Beyond Crimea: What Vladimir Putin Really Wants

Ukraine is lost. At least lost as many of us had once imagined it—as a potential member of the European Union and, perhaps one day, of NATO. Thank the Kremlin’s visionary leader for that. It’s striking how confidently and quickly Russian President Vladimir Putin gobbled up Crimea. Although it was a clear-cut case of unprovoked aggression, followed by annexation, the United States and its allies were unable to lift a finger.

The Russian narrative has it that these actions were driven by the will of the people. The vote in Crimea, said Putin at the time, was held in “full compliance with democratic procedures and international norms.” The numbers, he added at a speech to both houses of the Russian Parliament at the Kremlin on the day of the poll, “speak for themselves.”

But in truth Crimea’s March 16th referendum was dreadfully flawed and illegal under both Ukrainian and international law. Negotiations between stakeholders should have preceded the referendum. Voters had no option to vote for the status quo. In addition, while the indigenous Crimean Tatars boycotted the vote, they would not have been able to cast a ballot even if they’d had a last-minute change of heart, as authorities did not provide voting booths in Tatar regions. There’s more. International observers were not permitted. Armed soldiers, thought to be Russian—they wore no insignia—oversaw polling stations. And the general atmosphere of volatility and violence made it impossible to know with any precision what the citizens of Crimea would want. As a New York University legal study summed it up, the referendum “violated the [Ukrainian] Constitution, domestic legislation, and the basic principles of democracy.”

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Putin’s Cynical Conservatism

Observers often accuse Vladimir Putin of practicing unscrupulous realpolitik, but in fact he has learned to exploit many conservative values the Soviets once tried to subvert around the world.


It was only a half dozen years ago that Vladimir Putin sent his navy to blockade the Georgian coast, while his land forces invaded that troublesome country. His air force bombed Georgia’s main international airport. His army temporarily occupied the cities of Poti, Senaki, Zugdidi, and Gori, where Russian forces denied access to humanitarian missions seeking to assist civilians. At one point Russian tanks neared the capital, Tbilisi. As in the case of Crimea today, Putin called the Georgia war a “humanitarian intervention” on behalf of Russian separatists in the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And like today, Putin in 2008 derided those who called the aggression for what it was. “The Cold War has long ended but the mentality of the Cold War has stayed firmly in the minds of some,” he maintained during Russia’s invasion of Georgia.

The Russian president is a blend of audacity and mendacity. As America’s UN ambassador, Samantha Power, said before the Security Council this March, Russia apparently thinks it can “convince the world community that up is down and black is white.”

One can only hope that this tragic moment for Ukraine marks a definitive end to the illusions we’ve harbored about Vladimir Putin’s Russia, its values and objectives.

At home, Putin’s Russia has become an exceptionally difficult place for civil society activists and independent journalists. Reporters without Borders ranks Russia one hundred and forty-eighth of one hundred and seventy-nine countries in its Press Freedom Index, well behind countries like Tajikistan, Qatar, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia. According to the human rights organization Freedom House, under Putin, Russia “has consistently reduced the space for freedom of assembly and association.” The judiciary system in Russia lacks independence. “Trade Union rights,” says Freedom House, “are limited in practice.” And corruption is so ubiquitous that according to some estimates, bribes make up twenty percent of the Russian GDP. Transparency International ranks Russia one hundred and thirty-third out of one hundred and seventy-six nations in this regard, on par with the kleptocratic regimes of Kazakhstan and Iran. Chess master Gary Kasparov says of Putin, the motto is simply, “Let’s steal together.” Perhaps it’s a pathology that remains from Soviet times. Putin, an ex-KGB man, is the product and surely a perfect expression of that pernicious culture.

Kasparov’s comment is reminiscent of the remark made by Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who once said the “Russians are like a burglar going down a hotel corridor, trying all the doors. When they find one unlocked, they go in.” It’s not just Ukraine and Georgia where Putin has been at work. For more than a dozen years now, he has burglarized Eastern Europe and territories of the former Soviet Union. Putin’s weapons of choice have not been tanks and MiG fighters; he has mastered the dark side of soft power.

The key element of this strategy, of course, has been energy. The country is the world’s largest exporter of natural gas. Oil-and-gas exports account for seventy percent of Russia’s annual exports, providing for more than half the Russian federal budget.

Start with heavily dependent Ukraine, which relies on Russian imports for more than half the natural gas it imports. Twice in the last decade, in 2006 and again in 2009, Putin shut off supplies, leading Ukrainians to issue Cassandra warnings for years about the threat of economic aggression. Most recently the Kremlin-linked energy conglomerate Gazprom raised gas prices by eighty-one percent in April.

Russia has three major pipelines flowing through Ukraine. The largest, the Bratstvo pipeline, supplies Western Europe. The Soyuz pipeline feeds Central Asia. The Trans-Balkan pipeline goes to the Balkans and Turkey. Putin thinks strategically. So that Russia would not become dependent on Ukraine, the Kremlin initiated in recent years the development of two other supply routes. The Nord Stream runs from Russia to Germany, and the new South Stream aims to have natural gas flowing via the Black Sea to Eastern Europe by 2018.

The extent of European dependency on Russian energy is astounding. According to the European Commission, fifty-four percent of the EU’s current total energy needs are fulfilled by Russia. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, is most dependent. It receives thirty-six percent of its natural gas from Russia, followed by Italy (twenty-seven percent), and France (twenty-three percent). Half of Poland’s gas imports, and roughly two-thirds of the Czech Republic’s, come from Putin. Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Moldova are nearly entirely dependent. Finland and the Baltic States are one hundred percent dependent on Russia for their energy.

But Russian soft power strategy is not solely based on energy. Janusz Bugajski (Cold Peace: Russia’s New Imperialism) and James Sherr (Hard Diplomacy and Soft Coercion: Russia’s Influence Abroad) have been digging into this for some years. There’s trade as a weapon, for instance. In 2013, Moscow blocked Moldovan wine imports, worth $100 million for the tiny country, a measure widely seen as punishment for Moldova’s desire to join the EU. Putin has kept his eye on the Russian populated strip of Moldovan territory called Transnistria, which lies along Moldova’s border with Ukraine. Don’t be surprised if this is the site of his next “humanitarian” intervention.

Sometimes Russian soft power can be brazen. In April 2007, Estonia—at the time, in the midst of a controversy surrounding the relocation of a bronze statue of a Soviet soldier—was subject to a massive cyber attack. Banks, media, and the Parliament all faced major disruptions in their activity. The attacks are believed to have originated in Russia, with the pro-Putin youth group Nashi claiming credit. Estonia, a NATO and EU member, has the grave misfortune of sharing a border with Russia and having an ethic Russian populace of roughly twenty-five percent. Putin doesn’t have to invade to keep Estonians awake at night.

Russian soft power sometimes has a lighter touch. The Kremlin has been active in investing in media and supporting pro-Russia political parties throughout former Communist Europe. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reporters, for instance, while Macedonia remains officially on a path to EU membership, the country’s politics and media are now heavily influenced by Russian money and manipulation. The situation in Bulgaria (already a NATO and EU member) is a similar case. Three years ago, a former Bulgarian defense minister, Boyko Noev, complained loudly about Russian influence on his country’s decisionmaking process on strategic matters. Dimitar Bechev, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations office in Bulgaria, notes, “The Russian regime . . . divides people into two categories: those who can be intimidated and those who can be bought.” In Bulgaria, Russian money supports both far-right and far-left parties. “It is obvious that Russia is co-opting people and buying influence,” says Bechev, “in Bulgaria as well as in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and elsewhere.”

“For liberals,” writes James Sherr, “the basis of legitimacy is consent. . . . for Russia and its allies, the basis of legitimacy is ‘history,’ which in the post-Hegelian lexicon describes what has yet to occur.” The closely associated Bulgarian and Macedonian languages share the Cyrillic alphabet with the Russian language (Macedonian was actually once considered a dialect of Bulgarian). Russians in the Putin mold will not forget that during the Cold War Bulgaria was considered one of the USSR’s staunchest allies. As for Macedonia, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was there just last year, praising the country as a key Kremlin ally in the Balkans.


There’s nothing really secret about Putin’s ambitions. In national security concept papers published in 2008 and 2009 the Kremlin makes clear, notes Janusz Bugajski, that Russia does not share Western interests. In these documents, the Kremlin sees American influence and NATO as a threat, pledges to defend the interests of Russians whenever they live, and claims privileged interests and rights in regions adjacent to Russia. Bugajski also brings our attention to a January 2012 Nezavisimaya Gazeta article authored by Putin, wherein the Russian president lays out a broad and ambitious vision for a new, multi-ethnic Russian empire based on “Russian values.”

Even if a number of his methods differ from Soviet methods of the past, Putin wants to reclaim parts of the Soviet empire. He understands that success abroad will strengthen his authoritarian hold at home. This was likely a large part of his angst at seeing Ukraine tilt toward Europe. Alternative liberal models so close to home cannot be tolerated, as they would naturally threaten Putin’s vision for Russia, his legitimacy and rule.

But while Putin clearly knows what he wants, do we? History has taught us that in world affairs either a nation has an agenda or it becomes the victim of the agendas of others. The US has been preoccupied. Iraq, Afghanistan, the 2008 financial crisis, the Arab Spring, and the Asia pivot have all consumed our attention and resources. For nearly a decade and a half we’ve been missing in action from Central and Eastern Europe. Vladimir Putin has taken advantage of our absence. We’ve been outwitted.

A quarter of a century ago, the United States and its western allies declared themselves committed to a “Europe, Whole and Free.” We were convinced at that time that the enlargement of NATO and the EU would make this vision a reality. Alas, the process was incomplete, in part because we didn’t foresee that a hostile power would rise from the rubble of the USSR and set about undermining progress and carefully laying traps across the region.


It is not too late to react, but the West needs a new containment strategy. In forming this strategy, we must be supple and resourceful. Russia has exceptionally strong cards to play in many areas of former Communist Europe. There’s no appetite among the American public to risk military confrontation with Russia. Nor can our neo-containment strategy be permitted to diminish our focus on other pressing problems, such as Iran’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons.

In this new Cold War—can there be any doubt now that Putin has declared that it has begun?—there will be no clear winners and losers, at least not for a very long time. In many instances, we’ll be dealing with a fog of ambiguity, as we keep trying to pull the nations of the region—allies and potential allies alike—westward, toward rule of law, accountable government, and responsible free enterprise. Putin may not believe in liberalism, but we do. And we must act as if we believe it’s in our interest to promote and defend it.

Realists must be pushed to accept the folly of realism in this instance. Any policy that accepts Russian spheres of influences engages in dangerous wishful thinking. Concessions will only lead to more demands for additional concessions. With Putin, this process will continue “till you disappear,” says Gordana Knezevic, head of RFE/RL’s Balkan service. It would be a great irony of history if Putin were now allowed to succeed where the Soviets tried and failed. That is, in the emasculation (“Finlandization”) of large parts of Europe.

Which means it’s finally and urgently time to reset the “reset policy” toward Russia. We’ve overlooked Russian behavior in Europe and former Soviet territories on the false assumption that in exchange for America turning a blind eye Russia would cooperate on issues like Syria and Iran. We now know better. Putin will cooperate on issues like Syria and Iran when, and only when, he deems it in his interest to do so.

It’s also time for the administration to rethink its pivot to Asia. It was always a flawed concept, implying a move away from one thing to something else. America must be able to do many different things at once, and as Ukraine makes clear, we no longer have the luxury of pretending that this part of the world is settled and that Europe will remain stable and at peace while we focus on China.

We must push our free traders to wake up and grow up as well. We need allies in containing Russia, particularly Germany, which does 75 billion euros in trade with Russia each year. Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser traveled to Russia in the height of the Crimea crisis to meet Putin at his residence outside Moscow, where he no doubt noted that Siemens started doing business in Russia one hundred and sixty-one years ago and assured the Russian leader of continued close cooperation. But Europeans and Americans alike must understand that today doing business with Russia is more than just business. Russia expert Edward Lucas puts it this way:

What Western businesses and financiers fail to grasp in their dealings with Russia . . . is the asymmetry created when one party cares only about profits, and the other has another agenda. If you rely on Russia for your oil reserves, or for a big proportion of your sales, you turn yourself willy-nilly into a hostage. The demands may not be conspicuous. They may not come immediately. But just as water flows downhill, so the power of the Kremlin finds the weakest spot and exploits it.


First, each country of the region has its own work to do. Corruption, weak rule of law, and extremist parties are the Achilles’ heel of nations in transition. We should help wherever we can through material assistance, advice, and moral encouragement. Organizations like Freedom House, the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, and the International Republican Institute have critical roles to play.

If it wasn’t obvious before, it is now: NATO and EU membership alone does not mean that democratic institutions automatically sink deep roots, or that the values, habits, and behaviors of liberal democracy universally take hold.

Second, Europe as a whole needs finally and urgently to pursue plans to lessen energy dependence on Russia. This is a matter that has been given mostly lip service until now. Part of the answer is obviously in the US reserves of shale gas, which can be used to counter Russian energy oppression. But America must move fast to become the West’s energy supplier of first resort. Transatlantic security is at stake.

Third, on the economic front, a transatlantic free trade agreement is an idea whose time has come. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership talks began in July 2013. The agreement should now be swiftly negotiated to a conclusion. It would yield economic benefits for both sides of the Atlantic, adding an estimated $125 billion to the US economy and $165 billion to the EU economy. But equally important, we need new, vibrant, and meaningful ways to re-emphasize both the interests and values that tie America and Europe together. A transatlantic free trade agreement would be one such step.

Fourth, the work of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty must be ramped up, especially in the area of investigative reporting, history, and culture. Accurate and reliable news and information, coupled with quality and responsible discussion and debate, provide oxygen for civil society. It is essential that we counter Russian deceit and disinformation.

Finally, NATO must be revitalized, and US defense cuts reversed. This may be the hardest part. West European interest in NATO has waned since the end of the Cold War. The administration will have to muster courage to rethink its defense posture. But our progress on all fronts will be limited, if we’re unable to have hard power backing up our long-term soft power strategy and investment.

And in Ukraine? Russia will keep Crimea. Whether or not he invades, Putin will hold sway over Eastern Ukraine, while manipulating politics in Kyiv, where energy dependence is what Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has termed the “new nuclear weapon.”

Another important lesson of history is that when great powers get stuck, they keep playing. We must keep playing in Ukraine, too. The ultimate fate of that nation has not yet been decided. Vladimir Putin and his comrades will not be in power forever.

Jeffrey Gedmin is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. This article was completed for the July/August print edition of the journal and published online on May 1, 2014.

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