Right or wrong, Putin is an opportunist

By Dale R. Herspring

Russia’s annexation of Crimea is not just a case of Vladimir Putin deciding one day to send troops in and make it part of Russia. That is part of what happened, but as an explanation, it is simplistic.  Putin has his own agenda, and events in Ukraine created an opportunity he could not ignore.

Few countries in Europe have close to the ethnic makeup of Russia. At one point there were 100 ethnic groups large enough to demand that their children be at least partially educated in their native language. Russian remains the predominant language of Russia and is the unifying factor of that vast land.

This is central to understanding Russia’s attitude toward the Crimea. Putin is certain he was liberating a region primarily populated by Russian “speakers.” Moscow believes it has a divine right, indeed a duty, to protect Russian speakers in other areas of the world. Russian troops have played a passive role in the area. The vote in Crimea was probably more free than any election in Russia in recent years. It showed that the vast majority of Crimean residents wanted to be part of “Mother Russia.” Crimea is not only overwhelmingly Russian, it also has played a critical role in Russia’s history and is home to Rus-sia’s only “warm weather” port.

Against this background, Western criticism that Putin is violating international law falls on deaf ears. Indeed, to Putin, international law in this case is irrelevant. He has a higher calling in bringing the Crimea back to Russia.

As for the suggestion that Putin is doing the same thing that Hitler did — bringing to Germany lands populated primarily by Germans — Putin would take great exception to that. After all, the Crimea was part of Russia until 1954. Furthermore, Putin does not have death camps to cleanse areas where Russians live, and he did he start a war.

To Putin, the events that brought the Russians to Crimea are relatively simple. He claims American intelligence agents were behind the coup in Kiev that ousted the Russian-backed (and democratically elected) president and replaced him with a leader interested in ties to the West. To Putin, this would be like having Ukraine as part of NATO. Besides, Washington has been doing its best to move Ukraine into NATO, along with Georgia, as part of America’s long-range goal of isolating Russia.

Putin would compare the situation in Ukraine to that in Kosovo not so many years ago. Kosovo, a part of Serbia, was heavily populated by Albanians and be-set by language, cultural and religious differences. Serbian behavior during that conflict was brutal.  Indeed it was one of the bloodiest wars in Europe since World War II. When the United States and NATO intervened, they did so to protect the Albanians. How, Putin might ask, is that different from Putin protecting Russian speakers?

From a tactical standpoint, Putin saw an opening. With the end of the Sochi Olympics, he began to tighten the screws on Ukraine. What is surprising is that he avoided bloodshed. He effectively and quietly moved in 20,000 Russian troops.  No one, not even his countrymen, be-lieved the troops in unmarked uniforms were part of a local militia. They were a model of military discipline and organization.

As for the rest of the Ukraine, Putin technically wants only parts inhabited by “Russian speakers.” The trouble is that many areas in Ukraine have both Russians and Ukrainians.  The country’s heavy industry is in the Russian parts, and their defection to Russia would seriously damage the Ukrainian economy.

My sense is that Putin is biding his time and will do whatever he thinks is possible. A lot will depend on how the United States and the European Union respond. No one expects a military response. The West has said it will react strongly using political and diplomatic means, including kicking Russia out of the G7. The United States could accelerate the construction of facilities to help export natural gas to Europe, and Obama could reconsider extensive cuts to the U.S. military. It is not so important that you use your military as it is to convince adversaries that you might.

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