The Los Angeles Times endorsements in the March 3 election
Opinion Op-Ed

Putin conducts 'Russia Marches On'

Last week, before Vladimir Putin annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea to Russia, I asked a leading Putinologist, Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution, what the Russian president was likely to do.

"He's on the offensive," she said. "In his view, he's got the advantage. He doesn't seem likely to stop now."

She turned out to be right. On Tuesday, Putin signed the treaty of annexation in a flag-decked Kremlin ceremony as crowds cheered outside in Red Square. In a defiant speech, the Russian president said the action merely restored Crimea to its motherland. "Crimea has returned home," he told the crowd.

PHOTOS: A peek inside 5 doomed dictators' opulent lifestyles

By tapping into the traditional nationalism of Russians and their desire to be seen as a great power, Putin has improved his domestic political standing, and he's done it at a time when Russia's economy has slowed to a crawl. A recent poll by the respected Levada Center put Putin's job approval at 72% — well above, say, President Obama's.

With that kind of cheering section, it seems unlikely the Russian leader will stop now. His most immediate goal may be to secure Crimea's energy sources, most of which happen to be in eastern and southern Ukraine, which also have substantial Russian populations. But that won't be all. Putin's central goal as president, Hill said, is to restore Russian influence over as much of the territory of the old Soviet Union as possible, beginning with Ukraine.

Russia won't necessarily try to annex more of Ukraine, but Putin is bent on ensuring that the country joins his planned Eurasian Union instead of the European Union. "This is his legacy," said Hill, who coauthored the widely praised biography "Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin." "This is what his presidency's about."

That's why Putin wasn't willing to stand by as a rebellious Ukraine moved toward a formal economic association with the EU. And that's why he will continue to exert pressure on both eastern Ukraine, where much of the population is pro-Russia, and on the understandably anti-Russia government in Kiev.

One possible next move would be for Russia to annex Transnistria, a self-declared separatist state on Ukraine's western border. Transnistria broke away from Moldova, though its sovereignty has not been recognized by most countries, and now has close ties with Russia. "Keep your eye on that one," Hill warned. "It's another way Putin can create a problem for the government in Kiev."

At its heart, the conflict in Ukraine is as much about Putin's fears as his ambition. In Putin's mind, he is acting to defend Russia's interests against an assertive, expansionist West. (As recently as 2008, after all, NATO was moving toward making Ukraine a member.) He rejects the idea that every country should be moving toward both democracy and a Western-style market economy. To the Russian leader, democracy looks like chaos. And after the U.S. financial crash of 2008, "he doesn't think the West is worth emulating as an economic model any more," Hill said.

In other words, Putin's looking at the 21st century through the cold, wary eyes of a Russian realist, and he sees it differently than Western leaders do.

Take the recent threats of economic sanctions from Europe and the United States. Putin thinks the West will hesitate before imposing crippling sanctions on Russia's economy because of Europe's many financial interests in Moscow. (So far, he's right about that.) And he thinks the West will tire of imposing sanctions before Russia feels any need to back down.

"His message is: We think you've been trampling our interests, and we have a higher threshold for pain than you do," Hill said. She noted that Putin's parents survived the World War II siege of Leningrad, when some Russians ate grass to fend off starvation — an episode Putin once referred to as evidence of his nation's resilience under pressure.

Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and their allies hoped threats of sanctions would deter Putin from moving troops into Crimea, but their threats had no effect. They hoped the imposition of limited, "proportional" sanctions might deter Putin from annexing Crimea, but that had no effect either.

What we have here is an asymmetrical problem: It's more important to Putin and his people than it is to the West. For Americans and Western Europeans, Russia's assertion of power is an outrage and a threat to our ideal of an international order, but it's also a long way from home. For Putin, it's the cure for Russia's national resentments and the legacy he wants to leave as president. He's betting that he can outlast any sanctions the West is willing to impose. He could well turn out to be right.


Twitter: @DoyleMcManus

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Want to arm Kiev? Better have a Plan B
    Want to arm Kiev? Better have a Plan B

    To say that the truce in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed breakaway "republics" are battling the pro-Western Kiev government, isn't holding is like saying the Titanic sprung a leak. The cease-fire signed in September is a dead letter. There's a full-blown war afoot.

  • Agreement on Ukraine could vindicate use of economic sanctions
    Agreement on Ukraine could vindicate use of economic sanctions

    Assuming it doesn't unravel — a big assumption — the agreement on the future of Ukraine announced Thursday is preferable to the continuation of a conflict in which 5,000 people have died and nearly a million have been displaced. The deal, negotiated by Russia, Ukraine, France and...

  • The West can't placate Putin; it needs to help Kiev fight back
    The West can't placate Putin; it needs to help Kiev fight back

    As Western countries respond to the resumption of all-out war in Ukraine, they must ensure that the driving force behind the hostilities — Moscow — pays a greater cost for the rising civilian death toll. European Union foreign ministers are set to meet Thursday to discuss...

  • U.S., Russia should return to on-site inspections for treaty claims
    U.S., Russia should return to on-site inspections for treaty claims

    The ongoing diplomatic back-and-forth between the United States and Russia would have you believe that the future viability of the history-making Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is nil. That would represent a major setback for arms control — and the security of the world....

  • Kiev's brutal strategy in eastern Ukraine
    Kiev's brutal strategy in eastern Ukraine

    In mid-December, President Obama signed into law the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, which, among options for more sanctions against Russia, calls on the White House to provide Kiev with assistance for internally displaced persons as well as to cooperate with international organizations to...

  • Ukraine should put Russia to the test
    Ukraine should put Russia to the test

    Ukraine is now strong enough to seize the initiative to create a lasting cease-fire in its Donbas Rust Belt, currently occupied by Russia and its proxies. And Russia may be weak enough to be receptive. It is in Kiev's interest to do so. A state of permanent war with Russia would damage...

  • Should Ukraine rewrite history and reacquire nuclear weapons? No and no.
    Should Ukraine rewrite history and reacquire nuclear weapons? No and no.

    Twenty years ago in Budapest, Hungary, leaders of the United States, Russia, Britain and Ukraine signed a memorandum on nuclear weapons and Ukrainian security. It committed Ukraine to remove nuclear arms from its territory and join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a nonnuclear-weapon...

  • What makes Putin tick? A primer for presidential candidates
    What makes Putin tick? A primer for presidential candidates

    Foreign policy is traditionally not a hot topic for presidential primary candidates this early in the game, so I was surprised to receive a request recently to talk about Russia from one of the often-mentioned candidates. But, of course, it is not too early. The United States no longer has...