How to understand Putin's Ukraine strategy
March 1st, 2014
08:57 PM ET

How to understand Putin's Ukraine strategy

By Leon Aron, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Leon Aron is resident scholar and director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are his own.

To understand what motivates Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Ukrainian crisis and how he will proceed, we have to recall two key things about his strategy and his tactics.

First, Russian foreign policy – whether under Brezhnev, Yeltsin, Putin or anyone after him – is informed by three imperatives: Russia as a nuclear superpower, Russia as the world’s great power, and Russia as the central power in the post-Soviet geopolitical space. And a power that is political, economic, cultural, diplomatic and most certainly military.

What differs from one Russian political regime to another is interpretation and implementation, that is, the policies that support these objectives.  Putin’s have been far more assertive and at times riskier than those of his predecessors. The nuclear “superpowership” has been translated into a vehement opposition to missile defense in Europe.  Russia as a great power has been defined largely in opposition to the U.S. and the West in general. And the centrality of Russia in the post-Soviet space has been re-interpreted as dominance and hegemony.

Ukraine’s European breakout – caused by Putin’s first major political blunder in openly and heavy handedly betting on ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, and thus escalating the issue from corruption and thievery to Ukraine’s sovereignty – is hugely important to Putin’s Russia. Why? Because it has dealt a very heavy, perhaps fatal, blow to not one but two elements of the Russian geostrategic triad as defined by Putin: to the "great power" pillar (the West has won in the Ukraine!), and to Russia's hegemony in the post-Soviet space.

From Moscow’s point of view, the double whammy must be mitigated – or better yet reversed – before the consequences become irrevocable and the geopolitical map of Eurasia permanently redrawn.  As a result, for as long as the eye can see, containment, de-stabilization and, if possible, derailment of the Europe-bound Ukraine will be by far the most important objective of Russian foreign (as well domestic) policy.

As to the tactics, in his effectively 14 years in power, Putin has been very lucky both in his domestic and foreign endeavors, in part because of objective factors (when he took over as acting president in 1999, a barrel of crude averaged around $17 a barrel) and in large measure because his opponents, at home and abroad, were politically or economically handicapped.

As a result, Putin has trusted his luck and his smarts while counting on his opponents' weaknesses. This means he has operated in accordance with Napoleon’s principle: On s’engage and puis on voit, which I would translate as “First get into a fight, and then decides what to do."

And that is how he has proceeded thus far,  gradually escalating the pressure on Ukraine, seeing what works and what does not, pausing and looking over his shoulder at the response from the West, primarily the U.S.  From the expression of concern for the safety of ethnic Russians in Ukraine (which proved ineffective), to the questioning of the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government, to the introduction of forces in the Crimea, to his “request” to the Federation Council of the Russian parliament for the “use” of troops in Ukraine. In accordance with his tactical habits, Putin will likely stop now and assess the reaction.  A full-scale invasion and occupation of Crimea is therefore likely to be next – unless the response from the “West” proves effective.

What will that response be? We know (and so surely does Putin) that the U.S. is not going to go to war over Ukraine.  Yet even with the military option off the table, the U.S. still has quite a few diplomatic and economic tools at its disposal, to be deployed publicly and, most crucially, privately.

The U.S. and its allies also must keep in mind that most, if not all, of these measures are aimed not only at Putin but at the elites around him and at the Russian public at large. Dominant though he is, Putin is not Stalin or Brezhnev. Russia is not the Soviet Union, the Iron Curtain is gone – the internet exists and public opinion matters.

The West’s steps are not difficult to divine. To begin, in the public domain, separate statements and phone calls to Putin by U.S. allies would be replaced by a joint statement from the heads of state of NATO and EU countries warning about the “consequences” of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Such a statement should stress that Russia risks isolating itself from the world – economically, politically, culturally – with disastrous results for the people of the Russian Federation.

