because it houses the Black Sea Fleet -- not to mention its historical importance to Russians. Taking over entire Ukraine, however, is not something that he can do, and he knows this. Instead, Putin is pushing for the Georgia scenario, wherein he takes over parts of the country, setting up a de-facto local government under Russian protection. He knows that as long as he doesn't swallow all of Ukraine, the international community will puff and huff, but nothing will come out from it.

Well, listen, how do you think I feel about it? Can you imagine how I feel about it, Vladimir? Why do you think I'm calling you? Just to say hello? Of course I like to speak to you! Of course I like to say hello! Not now, but any time, Vladimir. It's a friendly call. Of course, it's a friendly call. Listen, if it wasn't friendly, you probably wouldn't have even got it. 

Meantime, Putin has looked into Obama's eyes and saw that Obama lacks guts. He looks at how Obama bungled Syria and had no appetite for any foreign adventures. Since Obama is so powerless against a small fry like Assad, why would Putin believe that Obama is willing to face the big bear that backs Assad?  [Khrushschev might have made this error when he forced the Cuban Missile Crisis on Kennedy, underestimating Kennedy's willingness to fight. But Crimea is not Cuba.]

Besides, Putin holds some precious cards, notably Russia's ability to make life miserable for people in Ukraine and European Union by cutting off the supply of natural gas. Of course Putin won't do that -- at least for now. It is more effective to force the European Union to waffle and do nothing by simply putting that on the table. Moreover, by taking over Crimea without significant international repercussions, it's likely that the Ukrainian new government will toe the Russian line very carefully.

Thus, there will be so much hot air puffed in the next few weeks, but at the end of the day, Russia will stay in Crimea. Ukraine will seethe but they know that they can do nothing; the European Union, as usual, will keep debating until the cows come home; and Obama will remain a lame duck in international affairs until 2016.

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