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What Putin Really Wants with Crimea

Russian helicopters enter Ukrainian airspace near Sevastopol - see video, AFTER THE JUMP...


Western countries must act decisively for any hope of rolling back Moscow's incursion.

Now that Russia has carried out a de facto invasion of Crimea, it’s worth looking at recent history to help understand Moscow’s motivations and what it wants.

UkraineNot that the Kremlin necessarily sees what it’s doing as an invasion. When Soviet troops occupied Afghanistan in 1979 after killing the president, Moscow treated the operation almost as an afterthought aimed at shoring up a coup d’etat it thought would be resolved within days or weeks.

Just as Soviet troops wore Afghan army uniforms 25 years ago, the removal of insignia from the uniforms of the soldiers now in Crimea is meant to confuse the outside world about who’s behind the incursion.

So was the Kremlin’s statement on Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered his government to continue talks with Ukraine on economic and trade relations and consult the International Monetary Fund and the G8 on financial aid.

The movement of Russian armored personnel carriers, helicopter gunships and troops into Crimea — where gunmen have seized parliament, government buildings and strategic infrastructure like airports and the local telecom provider — belies the Kremlin’s denial it’s carrying out a coup.

Violating the sovereignty of an independent country would seem to go against the principle Russia upholds as most sacred in its foreign policy. Nevertheless, Moscow is taking advantage of Ukraine’s weak new leaders — whom many Russian officials have denounced as illegitimate — acting according to a very basic pattern carried out many times since the Soviet collapse.

Time and again, Moscow has welcomed instability in another former Soviet republic — when not actually fomenting it — in order to exert influence there by appearing to be a peacemaker or beneficent sponsor.

That’s how the Kremlin controls the breakaway pro-Moscow region of Transnistria, an impoverished sliver of Moldova that erupted in a brutal civil conflict in 1992. With its so-called peacekeepers still stationed there, Russia uses its influence over the territory to pressure the Moldovan authorities.

In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia to firm its hold over that country’s two pro-Russia separatist provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which the Kremlin recognized as independent soon after.

Those areas have become “frozen conflict” zones — isolated from the world, locked in cycles of poverty that makes dependence on Russia the only immediate way to survive.

PutinIn Ukraine, having lost the struggle last week to save the presidency of his ally, the former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych — in what Moscow characterizes as an illegal takeover by violent nationalists — Putin is now grabbing Crimea to show Russia can do the same. Taking over Crimea would have the added benefit of relieving Moscow of the need to lease the port of Sevastopol to house the Russian navy’s Black Sea Fleet.

It’s all being done in the name of protecting Russian citizens — the parliament in Moscow just made it easier to give Ukrainians Russian citizenship — and may end up creating another Russian exclave.

Nevertheless, Putin has previously shown that he responds to obstacles by backtracking, having built his power base at home as well as his aggressive foreign policy by taking risks and gauging the response. Faced with a backlash, he has reversed himself in the past.

Russia’s success in Georgia — where the 2008 invasion followed actions similar to the ones Moscow is taking now, such as staging military exercises on its southern border — showed Putin Western countries will do virtually nothing to help their allies in former Soviet territory.

Part of the reason Europe and the United States have been caught off guard by Putin in Crimea, as they have been elsewhere so many times recently, is that they tend to assume he makes decisions in his country’s interests, like his Western counterparts. That’s not the case. Putin makes decisions that are in his interests: Threatening to direct nuclear missiles at Western Europe, for example, is bad for Russia’s image abroad, but at home it shows Putin to be tough.

Of course a secure, independent, successful Ukraine would benefit Russia greatly by providing a strong ally and trade partner. That’s not what Putin wants, and his actions in Ukraine are posing the West its biggest challenge since he invaded Georgia.

He has helped push Ukraine, the country on Russia's southern border, to the verge of civil war by pressuring the president to abandon a deal with the European Union while warning the West not to meddle. Surely that’s not in Russia’s interests, but it is in Putin’s: He wants Ukraine to join a so-called Eurasian Union, an organization whose main purpose would be to oppose Western alliances.

Putin’s overriding goal is to obstruct the West. Like his Soviet models, he believes that to be feared and loathed means to be respected. Still, Western countries still hope Moscow will cooperate on Syria, Iran — and now Ukraine — even though doing so plays right into the Kremlin’s hands.

That’s why the best hope of rolling back Russia’s intervention in Crimea now rests on firmness about the consequences. If Western countries are to uphold their values and interests, they must show they’ve learned lessons from the Russia-Georgia war by acting together to threaten sanctions against Moscow and aid to Ukraine.