These “consequences” may have been spelled out in President Obama’s private call to Putin (with an understanding that what is private today may become public tomorrow). Ideally, the conversation would have been one in which the American president was speaking not only for the U.S., but also for NATO and the EU. The president is likely to have pointed out that the risks would involve Russia's membership in the G-8, the safety of financial and other assets of the Russian elite which are located outside of Russia, as well as the ability of the members of this elite and their families to visit, live or study in the U.S. and the EU. In addition, Moscow's behavior could trigger new export controls, which given its dependence on Western technology, particularly in the oil and gas sector as well as in the food industry, could have a very negative impact on the Russian economy.​

Alongside these measures, the U.S. and its allies might also provide – publicly and in private – a few face-saving devices for Russia, such as guarantees that the Russian-speaking Ukrainians will be free from harassment or discrimination of any kind; an introduction of U.N.  peacemaking forces in Crimea to protect the political rights of all  Crimeans, and the reaffirmation of the pre-existing “special status” of Crimea within Ukraine, as well as the continuation of the pre-existing Russian sovereignty of the leased naval base in Sevastopol.

Given the size of the hole that the Ukrainian revolution has torn in the fabric of Russia’s geopolitics, these measures may not stop Russia from attempting to reverse the crisis. But they will certainly convey the increasing costs of the course in which the Kremlin seems to be embarking, and possibly provide a way out without losing face.

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Topics: Russia • Ukraine

soundoff (373 Responses)
  1. andrew stromotich

    a couple things to remember:
    Crimea has only been part of the Ukraine since the 50's, is majority Russian, and is home to Russia's black sea fleet. The Russians did not cede Tartus, and it is obvious they will not lose their Crimean bases either.
    the article is very poorly written, and I didn't finish it, so I might be posting the obvious, but I think when assesing the Russian position and how impotent the US is in response, you should remember the released recordings of the US orchestrating the unrest in Ukraine, and the fact that the Russians have an unknown treasure trove of US inteligence in Edward Snowden.
    The US is broke and thoroughly destabilized as a world power, its moral authority in tatters, its credability with allies seriously weakened. its a very similar position to the one that brought down the soviet union.
    the Chinese and the Russians had visits from Snowden, the Germans want access to their fort knox gold, and the UK is reeling from the news the US in helping their spy agencies illegally access British webcams, cel phones and computers. no one will be able to stop the Russians in Crimea and they know it. let's hope it doesn't get worse like Georgia, when George Bush set those poor people up to be decimated.

    March 2, 2014 at 9:41 am | Reply
    • Dennis

      Andrew..You didn't write or finish the story you merely offered your opinion,as invalid as it is.The U.S. is far from broke.It is Russia that is one the brink of economic collapse and by creating this image,it is painting itself into a corner on world opinion of Russia.But of course,when has Russia ever cared about that fact,the people it has made suffer under it's expansionism and brutality,or for that matter,ever cared for the Russia population itself? Your opinion is formed on bias,not fact.

      March 2, 2014 at 10:18 am | Reply
      • andrew stromotich

        the US is something like 14 trillion in debt, and is reaching the point where it can't even service the debt let alone expand it.
        the snowden situation is huge, do u not remember the last g8 or g10 or whatever it was, right after snowden revealed the NSA spying operation? obama looked like he was going to faint. he walked away without a single ally (the French bailed on him within 24 hours), he was pail and mumbling.

        Putin on the other hand, walked away with five signatories on how to handle Syria. he was laughing and slapping folks on the back.

        Russia has massive oil and gas reserves, and heats half of Europe. the wars America has waged have increased the value of Russian holdings. Russia is the strongest it's been since the 70's, America is the weakest it's ever been, it's just history playing out again.

        March 2, 2014 at 11:03 am |
    • GodIsDeadGetOverIt

      The Germans want their gold....get real, you are an imbecile

      March 2, 2014 at 10:29 am | Reply
      • andrew stromotich

        just google Germany Fort Knox, or haven't you heard? it's way out in the open

        March 2, 2014 at 10:44 am |
  2. John

    The human spirit is inherently good and longs for freedom. Within any social unit whether it be family, town, city, state, or nation "essential freedoms" should be secure. Freedom next to Love are the most abused words and concepts in many societies and nations. Love is about honesty, respect, and selflessness, as it should also be for freedom. Imagine being born, living, and dying never knowing either.

