Skip to main content

Putin's Ukrainian endgame and why the West may have a hard time stopping him

By Angela Stent
March 4, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to watch a military exercise near St.Petersburg, Russia, Monday
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to watch a military exercise near St.Petersburg, Russia, Monday
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Angela Stent: Vladimir Putin's move into Crimea is central to his view of Russia's interests
  • Key to those interests is the Russian Black Sea Fleet based in Crimea
  • Stent says that beyond sanctions and containment, Western reaction may be limited

Editor's note: Angela Stent is a professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, a former national intelligence officer for Russia at the State Department and leading expert on post-Soviet Russia. She is author of "The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century."

(CNN) -- At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, Vladimir Putin told a surprised George W. Bush, "You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country. Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part was given to us."

Six years later, the Kremlin appears to be making sure that Putin's opinion becomes a reality.

For Moscow, the drama that has been unfolding in Ukraine for the past three months is a domestic and an international issue. After all, if a revolution can unseat an unpopular, corrupt government in Kiev, why not in Moscow?

Follow the latest developments in Ukraine

That was Moscow's nightmare scenario during the 2004 Ukrainian Orange Revolution, and it remains a major concern even though Putin's popularity rating in Russia runs at a healthy 60% today.

Angela Stent
Angela Stent

Beyond that, Ukraine is closely linked to Russia's return to the world stage as a great power that should be entitled to a "sphere of privileged interests" in its backyard. Putin has said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the "greatest geopolitical tragedy" of the 20th century.

His project for his third term as President is to gather in as many of his neighbors as he can to form a new Eurasian Union. Ukraine is the key to that project. And Crimea is the key to Ukraine.

Sixty years ago, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev "gave" the Crimean Peninsula -- for the previous 300 years part of the Russian empire and the U.S.S.R. -- to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic because they were all part of the Soviet Union and it was meant as a symbolic gesture.

After the Soviet collapse, Crimea suddenly became part of an independent Ukraine to Moscow's shock. Moscow and Kiev worked out a deal to divide the Soviet Black Sea Fleet between Russia and Ukraine. In 2010, Ukraine extended the Russian lease until 2042.

When Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted last week and fled to Russia, the Kremlin worried it might lose its lease and have to withdraw its fleet from this strategic area.

U.S. preparing likely sanctions on Russia
Dividing Ukraine 'will be very messy'
Garry Kasparov:This isn't Cold War chess

The initial Russia move to occupy Crimea was designed to protect Russian naval equities on the Peninsula. Some 60% of Crimea's population is Russian and appears to support the current Russian occupation. But Russian interests and troops reach beyond that.

Opinion: The two Putins

A key Putin goal since he came to power in 2000 has been to prevent either NATO or the European Union from encroaching in the post-Soviet space. That's why Russia offered Yanukovych a $15 billion loan to counter the EU's more modest offer in December.

By occupying Crimea, Russia wants to ensure that only a rump Ukraine could negotiate with the EU in the future.

If the current conflict does not spread to other parts of eastern Ukraine -- where there is a sizable population that is demanding closer ties to Russia -- then Crimea could join the ranks of other "frozen conflicts" in the post-Soviet space.

These entities with substantial Russian-speaking populations exist in de facto ministates with Russian military protection within the borders of a larger state whose jurisdiction they do not recognize, such as the Transnistria region in Moldova.

Russian support for these breakaway regions ensures that Moldova, Georgia and now Ukraine will not enjoy full sovereignty over their territory and that Russia will always have a role to play there.

Occupying Crimea and raising tensions in eastern Ukraine to prevent Ukraine from moving toward more Western influence is a top priority for the Kremlin. The Ukrainian stakes are far higher for Moscow than they are for either Brussels or Washington.

The United States can threaten economic sanctions, expel Russia from the G-8 and consider a range of other measures, but the Kremlin must have already discounted these possible countermeasures well before it executed its carefully planned takeover of Crimea.

If maintaining a good relationship with the United States were a top priority for Putin, he would not have granted U.S. intel leaker Edward Snowden asylum in August. Guaranteeing and expanding the Russian presence in Crimea is much more important.

Opinion: How Putin carries out power grab

Given Russia's determination not to back down from Crimea, the United States and its allies will have to focus on containing the advance of Russian troops beyond Crimea and trying to ensure that an unanticipated local conflict between groups under the control neither of Moscow nor Kiev could not precipitate a broader armed struggle in Ukraine.

The fragile interim government in Kiev will need substantial economic support and must be encouraged not to let itself be provoked into a war with Russia as Georgia was in 2008.

Because if there were an armed conflict, neither the United States nor NATO would get militarily involved, and the result could be the dismemberment of Ukraine and its division into two states on either side of a new East-West divide.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Angela Stent.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT