Washington — It’s still possible to imagine a fuzzy, face-saving compromise in Ukraine: Crimea would have a new, quasi-autonomous administrative status blessed by Moscow and Kiev. The problem is that few analysts think Russian President Vladimir Putin will swallow this diplomatic pill.
Secretary of State John Kerry will make one more try, seeing his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in London on Friday; Kerry hasn’t ruled out traveling on to see Putin himself. But that’s unlikely to stop the planned referendum this Sunday in which Crimeans are almost certain to vote to break away from Ukraine.
What happens next, if Putin doesn’t take Kerry’s “offramp”? That’s quite literally a guessing game for the Obama administration. Officials can’t be sure how the Russian leader will move; they hope the West will stay united in imposing punitive sanctions, but that unity can’t be guaranteed. Above all, U.S. officials are assessing whether the Ukraine crisis will mean a real breach in U.S.-Russian relations — one that could torpedo joint diplomatic efforts over Syria and Iran — or whether common interests can prevail.
You hear two strains of opinion about Putin from administration officials and other foreign policy analysts. For simplicity’s sake, let’s summarize these two views as “Putin is strong” and “Putin is weak.”
Those who see the Russian leader playing a strong hand argue that he has been readying such a military intervention for more than a decade. He invaded Georgia in 2008 and faced little Western opposition. He has now used military force to protect Russia’s interests in Ukraine and, perhaps, other neighboring states — prompting talk of sanctions but no serious military response. He has shown that a dictator’s bullying tactics can be successful.
The alternative view of a weak Putin begins with the fundamentals: Russia is in political, economic and social decline. Putin’s abrasive tactics, far from intimidating Ukraine, led its people to depose Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych last month and form a new government. By his truculent behavior, Putin has driven Russia’s neighbors closer to NATO. A weak Putin, in this view, has stumbled into the very situation he most fears.
My guess is that Putin will be a winner only in the short run. The negatives for Russia have probably increased because of the events of the past month. Russia has likely lost most of Ukraine as a buffer state, even if it claims Crimea as a consolation prize. The world simply isn’t moving Russia’s way.
A small sign of Putin’s long-term problem is that both China and Japan have pulled back from Moscow, thanks to the Crimea adventure. China fears that the Crimean secessionist movement could be a model for Tibet; Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had been warming to Putin, has shown solidarity with America and Europe.
Will the Ukraine crisis prove a major turning point, tipping the world toward a new cold war? Despite the obvious dangers of confrontation, many analysts say that’s unlikely. Should Crimeans endorse independence as expected, the Russian parliament may up the ante by voting to annex the region. But what may follow is a period in which the region’s status is legally undefined, and the U.S. continues to seek a compromise between Kiev and Moscow. Putin could disrupt that by encouraging unrest in Russian-speaking cities of eastern Ukraine, such as Donetsk and Kharkiv — and threatening further intervention. But that risky course is unlikely.
U.S. officials also doubt that Russia will sabotage the chemical-weapons disposal agreement in Syria or the P5+1 negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear program. Putin has a personal stake in both, and they are symbols of Russia’s influence. If Putin were to scuttle such diplomacy, it would deepen Russia’s isolation.
Putin must also be careful about the domestic consequences of his Crimea putsch. Yes, it has brought him popularity in Russia as a tough, nationalistic leader. But it may also encourage secessionists in Dagestan, Chechnya and other potential breakaway regions.
The Ukraine showdown, in a sense, has been a confrontation, as Kerry argues, between a 19th-century worldview and a 21st-century approach. Putin’s moves on the ground have been decisive, with immediate impact. The U.S.-led response has been collective, deliberative and slower to emerge. The world was impressed initially by the “shock and awe” of America’s military intervention in Iraq in 2003. One thing on which Putin and President Obama can agree is that the benefits of that military intervention didn’t last.