Andrew Wood
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
France's President Francois Hollande, UK's Prime Minister David Cameron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet ahead of a European leaders emergency summit on Ukraine, in Brussels, 6 March 2014. Photo  by Yves Herman/AFP/Getty Images.France's President Francois Hollande, UK's Prime Minister David Cameron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet ahead of a European leaders emergency summit on Ukraine, in Brussels, 6 March 2014. Photo by Yves Herman/AFP/Getty Images.

The US and EU failed to anticipate President Putin's response to events in Ukraine. But the West can benefit from the situation - provided it is firm and sticks together.

It has taken time for the United States, and the West in general, to understand the enormity of what President Putin has done in seizing Crimea, and in preparing for a possible intervention in eastern Ukraine.

The excuses presented by the Russians have been worthless: there have been no Russian victims of violence by those who overthrew Yanukovych; no threat to the Russian Black Sea fleet; and few among the protesters in Kyiv could in truth be seen as 'fascists'.

But the West is not used to lies and struggled to observe their implications. The assumptions that what we faced might be a period of Russian anger followed in the end by sulky acceptance of change in Ukraine were perhaps understandable. Russia had and still has, after all, much to lose from a Ukraine in chaos, and much to gain from one which is prospering.

Russia's interests would therefore be served by policies which promoted the latter. It must have seemed reasonable to reasonable Western politicians like President Obama to accept assurances that Russian military manoeuvres were not directed against Ukraine, and from Putin that he also wanted the territorial integrity of Ukraine to be preserved. The shock of Russian military intervention was all the greater for coming despite these misleading assurances.

Western leaders had failed to understand three things: first, the depth of Putin's dismay at what he saw as his personal defeat in Kyiv; second, the extent of his conviction that what that meant was that the West had 'won' in Ukraine; and third, the extent to which he and his colleagues saw the overthrow of Yanukovych as an omen of how they themselves might suffer in the event of popular disenchantment in Russia.

Putin may well also have come to believe that the EU was politically impotent, that even Chancellor Merkel would not have the strength to react if he used force, and that he had outsmarted Obama before. So he decided to take the apparently easy prey of Crimea, and earn the applause of many Russians in doing so.

Long-term Approach

There is indeed little more that the West, and the United States in particular, can do to make him relent in the short term. Direct Western military reactions are unlikely. Putin will not, and perhaps could not, think of isolation and possible exclusion from the G8. He has his Security Council veto. He may well doubt the cohesion and endurance of the new team in Kyiv - though it is fair to remark that a consistent thread in Russian policies towards Ukraine is to have misjudged the tenor of Ukrainian events.

He probably calculates that the West will not have the will and the cash either to support Ukraine or to sustain it through a long period of substantial reforms. His central aim of ensuring the collapse of Ukraine's prospects of achieving a new dispensation, and of establishing instead a Belarus-like nation that can be incorporated into the Eurasian Union, he imagines can be realized.

There may not be much that the West, or the US in particular, can do in the short term, and forcing Putin to disgorge Crimea is not an early possibility. But the risks to Russia from its present policies are nevertheless high, and the opportunities for Western policies to have a beneficial effect are likely to grow, provided always that the US maintains a consistently firm approach and that the EU manages to stick together.

Consider:

  • Crimea will be expensive to Russia. It is not united in support for Russian dominance, and is likely to become more disenchanted over time. Neither becoming another Transnistria nor a part of Russia is attractive.
  • Hostility towards Russia in Ukraine is likely to grow, and would certainly increase if Putin ordered action against the east of their country.
  • Russia's partners in the Customs Union must have drawn their own lessons from what Putin has done. He has spoken of his duty to protect the (undefined) interests of Russian-speaking groups beyond Russia's borders. Kazakhstan is full of them.
  • Putin is almost condemned further to tighten the political screws in Russia itself. There may be popular hurrahs for his demonstrating Moscow's clout now, but there is also considerable disquiet as to what it means for Russia's future.
  • And Russia's economic prospects are darkening. The fall on its stock exchange underlines that point. Foreign investors are needed, but will now be still more hesitant to come. Retaliation by Moscow on Kyiv through gas supplies would make them more cautious still.

So what should the US and the EU do? First, understand Russian policy imperatives aright. There is not much to be negotiated on now. Clarity of Western purpose is paramount in working so far as they can with the new authorities in Kyiv, and in helping in the run-up to elections on 25 May.

Second, press available economic levers, those affecting individual members of the Russian elite not least.

Third, work on events as they develop in the longer term, keeping in mind that the Russian audience is not only, or for a time maybe not even, the Russian government but also a wider Russian public who might hope for, and certainly deserve, a better future than Putin can now offer them.

This article was originally published by Channel 4 News

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