Making the biggest gamble of his career in Ukraine, Russia's leader is holding most of the cards
The ultimatum from the Russian troops arrived just after sunrise on March 4. It was the third in four days: Surrender your weapons and swear allegiance to Russia, or else. Colonel Yuli Mamchur, commander of Belbek air base in Crimea, had sweated his way through two previous demands, but his Ukrainian troops were getting ragged and Mamchur was growing tired–and who knows? Maybe this time the Russians weren’t bluffing.
So he called his garrison together and asked for volunteers to march unarmed to the Russian outpost in a gesture of peaceful coexistence. As Mamchur’s column drew near, the Russians aimed their Kalashnikovs, but the Ukrainians burst into song, singing old Soviet war ballads in Russian. The Russian soldiers, their fatigues shorn of any insignias that might identify their nationality, began firing into the air, but though some of Mamchur’s men flinched, they did not falter, marching in unbroken ranks until their colonel called a halt mere paces from his antagonists, with a Russian rifle pointed at his face.
Mamchur had sworn an oath to his country that he would guard Belbek, and that was what he meant to do. This scene might easily have turned into a massacre; instead, after a three-hour standoff, a deal was struck for the detachments to secure the air base together. And soon after that, word arrived that Russian President Vladimir Putin was ordering his troops massed near the Ukrainian borders to go back to their barracks.
Putin delivered the news in a strange but compelling Moscow news conference during which he sat in an armchair as peacefully as a man in his parlor. He was supremely confident, if not entirely coherent or truthful, as he ratcheted the tension down a notch. The pro-Russian leader of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, mishandled the rising protests in Kiev, Putin said, before adding that actually everything was the fault of the meddling Americans. “They sit there across the pond as if in a lab running all kinds of experiments on the rats,” said Putin. “Why would they do it? No one can explain it.” He allowed that Yanukovych’s political career was finished once he fled into the night with protests raging in Kiev. “I told him he had no chance of being re-elected,” Putin said. Nonetheless, he added, Yanukovych is still Ukraine’s rightful President.
The Russian leader did not have to make sense, entirely, because he had a different brand of logic on his side. Consider this: On March 1, when he mobilized his troops to seize Ukraine’s strategic Crimean Peninsula, home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, Putin was facing a nationalist revolution uncomfortably close to his western border, with the prospect that Moscow might lose sway over a country it has historically regarded as a vassal. Three days later, having shocked the world by threatening a war, he once again held sway over Ukraine’s destiny. Though a blustering U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walked the streets of Kiev on March 4 in a show of support for the uprising and the shaky coalition government it had spawned, Putin had effectively defined the limits to which Ukrainian independence will go and could rest assured that nothing too alarming would happen inside this corner of Russia’s influence.
By mobilizing, Putin pushed the Germans, the Dutch and various other European nations to weigh Ukraine against their own dependence on Russian oil and natural gas and their profits from exports to Russian consumers. Putin read with satisfaction as they signaled their unwillingness to offend him with stiff sanctions against his country, his cronies or himself. And the Chinese also blessed his display of muscle with a flourish of diplomatic doublespeak. In war-weary America, President Obama scolded Putin on behalf of his often cited but rarely seen “international community”–even as the community, as usual, melted away.
To see where this leaves the Ukrainians, think back to brave Colonel Mamchur and his band of potential martyrs at Belbek air base. They are the likely prototype of Ukrainian patriots in the age of Putin. They remain free to make harmless gestures of independence alongside their ever present Russian counterparts. But they now know what could be learned only by staring into the barrel of a Kalashnikov: that the Russians retain the option to start shooting. They did it in Georgia in 2008 over the protests of U.S. President George W. Bush. Can anyone doubt now that Putin would do it again?
The U.S. insists that Putin faces serious consequences, but those words may ring hollow to the patron of Syria’s Bashar Assad. For now, the Russian leader holds the trump cards in Ukraine: namely he has troops on the ground and the gall to use them. Ukraine–and the world–may have little choice but to make some sort of deal with Putin, perhaps a fig leaf of autonomy in the eastern part of the country alongside a border buffer friendly to Moscow. In the longer term, however, Putin has made an enormous gamble, arguably the biggest of his career. Ukraine is now his problem, and a very large problem it is, with its internal strife and ruined finances. Russia’s already struggling economy can scarcely afford to prop up another failed client state. For all his smug self-confidence, the strongman may have put his hands to a weight too heavy to carry.
