Putin's Long Game

March 21, 2014 Topic: Great PowersSecurity Region: RussiaUkraine

Putin's Long Game

He has one. The West doesn't.

Russia can also curtail trade with Ukraine on a scale no hikes in trade with EU would able to compensate for. Russia supplies more than 60 percent of Ukraine's gas and is the source of half of raw materials that Ukraine imports. Russia is also by far the largest importer of goods and services from Ukraine.

Putin would be more likely to play these cards if he concludes that a new Cold War is unavoidable and Russia won't lose much more from pursuing an even more expansive policy vis-a-vis Ukraine.

Time for Kiev to Display Foresight

Leaders of the interim government in Kiev should finally start exercising some badly needed foresight to anticipate what disruptive moves Moscow can make next and how they can realistically preempt such moves. Or they will risk losing de facto control over parts of eastern Ukraine.

Such a loss would, of course, would be condemned by Western countries and their allies. But by now Kiev probably knows that condemnations don’t stop Russia and that neither the United States nor its allies would enter a military conflict with Russian forces to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity (there was a reason why the Budapest memorandum contains assurances rather than guarantees of Ukraine’s security).

Taking and holding a high moral ground in international affairs is important, but not as important as holding one’s ground literally.

Now, of course, some argue that membership in NATO represents a shortcut to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but chances are that the republic may lose some of parts of eastern and southeastern provinces before Article 5 of the Washington Treaty could be applied to Kiev. And I myself held the view that Ukraine’s membership in NATO was not improbable. But that was in the early 2000s, when Vladimir Putin was himself making inquiries whether Russia could be invited into NATO. That opportunity has been lost.

Yet, there are a number of steps that Ukrainians can take to hold their home ground even outside NATO. Codifying Ukraine’s military-political neutrality and status of the Russian language in the Constitution in short-term and strengthening Ukraine’s statehood, increasing independence of its economy and reinforcing capabilities of its military in the longer-term could be among those steps.

It would be as important for the Ukrainian elites and public both in the short and long term to stick to defeating their political opponents at polling stations rather than on the streets. The revolution (this is the third attempt to stage a revolution in post-Communist Ukraine) must make way for a politically cohesive, economically viable, stable and neutral (but military capable) state, one whose neighbors have neither reason nor excuse to intervene against.

Simon Saradzhyan is assistant director of the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism and a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. His research interests include international arms control, counter-terrorism, foreign, defense, and security policies of Russia and other post-Soviet states and their relations with great powers.