A short primer on Ukraine and what Putin hopes to achieve

Well, it’s been a stomach churning couple of days. All of a sudden, it seems as if the Cold War is back with fury. Russian troops are invading a former Soviet republic. The US is issuing dire warnings. NATO and the UNSC are in emergency meetings. For me, visions of the darkest days of the superpower face off have been filling my head.

So, it’s time to step back, and take a more considered look.

Russia in 2014 is not the Soviet Union in 1986. (And, in many ways, it is, but more on that later.)

Russia has an economy which would make Saudi Arabia’s look diversified. Its industry is ossified. It depends almost exclusively on on exporting energy and raw materials to survive. Vladimir Putin, for all his protestations of his love for his country, has done nothing to make the Russian economy more sustainable. The New Republic has a major piece on how Europe can put the screws to Russia, without firing a shot. Russia is, as it always has been, a Potemkin village, a veneer of affluence masking a roiling pot of poverty. If Russia loses its European markets, it falls apart. If Europe freezes the bank accounts of a couple of dozen oligarchs, Putin, for all his bravado, would find himself in an FSB dungeon.

So why this risk? Why this mad dash for a revanchist land grab?

Remember, Putin has averred that the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. His project for a Eurasian Union is nothing more than a blatant attempt to recreate the Empire of All the Russias, with himself as “elected” Tsar.

But, a Eurasian Union is a non-starter without the participation of Ukraine. Ukraine is not only the breadbasket of Europe and Russia, but it is the spiritual home of the Russian nation. Kievan Rus’ gave birth to the idea of “Russia”. The Grand Princes of Muscovy always had as a policy aim bringing Ukraine under their rule, and then never letting go.

However, policies which served a medieval state well may no longer work in an interconnected technological civilization. Land grabs in Europe usually don’t end well. And, as I said, Russia in 2014 is not the Soviet Union in 1986. (More like Russia in 1905, when it thought it could deal easily with upstart Japan.)

Ukraine is not Georgia. It has the second largest military on the Continent, after Russia. It is a state of 48 million people. And Russia is barely able to mount enough force to squat Georgia or Chechnya. The prospects of it maintaining any campaign in Ukraine are dim.

Again, the question is why. Why would a state with such glaring deficiencies—a quasi-failed, kleptocratic, near-mafia state—roll the dice on such a dangerous game?

It all boils down to Putin’s sense of his own destiny as a redeemer of Russian greatness. Sochi was a step in that direction. Now bringing Ukraine back within the Russian orbit would seal himself, in his mind, as the savior of the Motherland.

A megalomaniac with a nuclear arsenal is a dangerous man. We shouldn’t look at these times as anything less than perilous.

But, Russia is not the Soviet Union. It doesn’t have a bloc behind it, and willing allies all over the world. Russia can be easily isolated, as it’s being now, by the US, Canada, the UK, and France pulling out of preparatory meetings for the G-8. China is at most an ally of convenience, and will desert Putin when its interests warrant. Although weak economically, the Soviets had a strong political position. Putin is strong neither economically nor politically. And, as the New Republic piece says, if the EU puts the economic screws to Putin’s power base, it won’t take long for Russia to scream.

Now, the question is: Will Putin not care? Will his sense of mission override all logical considerations? He must know that he’s now in a fight for his own survival. Either he gets something from the Ukraine adventure, or he will be mortally wounded in the Kremlin. The long awaited Russian Spring might finally break out if his adventure ends in humiliation. A man pushed in a corner, with a WMD arsenal, is a dangerous man.

I’m not prescient enough to predict how this will turn out. But I do know that it’s time to revive that old saw: US politics stop at the water’s edge. If the country rallied around George W. Bush after 9/11, a much more dangerous moment warrants the same unity behind Barack Obama. Anything less, and our worst fears may in fact be realized.

130 Responses to “A short primer on Ukraine and what Putin hopes to achieve”

  1. 1 Grab a Mop Grace
    March 2, 2014 at 3:26 pm


  2. 9 Dudette
    March 2, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    Thanks LL!

  3. March 2, 2014 at 3:28 pm

  4. 19 Dudette
    March 2, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    Pulling this over from the previous thread

  5. 20 Dudette
    March 2, 2014 at 3:32 pm

    • 21 carolyn
      March 2, 2014 at 3:36 pm

      Oh my! Miss Lindsey has the effrontery to call someone else weak!!!!! Strong, principled Miss Lindsey! HAH!

    • 22 Grab a Mop Grace
      March 2, 2014 at 3:48 pm

      Who the “F” does this SOB thinks he’s rolling his eyes at?
      This quote just put me over the edge! To go on national TV and say this shit and not get any kind of pushback is just inexcusable.

