Ukraine draws Obama into Putin's long game

Wed Feb 26, 2014 4:13pm EST

An ethnic Russian Ukrainian holds a Russian flag as Crimean Tatars rally near the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol February 26, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

An ethnic Russian Ukrainian holds a Russian flag as Crimean Tatars rally near the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol February 26, 2014 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner

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(Reuters) - Days after his ally Viktor Yanukovich was ousted as Ukraine's leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a 150,000 troop Russian military exercise on Ukraine's border. The fall of Yanukovich - and Putin's potential response to it - has reignited a debate in Washington on how to respond to the assertive Russian leader.

For Obama administration officials, Vladimir Putin is a concern but not a threat. Any talk of renewed Cold War-like Russian-American rivalry, they say, is reckless and counterproductive.

"This is a world where we need to work with the Russians," a senior State Department official said on Tuesday. "This not about the United States versus Russia."

For Republicans, Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign declaration that Moscow was Washington's "number one geopolitical foe" is being proven correct. Now is the time, they say, to confront Putin.

"Romney's analysis of the Russian threat was actually spot on," said Nile Gardiner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former Romney adviser. "That has been demonstrated amply over Ukraine, Syria and Russia as well."

Experts say Putin is still determined to include Ukraine in Russia's self-declared "sphere of influence." And he will continue to re-assert Moscow's place on the world stage by obstructing American diplomatic efforts in Syria, Iran and other countries.

"Putin's vision is not to restore the Soviet Union but to restore Russian greatness," said Kathryn Stoner, a Stanford University professor and expert on Russia. "It's the Russian empire, which is a very clear political and economic system."

Stoner called that system "Putinism" and described it as a complex mix of de facto authoritarianism at home and anti-American obstructionism abroad. It is by no means a Soviet-scale threat to the United States. But experts describe it as a controlling, culturally conservative system that Putin actively promotes to counter what he sees as a degenerate and decadent West.

"They're definitely setting themselves up in opposition to the United States," said Fiona Hill, an expert on Putin at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Being the leaders of a conservative coalition of countries who oppose gay rights and gay marriage and those who want to see less of a role for the church, more of a secular society."

"IDEOLOGICAL WAR"

Gardiner, the former Romney adviser, criticized President Barack Obama for not expressing a Ronald Reagan-style message of "America advancing the cause of freedom" as a counterweight to Putin. He said an "ideological war" was underway and Putin is winning. Opponents of the United States are inspired by Putin, he said.

"Putin is viewed by American adversaries and competitors as someone who has stood up to American influence and gotten away with outflanking the United States," he said. "Adversaries take note of this and they sense weakness and that's dangerous. Dissidents also take note."

The senior State Department officials said there was no "point in making hollow threats" toward Moscow. In the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public has no interest in getting into a direct - or indirect - military confrontation with Russia in the Ukraine, Syria or virtually any other nation. The better option is to quietly work with Putin where possible behind the scenes.

"What we're trying to do is work through diplomatic channels with the Russians," said one senior State Department official. "That doesn't mean going public with some tough rhetoric that might please some domestic constituencies. This is not an era where tough talk gets the job done."

Publicly baiting Putin could prompt him to launch a military operation in Ukraine to defend Russian citizens as he did in Georgia in 2008.

MAJOR PLAYER

At the same time, the United States and Europe must act urgently to aid Ukraine's spiraling economy. Interim government officials say that they will soon run out of funds to pay state workers, and the country will need a staggering $35 billion in aid in 2014 and 2015.

Yet the American and European response to the crisis has been ponderous, critics say. The main mechanism for providing aid to the country's new government is an International Monetary Fund loan program that would require punishing economic reforms, such as cutting long-running state subsidies that reduce average Ukrainians' energy costs. That step could prove highly unpopular.

Putin, in turn, had offered $15 billion in aid to Yanukovich before he fell. The Russian aid came with no obvious strings attached.

Stoner, the Stanford professor, said Putin may wait for Ukraine's new government and its Western backers to grow unpopular as they did after the country's 2004 Orange Revolution.

"The Russian idea of control is stepping back, watching what others do and then moving at the right time," she said. "We don't do that."

Hill, the author of a book about Putin, said the former Russian intelligence official has outmaneuvered Western leaders by waiting for the right moment and then acting forcefully when he sensed his adversaries were off-balance. She said Putin's grip on power was firm and Moscow would be a major player in regional dynamics from Europe to the Middle East for years to come.

"You can't ignore Russia," Hills said. "We just have to get smarter at playing this game."

(Edited by Sara Ledwith)

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Comments (33)
pbgd wrote:
Putin will stop at nothing, he simply must have the Ukraine to fit his vision. That is the meaning of the name of his own small party “United Russia”. Without the Ukraine his envisioned “Eurasian Union” would be nothing but a bunch of Asian dictators.

Feb 26, 2014 4:44pm EST  --  Report as abuse
AZ1811 wrote:
Obama plans to show his solidarity with the Ukranian people by having the White House chef prepare a meal of chicken “Kiev” for his family and friends. Such is the magnanimous nature of our fearless leader.

Feb 26, 2014 4:47pm EST  --  Report as abuse
delta5297 wrote:
Putinism is thoroughly rotten and vile, but Mitt Romney is still wrong. Calling Russia our “number one geopolitical enemy” is still blowing things out of proportion, and in fact such rash statements have the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy if we start to believe them. Moreover, Romney’s comment on Russia seems motivated more by chauvinism than any sort of principle…and we can always do with less of such sentiment.

Feb 26, 2014 4:50pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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