With the stroke of his pen, Russian President Vladimir Putin deepened the divide between East and West by signing a document that officially made Ukraine’s Black Sea region of Crimea part of the Russian Federation.
Some Russia experts see that act as a marking of the end of the post-Cold War era in Europe that the world has known since the days of Reagan and Gorbachev. It is no less than a tectonic shift – “one defined by ideological clashes, nationalistic resurgence and territorial occupation,” wrote Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, in an opinion piece for theNew York Times newspaper this week.
Speculation over whether or not Putin has nursed a desire to grab Crimea – a region with deep Russian roots – has sparked debate among Kremlin observers.
“This is not something that one could have predicted,” said Russian expert Thomas Graham, Senior Director at Kissinger Associates, Inc. “I think if you look at the record of the past few weeks – a month ago – Putin didn’t believe or know that he going to annex Crimea,” he said. “You know, a lot of this was a response to events that unfolded very rapidly.”
Considered even by his closest confidants as icy cold, Putin has often been described as a highly self-controlled, practical leader who does not rely on charm to get the job done.
“You see someone very intense, very focused, clearly a man with a mission, who believed that his goal was to rebuild Russia and to defend Russia’s national interests,” said Graham, who met Putin when Graham worked in various posts as a Russia expert under the Bush administration. “He was prepared to expend a lot of effort to do that,” he said. “He was also prepared to suffer a lot of pain in order to achieve that goal. And I think you see those same characteristics today.” Journalist Adi Ignatius, who spent time with the Russian leader in 2007 for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, wrote that Putin was prickly and humorless.
But if Putin is unemotional in the political arena, he is passionate about restoring Russia what he sees as its rightful place on the global state.
The annexation of Crimea fits neatly within that worldview, according to Ariel Cohen, Senior Fellow of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
“He views this action in historic context of correcting the wrong of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he [has] called the greatest geo-political tragedy of the 20th century,” Cohen said.
And Putin has been open about his concern for the plight of the estimated 25 million ethnic Russian’s who ended up living outside the borders of Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
But to really understand how Putin operates, one must keep in mind his KGB career, Cohen said.
“Mr. Putin is an intelligence officer and his specialty is what is called ‘human intelligence,’ so he had experience recruiting and running agents when he was in Germany and having these agents working for the Soviet intelligence apparatus,” he said.
“As such, I think he considers himself a judge of human character, and he took an assessment of [President Barack] Mr. Obama, [German Chancellor Angela] Mrs. Merkel and others and decided that this is a team he can play against and win,” Cohen said,
And that comes after years of engaging in with three American presidents to work on U.S.-Russian relations, including Obama’s “reset” policy, said Russian historian Yuri Felshtinsky.
“I think Putin slowly, this took him several years, moved from a period when he was trying to be friendly with the West and be a partner with the West…to a period when he is trying to recreate the empire,” Felshtinksy said.
“Whether this is going to be Soviet empire or mini Soviet empire or Russian empire, it’s difficult to say because probably Putin doesn’t know himself what this empire is going to be,” he said.
Felshtinsky also believes, that Putin has calculated that Western leaders like President Obama and Merkel are politically unable to prevent Russian expansion.
“It was very clear that he believed that Russia had gone through a period, — a decade — of socio-economic decline, national humiliation in the 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union,” Graham said.
Fast forward to 2014. After spending years successfully engineering a remarkable economic and military comeback, Putin revealed his intentions only days after Crimea was officially annexed, Graham said.
His message: Russia’s period of geo-political retreat is now over.
The Ukraine drama has sparked Cold War jitters – and a revisiting of an era of deep political tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1950s and ‘60s, when fears of nuclear war were at their highest.
But despite reports of Russian troop buildups on the Ukraine border, Graham predicts that Putin will not move ahead with seizing more territory.
“He gains very little by absorbing Eastern Ukraine, with its large ethnic Russian population,” Graham said. “Because what he needs is all of Ukraine… he’s not going seize territory,” he said. “What he wantsto be able to do is project confidence, the ability, the capacity to use power and hope that those levers give him increasing influence in the states along Russia’s borders.”
And if Ukraine moves closer to the West, as its new government wants to, Putin will have lost strategically, some analysts say. Since 2008, Ukraine has been a candidate to join NATO. In Putin’s mind, NATO expansion on Russia’s borders would be intolerable, analysts say.
“There is still a formal promise on the table they will eventually become members of NATO,” said Henrik Larsen, post-doctoral research fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
“So from a Russian perspective what happened in Kyiv was a new ‘orange revolution’ that over time could maybe lead to NATO membership,” Larsen said. “And for the Russian perspective, the prospect of U.S. or NATO troops in Ukraine is unthinkable.”