    • 23 cman
      March 2, 2014 at 3:56 pm

      Comment from that site that captures the reason for my eye roll at Grammy boy there.

      “He’s a weak, indecisive tyrant who’s destroying America forever with his weak, indecisive tyranny!

      Check in tomorrow to see whether he’s wielding the iron glove or having the vapors!”

    • 24 anniebella
      March 2, 2014 at 4:21 pm

      So is Little Lying Lindsey strong? He and McCain is just piss cause they can’t get this President to get the U.S. into another war. What he think of President Obama does not matter one bit, because if Lying Lindsey had his way it would be President Romney. So to Hell with Lindsey.

    • 25 jackiegrumbacher
      March 2, 2014 at 4:26 pm

      Dudette, Graham has to be treated with the contempt he’s earned. Anyone who puts him on television or supports his statement, needs to be put on notice that their anti-Americanism won’t be tolerated. If Graham is so in love with strong men, he should move to Russia. Nobody here would miss him.

  6. March 2, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    02 Mar. 2014

    North Atlantic Council statement on the situation in Ukraine

    The North Atlantic Council condemns the Russian Federation’s military escalation in Crimea and expresses its grave concern regarding the authorisation by the Russian Parliament to use the armed forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine.

    Military action against Ukraine by forces of the Russian Federation is a breach of international law and contravenes the principles of the NATO-Russia Council and the Partnership for Peace. Russia must respect its obligations under the United Nations Charter and the spirit and principles of the OSCE, on which peace and stability in Europe rest. We call on Russia to de-escalate tensions.

    We call upon the Russian Federation to honor its international commitments, including those set out in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, the Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation between Russia and Ukraine of 1997, and the legal framework regulating the presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, to withdraw its forces to its bases, and to refrain from any interference elsewhere in Ukraine. We urge both parties to immediately seek a peaceful resolution through bilateral dialogue, with international facilitation, as appropriate, and through the dispatch of international observers under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

    Ukraine is a valued partner for NATO and a founding member of the Partnership for Peace. NATO Allies will continue to support Ukrainian sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and the right of the Ukrainian people to determine their own future, without outside interference.

    We emphasise the importance of an inclusive political process based on democratic values, respect for human rights, minorities and the rule of law, which fulfils the democratic aspirations of the entire Ukrainian people.

    We met today, at Ukraine’s request, to consult in the NATO-Ukraine Commission. We intend to engage with Russia in the NATO-Russia Council.


  7. 30 Ladyhawke
    March 2, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    “If Russia wants to be a G8 country, it needs to behave like a G8 country.”

    Russia risks G8 seat, economic turmoil over Ukraine: US


    “Russia chose this brazen act of aggression and moved in its forces on a completely trumped-up set of pretexts,” Kerry told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

    “If Russia wants to be a G8 country, it needs to behave like a G8 country.”

    The White House deputy press secretary, meanwhile, told reporters that Obama had been briefed on the latest developments by his national security team and would be making calls to fellow world leaders.

    Putin “is not going have a Sochi G8, he may not even remain in the G8 if this continues. He may find himself with asset freezes on Russian business, American business may pull back, there may be a further tumble of the ruble,” Kerry warned on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”



  8. 36 Don
    March 2, 2014 at 3:46 pm

    Everybody hush, Lindsey Graham has something to say.

  9. March 2, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    The Invasion Of Crimea Is Russia’s Worst Foreign Policy Blunder In A Generation

    The last time I wrote about Crimea there were still some questions about exactly what was happening. It seemed likely that the Russians had decided to intervene, but they were still furiously denying any involvement and many of the reports coming out of Sevastopol (where Russia already had around 15,000 troops stationed) and Simferopol (the regional capital) were confusing and contradictory. Now there isn’t the slightest shred of doubt: in a campaign that had all of the hallmarks of its distinctive military doctrine, Russia swiftly dispatched thousands of troops to the sovereign territory of Ukraine. The Russian troops aren’t even pretending to abide by any previous agreements, and as of Sunday morning were actively dis-arming the small numbers of Ukrainian military personnel located in the peninsula and, by setting up roadblocks and taking control of crucial bits of infrastructure, have effectively cut off Crimea from the rest of the world. It is in no way an exaggeration to say that Russia has invaded and taken over Crimea.


