Obama, Putin; Not on the same page

It’s becoming increasingly clear that a protracted standoff is in the cards in Crimea. With Russia’s interests in Ukraine, top of which is assuring Ukraine does not tilt West, Putin is unlikely to cave to U.S./E.U demands. And, with the U.S. strategy of trying to demonize Putin and impose weak sanctions, little will change in the short run.

It is also clear that all parties involved understand the stakes: The U.S. has imposed toothless “sanctions” to appear strong at home, understanding that real sanctions targeted at banks or harming the economy of Russia would draw unacceptable retaliation – higher gas prices for Ukraine (as we are now seeing), an impediment to trade with the EU, and worldwide economic pain. The Russians continue to hang on to Crimea, using this chip to illustrate its resonance in the world, and underscore that further encroachment on its buffer zone interests are unacceptable.  And, with Putin’s approval rate at home at 70%, he has no reason to flinch. Will he continue further into Ukraine? Logic would say yes, as an encroachment into Crimea at the expense of Ukraine, does not make sense for Russia. And, with the West not unified on how to respond, Putin sees blood in the water. 

The sad thing is that with the isolationist rhetoric, it’s clear that the west is not understanding, not even trying to understand, the why behind Putin’s actions. Putin embodies the collapse of the Soviet Union and represents all that was good (to the Russians) about the USSR – a former KGB officer with an unflinching approach to leadership. This is where his power stems from and is the sentiment he is tapping into to build his base.  The trauma of losing its world status as a superpower was significant to Russia and continues to reverberate today. The fear that the Russia situation is similar to the post-WWI Weimar Republic is real, yet the West continues to demonize, further enhancing Putin’s status at home. Sound familiar?

Be careful what you wish for, Obama administration. If Putin is isolated, he is no longer a partner in negotiating with Syria, Iran, and on nuclear disarmament. If he is not included in the G8, he has more motivation to prove his importance to the world. How this manifests itself is unclear, but could very well mean more troops on the march.    

The dialogue that Kerry and Lavrov have initiated is a good first step. But, it is important to understand that Russia feels that their sphere of influence is at risk, and the West must allay Putin’s fears and illustrate a willingness to work toward a solution. They need to recognize the why behind Putin’s actions – that he feels threatened by the potential loss of Ukraine and that he sees the West meddling in his perceived sphere of influence. Like it or not, this is how he views the conflict.

David A. Kalis is the Author of Vodka Shot, Pickle Chaser: A True Story of Risk, Corruption, and Self-Discovery Amid the Collapse of the Soviet Union. He can be reached at www.davidakalis.com or kalis44@yahoo.com.