Nobody’s Idea of a Prize
The question now hanging over the crisis in Ukraine is why, exactly, anyone wants the place. Set aside Crimea, the bulging near island that commands the Black Sea; shields the mouth of the Don River; and protects shipping routes between Russia, Turkey and southeastern Europe. Nations will seek to control Crimea as long as warriors and goods travel the world in ships. The remainder of Ukraine, though rich in topsoil and raw materials, struggles under the weight of internal strife and deep-rooted corruption. Once propped up by the old Soviet Union, its economy has been sagging since independence in 1991, and the looted country is now on the edge of bankruptcy.
Before the sudden collapse of Yanukovych’s presidency, the Russians were vying with the E.U. and the International Monetary Fund for the dubious pleasure of bailing out Ukraine’s sinking state. Putin was dangling billions in loans and subsidized natural gas–an especially attractive prize in wintertime–while Europe, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, suggested massive IMF loans conditioned on genuine reforms to the Ukrainian economy.
Even if Ukrainians were a united people, they might have been torn between these alternatives. Life in Russia’s sphere is no bed of roses; on the other hand, shaping up a bankrupt economy at the behest of the IMF is no fun either. It would mean giving up the subsidized utility prices and shutting inefficient state-run firms that are taken for granted even by those who cheered on the revolution. After Putin’s military gambit, the Europeans began to put together a $15 billion loan and aid package.
But Ukraine is far from united: heavily Russian in the east, the country is seethingly anti-Russian in the west–where Ukrainian nationalists groaning under Stalin’s yoke initially flocked by the thousands to join the Nazis during Hitler’s 1941 blitz on the Soviet Union. In the south, Muslim Tatars, normally peaceable, are a tantalizing lure to Islamic extremists from the restive Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan.
So Ukraine has moved uncertainly back and forth since the breakup of the Soviet empire, sometimes leaning westward, other times to the east. By employing some of the same tools of social media that helped fuel popular uprisings in the Middle East, Ukrainians in Kiev finally appeared to tip the balance. Staging protests in the city’s Independence Square, known as the Maidan, they ramped up pressure for a decisive move toward the E.U., which already includes Ukraine’s neighbors Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. The uprising peaked as the world’s attention was focused on the Olympic Games in the Russian city of Sochi. Protesters waged a bloody battle with Yanukovych’s forces that ended with the sudden flight of the pro-Russian President.
According to Russian authorities, Putin saw no alternative but to intervene at that point. A proud veteran of the KGB, Putin is known to view East-West relations in terms familiar to every product of the old Soviet propaganda. The E.U. equals NATO equals the U.S. equals fascism. Attempting to translate Putin’s thinking, Vladimir Rubanov, retired general of the KGB and now a key figure at a Kremlin-connected think tank in Moscow, interprets the collapse of Yanukovych’s government as if it were a Western invasion: Russia has no choice but to preserve certain strategic assets. “The approach of NATO to our immediate borders and to the home of the Black Sea fleet, that is of course a red line for Russia,” he says. “It is inadmissible in a strategic sense. We would be backed against a wall.” (Even so, Rubanov continues, Putin overreacted.)
But if his fellow Russians can see Ukraine through Putin’s eyes, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they seek to make the struggling country’s problems their own. Russia has its own deep problems, which the flash of strength in Crimea can scarcely mask. Even before the crisis in Ukraine, the Russian economy grew at only 1.3% last year, and it will be lucky to grow this year at even 1%, despite oil prices of over $100 a barrel. (About 70% of Russia’s export revenue comes from oil and gas.) That says a lot about how broken Putin’s petrostate is.
So when markets opened on Monday morning after the Saturday mobilization, key Russian stock indexes tanked by more than 10%–almost $60 billion in stock value wiped out in a day, more than Russia spent preparing for the Winter Olympics. The state-controlled natural gas monopoly Gazprom, which accounts for roughly a quarter of Russian tax revenue, lost $11 billion in market value, enough to cover the lion’s share of the amount Russia had promised to the teetering regime in Ukraine in December and then froze in January as the revolution took hold. The Russian central bank was forced to jack up interest rates in response to a record plunge in the value of the Russian currency.
A partial rebound on March 4 indicated the market’s delight at Putin’s step back. But lasting damage was done, said Timothy Ash, head of emerging-market research at Standard Bank. “This has to fundamentally change the way investors and ratings agencies view Russia,” he noted. At a time when Russia’s economic growth was already stagnating, “this latest military adventure will increase capital flight, weaken Russian asset prices, slow investment and economic activity and growth.”
Ordinary citizens will also cast a wary eye on Putin’s efforts to tame Ukraine without absorbing its problems. “In recent years, the whole image of Ukraine has deteriorated,” says Valery Fedorov, general director of the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, a state-funded polling operation. While leery of Western meddling in the country, the Russian public has little hope that this dysfunctional neighbor can find its way to civic and economic health. An early February poll by the center found that nearly 3 out of 4 Russians opposed any intervention in Ukraine’s internal affairs.