    And that’s just the diplomatic costs. The economic costs to Russia will also be severe. The Moscow stock market is going to get absolutely clobbered when it opens tomorrow, and many foreign investors are going to bolt for the exits as quickly as they can. Depending on the severity of the situation in Ukraine, the Russian financial system could come screeching to a halt. It’s a given that many of these decisions impacting Russia’s economy will be made in haste and without a sober calculation of costs and befits, but that’s the way the world works: investors often overreact to political events and they will certainly overreact to a military invasion of a neighboring country. Russia’s economy has already been slowing down for the past several quarters, and the absolute last thing that it needs at the moment is a huge acceleration in capital flight. The ruble is also going to suffer, and while a cheaper ruble could eventually be good for domestic manufacturers in the short term a much weaker ruble is likely to spark inflation (perhaps cause the Central Bank to raise interest rates).

    Russia will “succeed” in the narrow sense of taking over Crimea and, perhaps, other parts of Eastern Ukraine. But from a strategic perspective its intervention in Ukraine will be a disaster: it will seriously weaken an already stuttering economy and will poison relations with a host of countries with which Russia needs to have productive working relationships. It might appear that Russia is confidently asserting its power in its neighborhood, but it is actually making a blunder of historic proportions.

    More at the link: http://www.forbes.com/sites/markadomanis/2014/03/02/the-invasion-of-crimea-is-russias-worst-foreign-policy-blunder-in-a-generation/

  10. March 2, 2014 at 3:51 pm

  11. March 2, 2014 at 3:52 pm

  12. 47 forus50
    March 2, 2014 at 3:56 pm

    Great post LL and I completely agree with most of it. However I’m less apprehensive about the whole situation than what I see being discussed in somewhat dire terms. The US and Europe won’t resort to war with Russia; diplomacy and sactions are the only thing the West and EU leaders and their citizens have the stomach for.

    One quibble I have about US politics in your post is that I don’t think it’s necessary to have the GOP agree and march in lockstep with the Administration on policy and tactics on Ukraine. The “stops at the water’s edge” old saw of course means not speaking out against a US Administration’s policy when that person is abroad. However, one can and one should speak out against the government if they are within the borders of the US if they disagree with the government. The whole thing after 9/11 where anyone speaking out against Bush and the war in Afghanistan or Iraq and being considered unpatriotic was just awful. The same thing goes here. Just because a person may not support the Administration doesn’t mean that they automatically support Putin. Or if they support going to war versus diplomacy doesn’t make them unpatriotic. Frankly I find McCain and company who are already braying “war!” profoundly stupid and dangerous but that doesn’t make them unpatriotic. As Mark Twain said, patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.

    This will all get sorted out in time; I’m just glad that our Saturday blue jeans President is at the helm for us in the US.

    • March 2, 2014 at 3:58 pm

      Of course, the “politics stops at the water” was always problematic. But my point is that this president is given NO deference in FP matters, unlike previous Presidents. I’m scratching my head as to why…

      • 49 forus50
        March 2, 2014 at 4:53 pm

        I think he does as there are quite a few GOP senators who have never spoken out against POTUS on FP. Of course being unspoken one doesn’t know if they agree or disagree but I think that would be in some way considered deference. For Obama, it’s pretty much been McCain and Lindsay and the Teaparty nuts who have been consistently outspoken against him; and most unbiased views would consider their positions on foreign policy inconsistent if not irrationale Looking back at other GOP presidents I think similarly that only the most liberal of senators openly objected to Reagan, Bush Sr. and Jr.’s foreign policy on most matters (other than Iran/Contra and Iraq).

  13. March 2, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    I’ve done my manly duty. I replaced the bathroom doorknob. Now it’s time for meat.

  14. March 2, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    Because I would be remiss if I didn’t flog this. TPV has a new home at https://thepeoplesview.squarespace.com/main. Please change your bookmarks.

  15. March 2, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    Thanks LL for this great summary. Did you post it on your blog because it sounds very familiar.

  16. March 2, 2014 at 4:06 pm

    In case anyone reads my posts,
    A well-educated Russian-American from Khabarovsk, Russia wrote this plea to her former comrades:

    2 March at 14.00 in the central squares of Russian cities will be demonstrations against the war with Ukraine.

    I appeal to all Russian Friends: Now is not the time to be silent. Exit to the area and tell Putin that you do not want war. This war Putin needs to increase his power. This war needs political adventurers in the government of the Crimea, who want to rob Kiev Peninsula without control.
    This war is not necessary nor the peoples of Russia, nor the people of Ukraine.

    Stop her before its too late.

    Translated from Google.

  17. 58 carolyn
    March 2, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    I think Putin sees himself as the second coming of Tsar Peter the Great……he who knew he had to have a warm water port ( Crimea) and he who built St. Petersburg out of swamps on the coast of the Baltic Sea. I’ve read about Putin’s desire for a Eurasian organization to rival NATO, but I think he really wants to re-create the Tsarist Empire that went from the Baltic to the Pacific…….China better step carefully and help restrain him..

  18. 59 susanne
    March 2, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    in spite of the situation in ukraine, bloomberg news leads with this piece, and a giant photo of pbo and netanyahoo.excellent read, with great lines from pbo, like this one:

    ‘ There is a great desire not just to stand there, but to do something. We are doing a lot; we have to do more. But we have to make sure that what we do does not make a situation worse or engulf us in yet another massive enterprise at a time when we have great demands here at home and a lot of international obligations abroad. ‘


  19. 61 hopefruit2
    March 2, 2014 at 4:19 pm

    I’m having a random chuckle remembering after one of the 2012 Presidential debates where Romney’s two grandsons went straight up to President Obama…what a sight to behold that was! 🙂 🙂

  20. 62 hopefruit2
    March 2, 2014 at 4:22 pm

  21. March 2, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    O/T from FB page. Yes. This selfie of Bill, Barack, and Me that’s been circulating on the internet is real. President Obama made it clear that he doesn’t do selfies — there’s a White House photographer with him at all times when he greets the public — but he noted, “For you two gentlemen, I’ll make an exception.” -NDTyson

  22. March 2, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    Putin has put himself & his country -& the world on dangerous path. Heneeds to be shown an off-ramp

  23. 67 hopefruit2
    March 2, 2014 at 4:26 pm

  24. 68 africa
    March 2, 2014 at 4:28 pm

  25. 70 hopefruit2
    March 2, 2014 at 4:33 pm

  26. 71 africa
    March 2, 2014 at 4:35 pm

  27. 72 hopefruit2
    March 2, 2014 at 4:37 pm


  28. March 2, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    20 Committee, which has been doing such great work over Snowden, has lost its marbles over Ukraine. The latest piece on the blog is that Russia understands force only, and has to be spoken to in that language.

  29. March 2, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    From Ukrainian Voices. . .
    PROPAGANDA FAIL: “Terrified Ukrainians Flee to Russia” footage shows POLISH border. . .

    Meanwhile, this is the real picture of the Ukrainian-Russian border, at the Nekhoteyevka checkpoint, leading into Belgorod region, which, ORT Channel claims, is one of the active recipients of the refugees:

    The feed is updated every 3 to 5 minutes. If you’re still skeptical, you can see it for yourself:
    Click to See Regularly Updated Feed. http://service.alfard-bel.ru/tamogna-online-nehoteevka.html
    Think twice before you take on any information from Russian sites and news channels! The lies are getting more blatant by the minute, and they’re not even bothering to be subtle anymore.

  30. 83 africa
    March 2, 2014 at 4:44 pm

  31. 84 hopefruit2
    March 2, 2014 at 4:47 pm

  32. 85 hopefruit2
    March 2, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    • 86 anniebella
      March 2, 2014 at 4:54 pm

      The President is acting like a President, while Little lying Lindsey Graham is acting like a rotten brat who is scare he will lose his Senate race to a tea party candidate, so he has to try to act big and bad and tough. So his racists base will support him.

      • 87 anniebella
        March 2, 2014 at 5:00 pm

        If Lying Lindsey had his way it would be President Romney, so to be honest who care what Lying Lindsey think of our President.

  33. March 2, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    This has Ben Rhodes, fingerprints all over it……….. so good 😎

  34. March 2, 2014 at 4:55 pm

  35. 90 Bill R.
    March 2, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    I was thinking it was more like Soviet Union 1968, and invasion of Czechoslovakia to suppress the Prague Spring.

  36. 91 japa21
    March 2, 2014 at 4:56 pm

    This administration is so good at the sly cut:

  37. 93 criquet
    March 2, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    Hello all.

    Feel the burn!!!

  38. March 2, 2014 at 4:57 pm

  39. March 2, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    I have no clue what game Merkel is playing, but she could blow the whole int. leverage angel that we do credibly have……

    • 96 anniebella
      March 2, 2014 at 5:03 pm

      Merkel, Can she be trusted?

      • March 2, 2014 at 5:06 pm

        I don’t know anymore, Anniebella. She used the Snowden B.S. to hit us with her domestic constituents(help her party for elections), but now she is pow-wowing w/ Vlad, before speaking to President Obama.

