Skip to main content

Putin's Ukrainian endgame and why the West may have a hard time stopping him

By Angela Stent
updated 8:30 AM EST, Tue March 4, 2014
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to watch a military exercise near St.Petersburg, Russia, Monday
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to watch a military exercise near St.Petersburg, Russia, Monday
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Angela Stent: Vladimir Putin's move into Crimea is central to his view of Russia's interests
  • Key to those interests is the Russian Black Sea Fleet based in Crimea
  • Stent says that beyond sanctions and containment, Western reaction may be limited

Editor's note: Angela Stent is a professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, a former national intelligence officer for Russia at the State Department and leading expert on post-Soviet Russia. She is author of "The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century."

(CNN) -- At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, Vladimir Putin told a surprised George W. Bush, "You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country. Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part was given to us."

Six years later, the Kremlin appears to be making sure that Putin's opinion becomes a reality.

For Moscow, the drama that has been unfolding in Ukraine for the past three months is a domestic and an international issue. After all, if a revolution can unseat an unpopular, corrupt government in Kiev, why not in Moscow?

Follow the latest developments in Ukraine

That was Moscow's nightmare scenario during the 2004 Ukrainian Orange Revolution, and it remains a major concern even though Putin's popularity rating in Russia runs at a healthy 60% today.

Angela Stent
Angela Stent

Beyond that, Ukraine is closely linked to Russia's return to the world stage as a great power that should be entitled to a "sphere of privileged interests" in its backyard. Putin has said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the "greatest geopolitical tragedy" of the 20th century.

His project for his third term as President is to gather in as many of his neighbors as he can to form a new Eurasian Union. Ukraine is the key to that project. And Crimea is the key to Ukraine.

Sixty years ago, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev "gave" the Crimean Peninsula -- for the previous 300 years part of the Russian empire and the U.S.S.R. -- to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic because they were all part of the Soviet Union and it was meant as a symbolic gesture.

After the Soviet collapse, Crimea suddenly became part of an independent Ukraine to Moscow's shock. Moscow and Kiev worked out a deal to divide the Soviet Black Sea Fleet between Russia and Ukraine. In 2010, Ukraine extended the Russian lease until 2042.

When Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted last week and fled to Russia, the Kremlin worried it might lose its lease and have to withdraw its fleet from this strategic area.

U.S. preparing likely sanctions on Russia
Dividing Ukraine 'will be very messy'
Garry Kasparov:This isn't Cold War chess

The initial Russia move to occupy Crimea was designed to protect Russian naval equities on the Peninsula. Some 60% of Crimea's population is Russian and appears to support the current Russian occupation. But Russian interests and troops reach beyond that.

Opinion: The two Putins

A key Putin goal since he came to power in 2000 has been to prevent either NATO or the European Union from encroaching in the post-Soviet space. That's why Russia offered Yanukovych a $15 billion loan to counter the EU's more modest offer in December.

By occupying Crimea, Russia wants to ensure that only a rump Ukraine could negotiate with the EU in the future.

If the current conflict does not spread to other parts of eastern Ukraine -- where there is a sizable population that is demanding closer ties to Russia -- then Crimea could join the ranks of other "frozen conflicts" in the post-Soviet space.

These entities with substantial Russian-speaking populations exist in de facto ministates with Russian military protection within the borders of a larger state whose jurisdiction they do not recognize, such as the Transnistria region in Moldova.

Russian support for these breakaway regions ensures that Moldova, Georgia and now Ukraine will not enjoy full sovereignty over their territory and that Russia will always have a role to play there.

Occupying Crimea and raising tensions in eastern Ukraine to prevent Ukraine from moving toward more Western influence is a top priority for the Kremlin. The Ukrainian stakes are far higher for Moscow than they are for either Brussels or Washington.

The United States can threaten economic sanctions, expel Russia from the G-8 and consider a range of other measures, but the Kremlin must have already discounted these possible countermeasures well before it executed its carefully planned takeover of Crimea.

If maintaining a good relationship with the United States were a top priority for Putin, he would not have granted U.S. intel leaker Edward Snowden asylum in August. Guaranteeing and expanding the Russian presence in Crimea is much more important.

Opinion: How Putin carries out power grab

Given Russia's determination not to back down from Crimea, the United States and its allies will have to focus on containing the advance of Russian troops beyond Crimea and trying to ensure that an unanticipated local conflict between groups under the control neither of Moscow nor Kiev could not precipitate a broader armed struggle in Ukraine.

The fragile interim government in Kiev will need substantial economic support and must be encouraged not to let itself be provoked into a war with Russia as Georgia was in 2008.

Because if there were an armed conflict, neither the United States nor NATO would get militarily involved, and the result could be the dismemberment of Ukraine and its division into two states on either side of a new East-West divide.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Angela Stent.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:34 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT