Putin's Play

What Happens After Russia Intervenes in Ukraine

A Russian army vehicle outside a Ukrainian border guard post in the Crimean town of Balaclava, March 1, 2014. Baz Ratner / Courtesy Reuters

A week ago, I wrote that Russian President Vladimir Putin would have to lose “all his geopolitical marbles” to try to “break off bits of Ukraine,” such as Crimea. If this weekend’s events are any indication, he has. Russian troops have invaded Crimea, and Putin has declared his right to keep them “on the territory of Ukraine until social-political conditions in that country normalize.” In other words, Putin claimed that he can send Russian armed forces ­anywhere in the country, not just Crimea, and that he may leave them there until his definition of normalization is met -- which might be never.

The international community, caught off guard by Putin’s move, must now try to grapple with why he did what he did, and with what comes next. The question of why he invaded Crimea is complicated. Just before the move, experts had been skeptical about his resolve. By marching into Ukraine, the thinking went, Putin would be initiating a new Cold War with the West, precisely at a time when Russia (and its stagnant economy) needs good ties with the world. And annexing Ukraine’s southeast, in particular, would mean taking ownership of an industrial rust belt and hundreds of loss-producing coal mines. Even more, it would invite Crimean Tatar resistance and could lead to the subsequent radicalization of some within that community. Finally, unilateral annexation of Russian-inhabited territories in Crimea could provoke similar moves against Russia. China, for example, might be interested in those sections of the Russian Far East that have large Chinese migrant populations.

In other words, destroying or dismembering Ukraine serves no country’s interests, least of all Russia’s. After all, it is in Russia’s interests to have a stable, prosperous, and friendly Ukraine on its borders. The only thing the move could serve is the megalomaniacal Putin. Like other empires that collapsed at the peak of their power, today’s Russia is still coming to grips with the humiliation of losing

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