Calling Putin's Bluff

April 12, 2014 Topic: Great PowersSecurity Region: Russia

Calling Putin's Bluff

Russia relies on Ukraine more than you think.


President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea caught Western governments by surprise and has sparked fears of a new Cold War. While it is too soon to know the long-run impact of the Ukrainian crisis on European and global security, the annexation of Crimea has dealt a major blow to Western hopes for the creation of a “Europe whole and free.”

The annexation challenges two basic assumptions on which U.S. policy toward Europe in the post-Cold War era has been based: (1) that Europe is essentially stable and secure, freeing the United States to focus its attention on other areas, particularly Asia and the Middle East, and (2) that Russia had become a potential partner rather than an adversary.


The annexation of Crimea has called into question both of these assumptions. The United States can no longer assume that Europe will be stable and that Russia will not be an adversary. As a result, Washington needs to rethink critical aspects of its policy toward Europe and Russia.

Putin’s World

At the same time, the annexation has highlighted the degree to which Putin’s worldview differs from that of Western leaders. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel pointedly remarked during the Crimean crisis, Putin is “living in a different world.” While most Western leaders do not share this mindset, they need to understand it and take it into account when dealing with Putin.

Putin is driven by 19th century concepts of geopolitics and great-power competition. In this world, sovereign states are the key actors. Conflict and competition are inevitable, because sovereign states seek to maximize their power. Hard power is the coin of the realm.

Ukraine, with its 46 million people, rich natural resources and access to the Black Sea, is a vital interest for Russia. A compliant Ukraine closely linked to Russia is essential for the realization of Putin’s objective of rebuilding Russia as a strong Eurasian power. As Zbigniew Brzezinski noted some time ago, “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire. However, if Moscow regains control over Ukraine...Russia automatically again regains the wherewithal to become an imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia.”

President Yanukovych’s ouster threatened to deal a severe blow to Putin’s hope of eventually drawing Ukraine back into the Russian orbit. A pro-Western Ukraine closely tied to Europe would alter the strategic balance in Central Europe and pose a significant obstacle to Putin’s goal of reestablishing Russia as a Eurasian power.

Many members of the Russian political elite have a difficult time regarding Ukraine as an independent state. Putin shared this point of view at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008. Putin reportedly remarked to President Bush that Ukraine was “not a real state”, implying that its status as an independent state was unnatural and provisional.

Having spent two decades as a KGB operative, Putin could not imagine that the mass protests and ouster of Yanukovych were the result of spontaneous actions. In his view, the Ukrainians were incapable of organizing such effective protests on their own. Therefore the protests had to have been instigated and orchestrated by Western intelligence agencies whose goal was to consolidate Western influence in Ukraine.

The annexation of Crimea was aimed at reasserting Russia’s hegemony in what Moscow considers to be its sphere of influence. Ukraine is central to the success of Putin’s integration effort in the post-Soviet Space, especially his attempt to establish a Eurasian Economic Union. Without the participation of Ukraine the union makes little sense and has little chance of success.

But Putin’s action was also aimed at underscoring a broader point: that Russia is an important international power that has its own interests and these must be taken into account and respected. This has been a persistent theme in Putin’s speeches harking back to his controversial address to the Munich Security Conference in 2007. The speech was a strident attack on the West, especially the United States, which he characterized as a rogue elephant with little regard for international law or Russian interests.

Many of these same themes ran through his speech to both houses of parliament in the Kremlin on March 18th. His speech sought to tap into the deep well of Russian nationalism and anti-Western sentiment, which has increasingly characterized his rule in the last several years, and was designed to project the image of a strong, decisive leader who stood up for Russian interests and refused to kowtow to the West.

Putin believes that the West took advantage of Russian weakness in the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union and that the current post-Cold War security system does not adequately take into consideration Russian interests. Under Putin, Russia has, in effect, become a revisionist power. Putin believes that the security system that emerged after the end of the Cold War was one-sided and did not adequately reflect Russian interests. It resulted in a European security system based on NATO and the European Union that reflected the strategic interests of the United States. He wants the system revised to more adequately take into consideration Russian interests.

Ukraine: The Dangers Ahead

The key question is: what is Putin’s end game? Will he be satisfied with getting Crimea back? Or will he now try to destabilize the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine as well?

At this juncture, the answer is not clear. Much will depend on the impact of the Western response to Putin’s actions in Crimea. If the Western response is weak and ineffective, Putin might be tempted to “double down” and send troops into eastern Ukraine in order to “protect” the Russian-speakers there.

However, an intervention in eastern Ukraine would be far more difficult than invading Crimea. In eastern Ukraine the majority of the population is made up of ethnic Ukrainians whose primary language is Russian. They voted overwhelmingly for an independent Ukraine in l991. The majority wants close ties to Russia, but most do not want to join Russia. Thus, Putin cannot automatically count on the strong support of the population in eastern Ukraine as he could in Crimea. Moreover, the Ukrainian army, though smaller and less well equipped than the Russian army, is not likely to sit idly in its barracks if an invasion occurs. Thus, an attempt by Russia to intervene militarily in eastern Ukraine would entail serious political and military risks.

The military invasion and occupation of Ukraine, a country whose size is close to that of Texas and whose population is about 45 million, would be significantly more difficult than the invasion of Crimea. At least 150,000 active forces would need to be deployed with a likely follow-on occupation force of similar size drawn from the various internal security services.

Over the last five years, the Russian armed forces have been undergoing a transition from a Soviet-era mass-mobilization force to that of a much smaller and more technologically enabled force. That transition has led to a much smaller total force that is still highly reliant on one-year conscripts due to a faltering attempt to professionalize the military.

The Crimean operation revealed that Russian military reform, while slow and not without serious problems, has succeeded in upgrading the performance of select special-operations forces and paratroop units. These units were the backbone of the forces that carried out the seizure of Crimea and were better trained, better equipped and better disciplined than regular Russian army forces. They would probably spearhead the initial phase of combat operations in an invasion of eastern Ukraine. However, in the later phases of the intervention, the Russian forces would have to rely heavily upon one-year conscripts of indifferent fighting quality. In addition, the Russian armed forces’ operational logistics system would have difficulty supporting a high-speed expeditionary operation.

However, even if he doesn’t openly stage a large-scale military invasion, Putin has the capacity to exacerbate internal tensions in eastern Ukraine and cause serious unrest through a variety of covert actions and economic coercion. This unrest could further destabilize the central government in Kiev and provide a pretext for pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine to call on Russia to intervene to “protect” the Russian-speaking population. Bearing this in mind, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s proposal that Ukraine’s constitution be changed to make Ukraine a “federalized state” could be cause for concern. Under the proposal, Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions would have significant autonomy and be granted “wide powers” to establish economic and cultural ties with their neighbors. The plan would weaken the central government’s authority and control over the Russian-speaking regions and enable Russia to strengthen its influence in those areas. This would make it easier for Putin to conduct a Crimea-like takeover in the Russian-speaking areas.

Moreover, Putin would not have to conduct the takeover of eastern Ukraine all at once. He could do it slowly, in piecemeal fashion, concentrating on key cities such as Donetsk and Kharkiv and gradually extending the effort to other Russian-speaking areas. This would make the takeover harder to prevent and oppose.

America Must Lead

The Obama administration needs to confront Putin’s challenge head-on and develop a broad-based, sustained response designed to deter further attempts by Russia to destabilize Ukraine or its neighbors. This is not a time when the United States can afford to “lead from behind.” Our European allies will be looking for – and expecting – firm American leadership.