Skip to main content

Does Obama really understand Putin?

By Andrew C. Kuchins
updated 10:09 AM EDT, Sun March 30, 2014
A man looks at a bullet shell next to a destroyed car after a gunfight between pro-Russian militiamen and Ukrainian forces in Karlivka, Ukraine, on Friday, May 23. Much of Ukraine's unrest has been centered in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where separatists have claimed independence from the government in Kiev. A man looks at a bullet shell next to a destroyed car after a gunfight between pro-Russian militiamen and Ukrainian forces in Karlivka, Ukraine, on Friday, May 23. Much of Ukraine's unrest has been centered in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where separatists have claimed independence from the government in Kiev.
HIDE CAPTION
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
Crisis in Ukraine
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
104
105
106
107
108
109
110
111
112
113
114
115
116
117
118
119
120
121
122
123
124
125
126
127
128
129
130
131
132
133
134
135
136
137
138
139
140
141
142
143
144
145
146
147
148
149
150
151
152
153
154
155
156
157
158
159
160
161
162
163
164
165
166
167
168
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Andrew Kuchins: Obama and allies have issued empty threats at Putin
  • Kuchins: Despite Russia's annexation of Crimea, Obama's responses are weak
  • He says since Putin has met no push back for Crimea, why would he stop there?
  • Kuchins: Putin may ruin Obama's legacy by further encroaching Ukraine

Editor's note: Andrew C. Kuchins is director and senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- I recall being an undergraduate in Russian Studies at Amherst College when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. I was flabbergasted when then-President Carter initially expressed surprise that Leonid Brezhnev and his cronies decided to undertake that ill-fated adventure. Just the little I knew of Soviet history at that time led me to conclude that one should never be naïve about Russia. Wisely, the Carter administration soon implemented a wide-ranging and powerful set of sanctions against the USSR.

By comparison, Barack Obama is now making Jimmy Carter look like Attila the Hun with a series of empty threats and "too little, too late" punitive measures against Putin's Russia.

On February 28, President Obama warned Russia not to take military action against Crimea, and if he did so, serious "costs" would be imposed. A few weeks later, Crimea was annexed to Russia and virtually no serious "costs" have been incurred from U.S. sanctions.

Andrew C. Kuchins
Andrew C. Kuchins

Now Obama and our European allies have virtually conceded Crimea, but again warn Putin that we really mean it this time, that if you take military action in Ukraine outside Crimea, you will be really sorry!

I think the only thing that has surprised Putin is how weak Obama's response has been. The administration was not prepared for the contingency that Putin would act so brazenly.

But Obama's stubborn insistence on a measured, incremental approach seems premised on his belief that Putin will, after his frustration and anger clears, come to his senses and seize the proverbial "off ramp" Obama and his officials ritualistically refer to, hearkening back to nearly two years of the mantra, "Assad must go." We know that Assad never left, and I see no evidence that Putin wants to take the "off-ramp."

Surely Putin's goals were not limited to getting Crimea while losing Ukraine. That does not make sense. And since he has met virtually no push back for Crimea, why would he stop there?

Putin's comparison to Kosovo 'bizarre'
Fareed's Take: Putin's Crimea invasion
Putin calls Obama to talk about Ukraine

It is not like his views on Ukraine are not fairly well known. At the Bucharest NATO summit in April 2008, Putin told George W. Bush in no uncertain terms that Ukraine was not a real country. And now Putin has found the appropriate moment to demonstrate to the "trans-Atlantic community" that Ukraine is not a real country by starting to dismember it with impunity.

In case there was any doubt about Putin's views of the illegitimacy of the post-Cold War European security order in Europe, his vitriolic speech to the Federal Assembly in Moscow on March 18 should clarify it for skeptics. I have no doubt that there is nothing Vladimir Putin would rather do than delegitimize the post-Cold War order, expose the Trans-Atlantic partnership as a sham and deeply degrade U.S. leadership in the world. He has already gone fairly far down that path in four weeks.

Why do American presidents have such a hard time understanding Russian leaders? First, it starts with our inability to fathom just how traumatic the collapse of the Soviet Union was for several generations of Russians. From a clinical standpoint, Russia has been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder for the past couple of decades.

Putin resonates with many Russians because he is seen as the embodiment of the humiliation, status deprivation and grievances that the country has purportedly suffered.

Making matters worse, he was an intelligence operative virtually abandoned by what he and his brethren view as incompetent Soviet leadership. The ethos of the Russian intelligence officer going back to the foundation of the secret police in the early 19th century centers on their special, almost messianic obligation to save Russia from itself -- a task only they were adequately trained for.

These were people who, for example, enthusiastically supported the U.S. initiative more than 20 years ago to remove nuclear weapons from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, not because they gave a damn about nonproliferation but because when the day came for Russia to restore the "Greater Russia," that task would be much easier with nukes out of the way.

In the 1990s, many speculated about the danger of a "Weimar Russia" scenario in which the humiliated superpower would re-emerge in more of a fascist form.

I am afraid that day has arrived. Putin's task is to take back what a certain streak of Russian nationalism views as not only rightfully, but sacredly, what should be Russian. Obama may satisfy some supporters and even some critics by taunting Putin and Russia as a "regional power" of no great consequence acting out of "weakness." This will only bait the bear to lash out to demonstrate who is really weak and who is strong. It is a game that Obama is not psychologically equipped to understand, let alone win.

A Russian strike, either after a manufactured provocation or without one, into eastern Ukraine, is inevitable. Putin smells blood in the water, and nothing we have said or done will deter him. Economic measures alone are insufficient.

If Obama does not rise to this challenge soon, I fear that Putin will happily ruin his legacy and U.S. credibility, with massive collateral damage for Russians and Ukrainians. Putin will likely meet his own end if he miscalculates in Ukraine. It is incumbent for the United States, its allies and most importantly Ukrainians themselves, to help Putin not miscalculate because if he does, there will be hell to pay for all of us.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 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 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 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