Crimea Without Punishment
The U.S. Secretary of State arrived in Kiev on March 4 amid rumors of war: Ukrainian and Russian troops were “massing” on either side of the isthmus between Crimea and mainland Ukraine, one senior State Department official told reporters. But as Kerry’s visit unfolded, the war did not materialize, and the American was left to speak vaguely of possible sanctions against the Russians even as Europe wobbled. In a heavy gray mist, Kerry visited the Maidan to pay tribute to the martyred protesters. The smell of raging fires still hung in the air, and heaps of flowers contrasted with the black and ash of the charred junk piled into barricades.
Two women squeezed through the crowd. “We hope for your help!” one exclaimed.
“We will be helping,” Kerry replied–then corrected himself. “We are helping. President Obama is planning more assistance.”
What can he do? “The only way to undo Russian control of Crimea is to use military force,” says Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, about the Russian occupation, “and that is out of the question.” Obama is left with a menu of small plates, from which he will struggle to serve up something substantial.
When Putin invaded Georgia, Bush used U.S. warships to deliver humanitarian aid, and the same might be possible should Putin push into mainland Ukraine. But there is no reason to believe the results would be any better now. Russia could respond by cutting off U.S. access to Afghanistan from the north or further undermining U.S. efforts to restrict Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Any hope of Putin’s help in halting the carnage in Syria is already gone.
There may be some traction in the Administration’s proposal to put international observers in eastern Ukraine to safeguard the rights of ethnic Russians. That could remove an excuse for Russian intervention on the mainland, but it does nothing to punish Putin for seizing Crimea. There’s talk in Washington about possible steps to isolate Russia from the international scene and freeze the travel and money flow of the Russian oligarchs. These steps range from difficult to impossible, given the resistance of Germany and other European nations. “The Administration cannot eject Russia from the G-8 or the G-20 without the support of other members,” says Paul Saunders, head of the Center for the National Interest. “Germany does not appear to support ejecting Russia from the G-8 at this point.” Nor is there any appetite in China, one of Russia’s biggest trading partners, to apply any kind of pressure on Putin. In a March 4 phone call between the Russian leader and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader wagged no fingers. “Xi said the situation in the Ukraine, which seems to be accidental, has the elements of the inevitable,” noted the official Xinhua News Agency.
Unilateral U.S. sanctions would mean little to Moscow, which earns the bulk of its money by selling natural resources to near neighbors. “It’s only $40 billion in trade, so it’s very different from China, where we have hundreds of billions in trade,” says John Negroponte, former Director of National Intelligence.
Kerry knows this and couldn’t quite keep it hidden during his visit to Kiev. When another Ukrainian pressed close to ask for American support, the Secretary replied, “We are trying our best.” Then he added weakly, “We hope Russia will respect your election.”
There’s that signature Obama-era word again: hope. It runs up against its limits with a man like Vladimir Putin. President Obama preaches win-win. He believes in multinational teamwork in a world where “the tide of war is receding.” The Russian leader lives by a much older principle: I win, you lose. When Obama spent some 90 minutes on the phone with Putin as the situation in Ukraine went from turmoil to crisis, Obama said Russia would “pay a price” for belligerence. Kerry elaborated for the American public: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext.”
That may be giving Putin credit for a few more centuries than he merits. With his waxed skull and often naked chest, Putin could be channeling Yul Brynner in Taras Bulba, the 1962 Hollywood epic in which an avenging medieval Cossack hero cleanses Ukraine of the taint of Western influences. It might be useful to ask if both men are out of touch with the times, which seem to breed uprisings and insurgencies and grassroots movements faster than the leaders of great powers can tamp them down. Putin looked smug and Obama rather helpless as the latest act played out in Ukraine. But it’s not difficult to imagine that a day will come when Russia will groan under the weight of another unhappy neighbor.
Meanwhile, life is a bit more sour for everyone inside what is sometimes called the international community. Leonid Kalashnikov, vice chairman of the foreign-affairs committee of Russia’s State Duma, summed things up well after the legislature’s unanimous vote to authorize Russian troops in Ukraine. There will be no lasting damage, he said, because there is nothing to damage. “We already don’t trust each other,” he said of the West. “They say their bit, we say ours. And it doesn’t seem to matter.”
–With reporting by Michael Crowley/With Secretary Kerry, Rana Foroohar/New York, Jay Newton-Small/Washington, Diana Kulchitskaya/Moscow and Hannah Beech/Beijing
This appears in the March 17, 2014 issue of TIME.