Russia’s sudden occupation of the Crimean peninsula led to some peculiar commentary concerning Russian president Vladimir Putin. Observers expressed revulsion at his brazen attempt to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and manipulate its politics. At the same time, however, they hinted at grudging praise for his particular brand of realpolitik. After all, in one eventful weekend he put the West on its heels, and nobody seemed to know how to respond. Some pundits ominously suggested that Putin’s gambit didn’t just threaten Ukraine; it threatened the whole post-Cold War international order by setting an ominous precedent about how to undermine fledgling pro-Western governments.
Critics also blamed Western leaders and the Obama administration for displays of weakness, wishful thinking, and ineptitude that supposedly encouraged Russian risk-taking. The side-by-side comparison was striking: Vladimir Putin came off as a calculating and ruthless leader who understood the rough reality of great-power politics, while Barack Obama seemed naïve and idealistic and utterly incapable of standing up to bullies. No surprise, then, that Putin outwitted the White House.
But that is not what happened. Putin has not outwitted anyone. He has not taken advantage of feckless Western leaders to expand Russian power and prestige, nor has he set in motion a pattern of events that has put the international order at risk. What he has done is drive headlong into a crisis where all of the likely outcomes for Russia are bad.
Consider the possible endgames. One is that Crimea will vote for independence in its upcoming referendum and become something like a Russian vassal state. Moscow would gain very little as a result. It already enjoys considerable influence over the majority Russian-speaking population, and it has long maintained its Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. What it would risk losing, however, would be the chance to ever restore a pro-Russian leader in Kiev, because all of those pro-Russian voters in Crimea would no longer get the chance to vote in Ukrainian elections.
What if Russia is unsatisfied with Crimea alone? Putin has repeatedly warned that the armed forces may intervene in East Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians. In this case Ukraine might go to war, though it would face extremely long odds because of its vast military disadvantages. A Russian victory, however, would cause as many problems as it would solve. Conquering territory means ruling over people, and in this case Russia can expect a burst of political violence from angry Ukrainians not happy about being ruled. The Russian military, famous for its high corruption and low morale, would then face the possibility of a protracted insurgency. And in this case it would not be keen on the kind of brute force that worked in Chechnya, because so much of the civilian population is ethnic Russian.
A third possibility is that Russian forces will turn to the west and seek to destroy Ukraine’s military in detail. Kremlin officials may calculate that this is the only reliable way to install a pliant regime in Kiev, and they may also believe such a war is necessary to stop violence directed at Russians in the east. Even if Russia achieves a quick and comprehensive military triumph, it would be left with a serious problem: occupying a large country marked by deep ethnic differences and a restive population. Russia would also become increasingly isolated and face a variety of international sanctions that would place new burdens on its already overstressed economy. Meanwhile, European leaders would have very strong incentives to find novel ways of reducing dependence on Russian natural gas resources while simultaneously balancing against Russian power. Some victory.
What does all this mean for U.S. strategy? First, the Obama administration is right to move slowly and to ignore critics who demand aggressive steps against Russia. As a few astute observers have noted, Putin is perfectly capable of self-defeating behavior. He does not need Washington’s help.
Second, efforts to organize a military response are both unnecessary and unwise. Putin has erred badly in Ukraine, but by invoking Russian nationalism he will find it hard to back down if confronted with Western military power. A NATO-led military action would be particularly provocative and dangerous, given longstanding Russian anger at the alliance’s eastward expansion.
Rather than forcing a confrontation, the appropriate U.S. response is patience and restraint. Russia has already dug itself a deep hole, it is likely to come out in much weaker shape, and its actions might finally stimulate meaningful balancing in Europe. For the time being, then, the best strategy is to let Putin be Putin. At some point quiet diplomacy may be in order to ease the Kremlin out of the crisis. Much as we don’t like to admit it, Russian cooperation is crucial for any long-term solution on issues from arms control to Syria to Iran. A prolonged standoff over Ukraine would threaten progress on these issues, while creating new and needless risks.
Joshua Rovner is the John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security at Southern Methodist University.
Image: Flickr/Ben Tavener. CC BY 2.0.