Dealing with Moscow should begin with not being deceived about Putin’s intentions. As long as his actions in Crimea result in no direct consequences for him, he will continue trying to show the world just what a tough guy he is.

A video of helicopters entering Ukrainian airspace, AFTER THE JUMP...

Gregory Feifer is GlobalPost's Europe editor. His new book "Russians: The People Behind the Power" was published this month.

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  1. Catherine the Great conquered the Crimea 250 ish years ago ... Russia won't give it up. Ukraine should split itself like the old Czechoslovakia did ... and let the pro Russian people of the Crimea be Russian, and the Lithuanian/Polish people can live in the Western "Ukraine". Russia won't give up the Crimea.

    Posted by: Dan | Mar 1, 2014 10:11:23 AM

  2. "Of course a secure, independent, successful Ukraine would benefit Russia greatly by providing a strong ally and trade partner. That’s not what Putin wants..."

    Is that why Putin offered a sizable loan with few, if any strings attached? Or will the loan from the IMF, with its typically harsh conditions make Ukraine independent and successful?

    Posted by: Eugene | Mar 1, 2014 10:17:48 AM

  3. Great timing! As we pull our troops and gear out of Afghanistan we can just transfer everyone back to Europe. We should have nuked those Commies a long time ago.

    Posted by: Dearcomrade | Mar 1, 2014 10:30:08 AM

  4. Amazing. The BEST news article or story I've heard on this crisis, and it's from a website dedicated to gay news. :)

    Great job and thoughtful article, thanks! Sure says a lot about mainstream news.

    Posted by: Craig | Mar 1, 2014 10:33:05 AM

  5. @Eugene: If you believe any "sizable loan" from Putin comes without strings, I have a bridge you may be interested in purchasing.

    Posted by: Ex-soviet | Mar 1, 2014 10:39:08 AM

  6. Putin's loan was not favourable to the ukrainian ppl, in the short term yes it was but it promised favoured long term support of russian energy policy, which ukraine has been trying to get away from for 20 years now.
    Crimea is the biggest issue in Ukraine and the polls there since the collapse of the USSR have been to still be a part of Russia. khrushchev did no one a favour by giving Crimea to the Ukraine, he insured years of difficulty and political wrangling.
    Ukraine should hold a referendum that goes region by region asking if the region wishes to still be a part of Ukraine. Set the bar at 70% for a successful desire to leave. Redraw the map boundary as a result.

    Posted by: thrutch | Mar 1, 2014 10:40:40 AM

  7. Craig: this is a great analysis, but it's actually from the international news site GlobalPost. Glad to see Towleroad linking to it!

    Posted by: Chris | Mar 1, 2014 10:53:04 AM

  8. The problem with any redrawing of maps, as Yugoslavia has shown, is that there are always minorities and mixed citizens left. So Eastern Ukraine may be majority Russian, as is Crimea, but that doesn't mean there are no people there who identify as Ukrainians, and there may also be Russians who want to be in Ukraine as there were Serbs in Sarajevo who wanted to be in Bosnia. It's not quite as simple as Czechoslovakia.

    Posted by: KevinVt | Mar 1, 2014 11:10:23 AM

  9. It's like the Cold War all over again. And Russia/Putin are hypocritical. There are lots of ethnic divisions within Russia itself but you don't see the country breaking up into smaller pieces. Russia should respect Ukraine's sovereignty.

    Posted by: SpaceCadet | Mar 1, 2014 11:20:31 AM

  10. Ooooooo, Obama warning Putin, that ought to scare him, puhleeze.

    Posted by: I wont grow up | Mar 1, 2014 11:33:05 AM

  11. "Vladimir Putin, your country just won the Olympics! What are you going to do now?"

    "I'm going to invade the Ukraine! Then i'll kill a few homosexuals! And then i'll go to Disney World!"

    Posted by: FuryOfFirestorm | Mar 1, 2014 11:34:57 AM

  12. Hello? A democratically elected government in Ukraine was illegally overthrown by among others Ukranian neo-nazis and ulta-nationalists--not exactly friends of Ukranian gay people--who are being financed by EU and America. An American diplomat and assistant secretary of state were exposed plotting to install a puppet government pliable to American foreign policy. If Russia had done in Mexico what America and the EU have done in Ukraine, we'd be massing troops on the Arizona-Mexico border and preparing for invasion. The US has no legitimate interest in Ukraine, no business interfering in that country's politics, and certainly no business helping overthrow a legal government or installing an illegal government. US interference is fomenting civil war in Ukraine and may ultimately lead to a military confrontation between US/EU and Russia. For what? How can the American government be so reckless?

