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 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT