A Tottering Ukraine—Putin’s Nightmare As the Sochi Games Begin

When the Olympic Games began in Beijing in 2008, Russian and Georgian troops began to fight for control of a north Caucasus province called Ossetia. Now, as the Olympic Games begin in Sochi (not too far away from Ossetia) Ukraine totters towards an economic and political collapse, a condition so potentially contagious to Russia that a concerned President Putin has begun a crackdown.

So far, he has not moved Russian forces into Ukraine, but he has urged Ukrainian President Yanukovich to contain and stop the popular insurrection that started more than two months ago. Putin has taken three other actions that could be a prelude to military intervention. First, he has imposed a blockade of Ukrainian goods into Russia, devastating to the already weak Ukrainian economy. Second, he has frozen a promised $15 billion aid package for Ukraine, leaving Ukraine without any outside financial support, which is desperately needed. And third, he has opened a propaganda war blaming the United States for the crisis now spreading through Ukraine. When in trouble, Putin starts following an old Russian pattern: Don’t address the problem—blame the United States.

Clearly Putin does not want to strike against Ukraine as the Winter Olympics open in nearby Sochi. He has invested massively in the success of the Olympics—more than $50 billion. A Russian move against Ukraine, similar to the Russian move against Georgia six years ago, would shift the world’s attention from what Putin wants the world to see as the splendor of Russia; a golden opportunity for investment, proof on the winter slopes of the Olympics that Russia remains a great power and worthy of global respect and admiration. But he has big problems: terrorism remains a constant threat to the Games; and if things worsen in Ukraine, he knows he may have to move more dramatically to right the wrongs of the Ukrainian insurrection, as he sees them.

For Putin, Ukraine must be an especially nightmarish problem, because he does not appear to understand that Ukraine is no longer a puppet state of Russia, no longer part of Russia. Certainly those who live in the western half of Ukraine consider themselves to be not only independent of Russia but in proud possession of a powerful national identity. Even those in the eastern and southern parts of the country seem to share this deepening sense of national pride borne of national identity. From this point of view, Putin, like so many traditionally minded Russian nationalists, is truly old-fashioned, believing that Ukraine has always been a province of greater Russia and, if he has his way, will remain so.

For just a moment, put yourself in Putin’s position: You are president of Russia, your office is in the Kremlin, but as you look out over your domain, you see Islamist rebellions rippling through Chechnya, Dagestan and other parts of the northern Caucasus, and by their actions threatening your control over the southern regions of your country. Looking southwest, you see an angry Ukraine, the former breadbasket of the Russian Empire, now engaged in a popular insurrection, which, if successful, could lead to the end of Russian domination over that country. As a student of Russian history, Putin must know that Peter the Great once said of a Swedish threat to conquer the Ukrainian part of the Russian empire that if Russia loses Ukraine, it is no longer Russia.

Putin once enjoyed high popularity ratings, but no more. He is a leader facing serious strategic challenges, and his choices are limited. He puts on a big show. The lights are shining on Sochi, and the world is watching.