    March 2, 2014 at 9:46 am | Reply
    • ArchieDeBunker

      How anyone can observe the history of mankind and conclude that "the human spirit is "inherently good" is simply a demonstration that, as John Steinbeck said (East of Eden) "It is the single triumph of the human being that a man can know a thing is true – – and not believe it." To believe that the human spirit is inherently good is to blind one's eyes to the evil, both in scale and in detail, done by humans. Yes, certainly, SOME human's spirits are "inherently good" – when not confronted too strongly by the temptations of power, lust and riches. But some humans (Adolph Hitler, Vladimir Putin?) are inherently evil and when the story is finished it remains to be seen whether the good or evil in humans eventually wins out. If it were not for the fact that I am a Christian, I could no more believe in the eventual triumph of Good over Evil than I believe in the tooth fairy. As it is, I believe that Good will only triumph at the expense of the prior destruction of much that is Good and the eventual intervention of a God who may, or may not, rescue those whom He has "chosen" prior to the eventual conflagration.

      March 2, 2014 at 10:10 am | Reply
      • John

        OK......"we're all BORN inherently good".

        March 2, 2014 at 2:12 pm |
      • John

        Spiritual is a state of existence, I believe a permanent one, while the remaining four are temporary. I wonder if Mr. Steinbeck new of near death experiences wherein people were changed. Something was there to be changed, maybe just a flicker of light. Absolute evil? By deeds yes, and there has been no doubt terrible evil, but doesn't your belief allow for redemption.

        I had a N.D.E. , and I believe that we are here to increase the light we were born with, and hopefully increase it in others. Call it the spirit, soul, light, or even goodness itself, pity the poor soul that leaves without a flicker

        March 2, 2014 at 2:58 pm |
    • True

      Dear Americans ,

      It is just lie that we are not free. We have all the freedom . It is just empty propaganda your government want to close your eyes form the truth .

      20 years ago we were poor , naive but now 2014. We are sorry . We want to live and we want that our countries stay alive . We will fight back instead of waiting that Nato , EU , USA block will kill us . Time has changed . We are sorry . We have right to stay alive and to protect our homes.

      March 3, 2014 at 12:52 am | Reply
  3. fromrussiawithlove70

    Putin is just upset because the spotlight is off Russia after the Olympics.. He will not leave Ukraine until the Olympics are reopened and he is rewarded his own gold medal for riding horses shirtless

    March 2, 2014 at 9:51 am | Reply
    • Zippity Doo Da

      President Obama has now become the President of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, and Crimea. Nevertheless, the US government is allies with the nastiest Saudi dictators that spread Al Qaeda ideology. When the US government says "democracy," the US government simply uses it as a brand name for spreading pro-US and Zionist oppression.

      March 2, 2014 at 10:17 am | Reply
  4. Paul

    This shoulda been in the opinion section.

    March 2, 2014 at 9:52 am | Reply
  5. Ragin Cajun

    We seem to lose sight of the importance of the Ukraine to Russia. This isn't just another satellite nation in the hinterlands of near Muslim world. Ukraine, like Serbia, is in essence Russian civilization. Further complicating matters with the Ukraine is Russias long dependence on this region for food. I have tried to think of a parallel situation for the US, but there really isn't any given we have a very different kind of dynamic with out neighbors in the western hemisphere. However, we should imagine something like a scenario where Mexico comes under the direct influence of Cuba leaving us absolutely no continued standing (though we're in fact about to lose Mexico as a valuable neighbor if we keep abusing & ignoring them). True though that the United States doesn't also have major cultural identification to origins from within Mexico as Russia does in the Ukraine.

    Also, look at the history of Russia in this region. Millions of Russian lives have been lost over the last three centuries in exercising direct control of this region. Putin would not suffer a minor political loss if Russia loses this area from their direct sphere of control. He may actually face losing power all together if he loses the Ukraine as it is now to becoming something like Poland today.

    I think the assessments to date from the American view have been a gross under estimate of the need for a "win" in this situation for Putin. Estimates of the situation should be ratcheted up to where we should assume Putin views this as a matter of survival. Thus, this is a very dangerous situation. One which the west might have to accept a loss as a win was really never an option. If there is any play here at all it may only be a trade: Ukraine to Russia for them pulling out of Syria.

    March 2, 2014 at 9:54 am | Reply
  6. jianfei

    paranoid russia only seeks a buffer zone... this has become very humerous... putin 0 – euro +1

    March 2, 2014 at 9:55 am | Reply
  7. jianfei

    nice to see putin lost ground...after all his arrogance...

    March 2, 2014 at 9:55 am | Reply
  8. jianfei

    his hind choppers only protect his ass hind... lol

    March 2, 2014 at 9:56 am | Reply
  9. Jan Vranken

    Reblogged this on RrroooadBlog.

    March 2, 2014 at 9:57 am | Reply
  10. jianfei

    I request the USA protect my comments because i do not wish for pollution attacks from KGB...
    thanks my brothers in the USA....hahah

    March 2, 2014 at 9:59 am | Reply
  11. jianfei

    dont be such a sochi brewski sugar 360 hahaha

    March 2, 2014 at 10:00 am | Reply
  12. ELMO

    CNN and the west has been utterly wrong on Putin's strategy from the onset. However many individuals online have been calling it accurately from the beginning. Thats what happens when News outlets support a coup instead of reporting the news.

    March 2, 2014 at 10:01 am | Reply
  13. jianfei

    SAS – bro we miss ya...all
    miss ya...

    March 2, 2014 at 10:01 am | Reply
  14. al

    That's really bad article. The most important thing is that Russia provides 25% [or more] gas for EU .

    March 2, 2014 at 10:05 am | Reply
  15. jianfei

    CNN and the west has been utterly wrong on Putin's strategy from the onset. However many individuals online have been calling it accurately from the beginning. Thats what happens when News outlets support a coup instead of reporting the news.
    my recommendation is...putin... is merely protecting his autocratic regime...he is bluffing... he is merely protecting his borders and creating a buffer zone to make him feel safer..... i wouldn't be to concerned...

    March 2, 2014 at 10:05 am | Reply
    • jianfei


      March 2, 2014 at 10:10 am | Reply
  16. Zippity Doo Da

    Putin should tell the US government to screw itself. The US is the largest instigator of wars, invasions, 'color revolutions' and coup d'etats. The US oppresses its own people – it still has not made reparations for slavery and holds 3 million people in US jails and prisons. And people all over the world are being screwed out of their savings by banks with pro-Israeli managers ... these people operate out of the USA.

    March 2, 2014 at 10:11 am | Reply
  17. Dave C

    With multiple gatherings by the thousands in SE Ukraine too well organized to have simply popped up without Russian assistance, I think Putin's aim is not just Crimea, but SE Ukraine! to include Zaporizhzhia (the largest power plant in Europe) to provide power, water, and a direct land access from Russia to the peninsula. But to me the question is why? There has been a threat that Russia's presence in Crimea be challenged, but this is going to be costly (both financially and diplomatically). This is a planned and well organized operation you cannot pull out on a whim, so what, beyond guaranteeing a military presence in Crimea, is the point of all this? I don't think Russia needs more from Zaporizhzhia, so I am left to think that acquiring Zaporizhzhia is an integral part of the operation, with the ultimate goal to have a foot on Ukraine's neck (in other to make Ukraine be dependent on Russia's goodwill).

    March 2, 2014 at 10:13 am | Reply
    • Dave C

      P.s. Zaporizhzhia produces about 20% of Ukraine's power.

      March 2, 2014 at 10:14 am | Reply
  18. John

    History can be written on many pages but the effects of history linger long after the ink is dry.

    Progress? What is progress when it is mainly relevant to those who control it?

    If your or my freedom gets in the way of progress, we may lose some or all of it.

    We are here briefly while eternity awaits us. What is eternity?

    Imagine that when the Earth was created from its first element(s) [all views accepted] a decimal point was put down. Every fraction of an N/sec, a zero [0] has been placed to its right for these billions of years. Ten minutes from now a one [1] will be put down. That indescribable fraction is not a fraction of eternity but rather a fraction of understanding eternity.

    It should be no surprise that while we are here, freedom is so precious, if only for that brief time of our life's journey, as tomorrow is not a promise but rather a gift.

