The game’s afoot, as they say; and Putin has proven himself to be an excellent strategist in the international chess match. His recent stand in Syria, for example, prevented the Obama administration from carrying out their plans to aid the rebels. We don’t know what those plans actually were, but based on the rebels’ response, it seems that Obama had made significant promises before the gas attack, but was unable to keep them because of Putin’s move.
So now I’m left pondering what Putin’s real game is in the Ukraine. Technically, this began with protests by pro western Ukrainians against Putin’s puppet government, but similar protests occur routinely in many places without even being noticed. Putin could have told Yanukovich to tough it out. He could have told him to offer the demonstrators a token olive branch. Instead he told him to wait until the Olympics were over and then flee to Moscow, triggering the current situation. Why did he choose this option?
At this point, he has taken a substantial risk for a small reward. Permanently reoccupying the Crimea would be a nice prize but hardly worth the costs of prolonged western economic sanctions, a war, even with out manned Ukraine, or a continuing guerrilla action in the Crimea. Even worse, if he’s forced to withdraw without any tangible achievements, he’ll suffer a major political setback at home.
Therefore, this looks like only his opening move. It’s unclear what his ultimate objective is. Perhaps, he saw the tide turning against him in the Ukraine. The west’s decision to highlight the protests in their reporting would indicate that the western powers thought the same, so maybe this is a preemptive move aimed at reestablishing the 1994 accord as the basis for power sharing in the Ukraine, rather than seeing the Russian position continue to erode. The end game for that scenario would be establishing a new puppet government led by Putin’s hand picked successor to Yanukovich. Along the way, he intends to demonstrate Russia’s renewed military capability, helping him solidify his popularity at home; and if he could keep the Crimea as part of the final deal, he would have a major success.
So far the west is responding as though they think this is the game. They are scrambling to create a win – win scenario that would allow both sides to claim success. A win for the west here would be approval of the proposed trade agreement, keeping Yatseniuk in power and, of course, return of the Crimea. Right now they’re trying to come up with a counter move that would allow them to have at least 2 of those 3, while offering Putin enough to enable him to agree.
But what if Putin’s real goal is to reoccupy all of the Ukraine? That would be a major coup for him, a terrible blow for the Ukrainians and would cost the west much of what was gained after the collapse of communism. This goal is consistent with his 2008 move in Georgia. Whether or not he ultimately pursues it, though, will depend on the west’s response to his opening move. Let’s hope it’s a good one.