    Posted by: Jim | Mar 1, 2014 11:49:32 AM

  13. We have to remember that Ukraine is an ethnically mixed region. There are millions of people there who consider themselves Russians first and Ukrainians second. They have a loyalty to Russia and Russia is unlikely to abandon these people to an anti-Russian regime. In any event, America should STAY OUT. This is none of our business.

    Posted by: Moshe | Mar 1, 2014 11:56:11 AM

  14. Pot calling kettle black.
    1. Anglos settle in New Spain's Texas, soon the new "residents" want to secede from New Spain/Mexico. The USA intervenes and we end up with the Alamo. Texas then secedes.
    2. After the French attempt to create the Panama Canal goes bankrupt, the USA wants to take over but is blocked by the government of Colombia, of which Panama Province is part. The USA does everthing to "encourage" the Provincial government of Panama to secedes; deal done and the USA now has the doctrine of intervening whenever it wants in Panama.
    3. A US naval vessel explodes in Havana harbor; the Spanish government denies responsibility and accuses the USA of staging the explosion as a pretext to invasion. Deal done, the Spanish American war ensues, Puerto Rico secedes and Cuba became a vassal state.

    etc. etc. etc.

    Posted by: Sean | Mar 1, 2014 12:33:35 PM

  15. The haze pf propaganda.

    Posted by: BOOM! | Mar 1, 2014 12:50:45 PM

  16. @Jim: "A democratically elected government in Ukraine was illegally overthrown"

    Um.. No. A democratically elected government, was democratically dissolved by the democratically elected representatives of the people. (Unanimously in the case of ousting Yanukovych.)

    Yanukovych himself agreed to most of the changes, including early elections (though only by December). The fact that his administration collapsed completely shortly thereafter, with his allies deserting him like rats leaving a sinking ship, was more down to him leaving town at a critical moment, than to imagined 'fascism'.

    If anything was fascist, it was the administration sending in a sniper to kill protesters, who up till then had been more or less non-violent.

    Yes, there were protests, and occupying buildings and burning some is not very nice. But sometimes a necessary evil. I, for one, am proud that some Ukrainians chose to stand up for their country, rather than stand by and watch, as their sovereignty was little by little whittled away, leaving them nothing but a Russian vassal state.

    Posted by: Ex-soviet | Mar 1, 2014 12:55:51 PM

  17. Let's all wring our hands. Ready. 1... 2... 3!

    Posted by: anon | Mar 1, 2014 1:20:00 PM

  18. People with aggressive neighbors often get invaded and sometimes partitioned. Look at Ireland.

    Posted by: Charles | Mar 1, 2014 1:41:36 PM

  19. Here's a map of the gas pipelines in Ukraine:

    Putin doesn't want anyone to control access to the European market for Russian energy because his ultimate goal is Russian control of Europe. That's all you need to know.

    Posted by: Hansel Currywurst | Mar 1, 2014 2:09:37 PM

  20. Re: Jim
    I am 100% with you on this. I am citizen of Russian Federation and currently reside in the USA. I read media sources both in English and Russian. This was totally brought up by radical right group members with assistance of EU and USA aid in the middle of winter Olympics that had place in Sochi. This way Russia couldn't intervene until after closing the Olympic Games. Shame on USA for doing this!

    Posted by: RESOFFLA | Mar 1, 2014 2:27:29 PM

  21. It is rather a coincidence that this coup took place during the Russian Olympic games. Maybe they thought Russia wouldn't notice?

    Posted by: Noordsij | Mar 1, 2014 2:35:37 PM

  22. Nothing to do with the Sochi games.
    The riot police were ordered to open fire on demonstrators. There could be no wy back from that.

    Putin and his junta are fascists.

    Posted by: JackFknTwist | Mar 1, 2014 4:00:07 PM

  23. "Um.. No. A democratically elected government, was democratically dissolved by the democratically elected representatives of the people. (Unanimously in the case of ousting Yanukovych.)"

    Um.. No. Only banana republics impeach presidents through an up or down vote in the parliament. They also usually have deputies held there at gunpoint to make sure they vote the right way.

    They did not follow the constitutional procedure to remove him.

    Posted by: rasa | Mar 1, 2014 4:05:07 PM

  24. Not to justify this kind of things. Remember Iraq was also a member of UN and an independent country.

    Posted by: simon | Mar 1, 2014 6:06:15 PM

  25. I see some people read and watch Russian state media and buy their propaganda. Even most of my Russian friends in Russia know better than to do that. But then they're academics and intellectuals.

    In other news, I knew Feifer when he was a teen. He brushed up his Russian alongside my students.

    Posted by: KevinVt | Mar 1, 2014 7:09:30 PM

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