    March 2, 2014 at 10:18 am | Reply
  19. hlf

    Russia has already lost big time, no matter what happens. If Putin regains control of the entire Ukraine he will have gained 30 million people that despise him and Russia. He will also have gained a country that is financially ruined. If Russia really is our enemy, and Putin seems to want that to be the case, we should be delighted with a Russian takeover Ukraine. It would be like a snake that swallowed a big rock; a permanent case of indigestion. This would accelerate the decline of a state that exists mainly because of its police, oil and nuclear weapons. We must be patient.

    March 2, 2014 at 10:19 am | Reply
    • Johnny Mnemonic

      In the last sentence if you replace Russia with USA it will be absolutely valid as well..

      March 2, 2014 at 11:20 am | Reply
  20. jianfei

    my intellect requires employment...
    you got a job...

    March 2, 2014 at 10:22 am | Reply
  21. jianfei

    how the f did you locate me?

    March 2, 2014 at 10:24 am | Reply
  22. jianfei

    i saw the second plane hit live.

    March 2, 2014 at 10:26 am | Reply
  23. jianfei

    good night boys

    March 2, 2014 at 10:27 am | Reply
  24. Ngau Hu Phart

    The strategy is as simple as Hitler's "annexation" of Austria in 1938. History about to repeat itself...?

    March 2, 2014 at 10:28 am | Reply
  25. Zippity Doo Da

    Putin should make a deal with the US to export Russian brides to America and American women should be sent to Siberia. This is a fair deal.

    March 2, 2014 at 10:28 am | Reply
    • Vlad

      American women should be fed to hungry crocks. No Russian brides for export.

      March 2, 2014 at 4:29 pm | Reply
  26. Joe

    Why aren't the coward americans go set up no flight zone in russia then ? Too scared ?

    March 2, 2014 at 10:30 am | Reply
    • Vlad

      C 400

      March 2, 2014 at 4:29 pm | Reply
  27. Subnx

    One problem is that Putin is much more effective than Obama. He understands military activities while the stoner Obama has no military background. Putin does not respect Obama.

    March 2, 2014 at 10:32 am | Reply
  28. Jack

    Very coaxing, thinking the Russians are fools.

    March 2, 2014 at 10:33 am | Reply
  29. aussielouis

    It is clear from the start that the US had been laying the groundwork for the takeover of a legitimate government through financing and organising the rebellion. It is Obama's and John McCain's intention of humiliating Putin back!

    However, the US is playing a stupid game with a guy with more guts than a thousand McCains and Obamas put together. Ukraine would be the loser to play the west's game. They are too stupid and irrational to know what's good for them. The people are playing into the hands of the fascists and Oligarchs waiting at the side to rob Ukraine. Just watch and see!

    March 2, 2014 at 10:36 am | Reply
  30. Jessica McGwin

    I like andrew stromotich, the author lost my interest however I did finish the read. There are some legal issues that must be worked out between Russia and the New Interim Government in the Ukraine. As to the bases located with in it's boarders these agreements have been long standing and Russia has the right to defend it's assets. Unlike the previous President they can not just through Russia off their own base. The weapons and assets there are not owned by the people of the Ukraine it would be irresponsible for the Russian Federation to loose control of the weapons and technologies located on those bases. There will need to be a reasonable amount of time allowed for with draw of those assets, as well as a secure route of exit. As with any lease, leaser agreement reasonable right of eviction must be established as well as a reasonable time frame. This is not a palace we are talking about. It is a base with high grade weapons and technologies. It is in the interest of international peace given the lack of knowledge on the new government to secure these assets and move in a timely manner for the safety of the international community.
    I think that the US actors in this theater have acted in their own selfish disregard for human life and out side the scope of their duties as elected and appointed representatives of the People Of The United States.
    As to Mr Snowden, I understand clearly the Russian position on the matter. As I am aware that my position is well understood. Bring NO Harm. However the EU's position on the matter is quite different. The continuation of the EU's breaching of sensitive information and forward search for more harm is a reminder of a dysfunctional familiar relationship.That will require a reassessment of the intention of the EU. That hurts coming from you. In short order.
    Their are other serious and real threats to both the US and Russia on the horizon. That will require a cooperation and open communications between the 2 nations. I am confidant that Mr Putin will be able in the interest of health and wealth for all to secure the Federations assets in a responsible and timely manner.

    March 2, 2014 at 10:38 am | Reply
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