    • March 2, 2014 at 5:10 pm

      Good cop, bad cop …. gotta give #TzarVlado every opportunity to take the off ramp that’s only a couple of meters from this fate …

      • March 2, 2014 at 5:13 pm

        Agreed. Russia in Ukraine is not in Germany’s interest. But Merkel has more pull with Vlad than we do. Offering him a carrot is her role.

      • March 2, 2014 at 5:15 pm

        I hope your right, Bob! Hope Merkel not turning into Dilma Rousseff.

        This seems like Merkel wanting to project German dominance of the EU, and at the same time Vlad playing her like a fiddle.

        • March 2, 2014 at 5:21 pm

          What she is proposing, LP, is consistent with what Ambassador Power stated yesterday at the #UNSC …

          “The best way to get the facts, to monitor conduct and to prevent any abuses is to get international monitors and observers – including from UN and OSCE – on the ground as soon as possible. We are also working to stand up an international mediation mission to the Crimea to begin to deescalate the situation, and to facilitate productive and peaceful political dialogue among all Ukrainian parties.”

          • March 2, 2014 at 5:33 pm

            Publicly yes…….. privately this is what she cares about

            I hope my inclinations are wrong, but her grandstanding with Snowden made me loose faith in how reliable she would be in the future. I understanding playing to the home team to an extent, but she went overboard at the same time http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/spiegel-reveals-cooperation-between-nsa-and-german-bnd-a-909954.html the BND was working w/ the U.S.

            • March 2, 2014 at 5:44 pm

              LP, I’m not arguing her politically excessive rhetoric re: Traitor Snwoden. And, yes, Germany relies on Russian natural gas. But, Norway and the US can readily bridge Germany’s needs in that regard and the diversification of Germany’s sources of power – including heavy investment in renewable sources – is already well underway and will likely be accelerated by Vlado’s stupid stunt.

              But, if the fighting starts in the Ukraine her problems escalate into the category of ‘unintended and uncontrollable consequences.’

              I think she is laser focused on trying to prevent that escalation because she knows the Ukrainians will fight to the end. So, either she convinces Vlado to curb it, or …..

              • March 2, 2014 at 5:53 pm

                Sorry if it came across I was implying otherwise. I basically agree with your entire summation of the state-of-play re: Merkel. She just rubbed me the wrong way last year. This basically sums up what you & I am hoping the outcome will be.

  40. March 2, 2014 at 5:46 pm

    bbl … take care everyone …

  41. 113 hopefruit2
    March 2, 2014 at 5:53 pm

  42. March 2, 2014 at 5:57 pm

  43. 115 hopefruit2
    March 2, 2014 at 5:59 pm

  44. 116 hopefruit2
    March 2, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    But but but Mike Crowley of TIME magazine told us that Putin was a manly man, confident and making strong foreign policy decisions!!

  45. 117 japa21
    March 2, 2014 at 6:16 pm

  46. March 2, 2014 at 6:22 pm

  47. March 2, 2014 at 6:37 pm

  48. 122 idon
    March 2, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    Everyone needs to remember only PBO and his national security team have access to ALL available information. President Obama has got this. SOS Kerry has got this. The international community of nations has got this. It’s gonna b fine. We can help lower the volume by confronting and challenging the GOPKKK hysteria – head on! Right now, I’l reading the Veil, which is about the CIA’s secret wars during the Reagan presidency. Fascinating read.

  49. 125 Linda
    March 2, 2014 at 6:41 pm

    Moscow-based Russia Today was hacked and its website was defaced Saturday, the news station reported on Twitter.

    Hacker(s) defaced the website, in some places replacing “Russia” or “Russians” with “Nazi” or “Nazis.” It was not yet clear who was responsible. The changes to the RT website remained in place for nearly 30 minutes before the station reported everything was back to normal.

    Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/russia-today-hacked-2014-3#ixzz2uqsYaSYU

    Snowden ?

  50. March 2, 2014 at 6:47 pm
  51. 128 symmetry11
    March 2, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    Hey TOD…I am an OFA digital lead in my area. We just received the following email for tomorrow. Will you all please help me in getting #TimetoEnroll trending tomorrow? I would certainly appreciate it.

    Using the hashtag #TimeToEnroll, this Monday at 10am Central Time, we’ll be joining with national partners to raise awareness that March is the last month to get enrolled through the health insurance marketplace AND be covered in 2014. In order for this to be effective, we’ll need all hands on deck to help trend this important effort.

    This is a crucial final month for us organizationally. Thanks to you, we’ve helped so many people take their first steps to getting health insurance for the first time in their lives. Keep kicking butt and taking names.

  52. 129 Allison
    March 2, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    Beautiful, stunning

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