Brookings Scholars on the Ukraine/Crimea Crisis, 3/14/14

Brookings experts continue to offer commentary and recommendations on the unfolding crisis in Ukraine and Crimea. See previous editions of this roundup herehere, and here.

Michael O’Hanlon suggests a “natural compromise” on Crimea:

Make this weekend’s Crimea referendum nonbinding. And, if the vote is sufficiently close or sufficiently in favor of joining Russia, agree that a future referendum in a year or two could settle the issue definitively.

Tim Boersma, a fellow in the Energy Security Initiative and UNC (Greensboro) Professor Corey Johnson look at the energy aspect of the current crisis. They say that the “us” against “them” view in which “shale gas and oil can be ‘our’ weapons” is naive. Instead, they argue, “Europe does have leverage and can use its considerable codependence with Russia.”

Steven Pifer, director of the Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative and a former ambassador to Ukraine, appeared on USA TODAY’s “Capital Download.” When asked about whether Russian military forces gathering on Ukraine’s borders should be worrisome, Pifer said

It causes a little bit of tension, but I think that the Russian military would have to think really hard about going into eastern Ukraine, because I think there is then a very high probability that at least some Ukrainian military units would fight, and they would then end up in a shooting war.

Watch the complete interview below:

POLITICO Magazine has a cover story, “Putin on the Couch,” in which author Susan Glasser asked a number of “America’s most experienced Putin watchers to share their insights and analysis.” Brookings experts Strobe Talbott, Steven Pifer and Angela Stent offered their thoughts with this group.

“A Conspiracy Theorist”

Strobe Talbott, Brookings president

Three things to keep in mind about Putin as he prepares to annex Crimea: 1) He’s committed to his own version of rollback—i.e., not just stopping but reversing what he sees as the across-the-board capitulation of Russia to the West going back to the late Mikhail Gorbachev period; 2) When assessing a crisis, his instinct is to believe and react to the most extreme conspiracy theory that his advisers and intelligence services tell him about the actions and motives of the West; and 3) As the flipside of No. 2, he believes in the best case of what his bold and/or stealthy actions will produce (e.g., that the Russian speakers of eastern Ukraine would welcome Putin’s invasion and are in favor of returning to the bosom of Mother Russia).

As for the endgame, it’s not just replacing the Ukrainian flag with the Russian tricolor over the government buildings in Crimea—it’s to use Crimea as a beachhead to destabilize as much of the rump state of Ukraine as possible and, very likely, also to apply the Crimean precedent to the Russian-majority Transnistria region in Moldova.

“A Neo-Soviet”
Steven Pifer, director of the Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative and a former ambassador to Ukraine

Gaining control of Crimea is not Putin’s principal objective. His main goal is to destabilize the new Ukrainian government and keep it from drawing closer to the European Union. In this effort, Crimea is part of the destabilization game. Should Putin nevertheless “lose” Ukraine to Europe, Crimea will make a great consolation prize.

Several factors motivate the Russian president. First, rebuilding a Soviet-era sphere of influence is a key element of his vision of Moscow as a great power. A Ukraine tied to the European Union punches a big hole in that vision. Second, pulling Ukraine (or, at least, Crimea) back toward Russia plays very well with Putin’s conservative political base. Third, Putin may actually buy into some of the Russian narrative on Ukraine—i.e., that a U.S.-directed and funded cabal of neo-fascists overthrew the Yanukovych government and is now bent on terrorizing ethnic Russians—just as he saw the 2004 Orange Revolution as orchestrated from abroad. This last point is worrisome. It suggests the Kremlin does not understand what is going on in Ukraine, and bad analysis can produce bad policy.

“Russia’s Restorer”
Angela Stent, nonresident senior fellow and director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian & East European Studies at Georgetown University

For the past decade, I have attended an annual dinner with Vladimir Putin where a group of foreign Russia experts engages him in a conversation about Russia and the world. In these gatherings, he talks for several hours, is in full command of his facts and exudes self-confidence and occasional humor and sarcasm. His message has been consistent: Russia was on the brink of disintegration when he came to power, and he has restored Russia to its rightful place in the world, where it offers a unique civilizational model that differs from—but is equally valid to—that of the West. Before the Russo-Georgia war in 2008, he repeatedly said that if Georgia could leave the Soviet Union, Abkhazia and South Ossetia could leave Georgia. And over the years Putin has stressed that Ukraine has special ties to Russia and hinted at what he told President George W. Bush explicitly in 2008—that Ukraine is an artificial country, the greater part of which historically belonged to Russia.

It is clear in these meetings that Putin’s understanding of facts differs from that of many of his guests. In 2014, Putin believes that, although he has saved Russia, the West is still trying to weaken it and possibly to promote regime change. He believed he had a deal with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych not to sign an agreement with the European Union, and that deal collapsed when the interim Kyiv government took over and Yanukovych fled. Putin’s main goal is to prevent all of Ukraine from moving closer to the West. Reincorporating Crimea into Russia is the minimum goal. The endgame is the full restoration of Russian influence in the post-Soviet space and recognition by the West that this is indeed Russia’s rightful “sphere of privileged interests.”

Read the entire piece at POLITICO.

See our research and commentary archive on Ukraine.