The Scorecard in Ukraine Is Murkier Than Most Pundits Think

| Wed May 28, 2014 11:05 AM EDT

Doyle McManus says that Vladimir Putin has played a shrewd game in Ukraine:

Here's the score card: Putin has pocketed Crimea, the first territory in Europe to be seized by force since World War II. (On paper, the United States and the European Union are still demanding that he give the peninsula back to Ukraine, but in private, their leaders concede that's unlikely to happen.) He has forced the European Union to put the brakes on Ukraine's progress toward membership in the Western economic club. He has kept most of Russia's business with the West intact and signed a big new natural gas deal with China. Now all he has to do is wait for Western attention to Ukraine's travails to wane, as it probably will.

...."Even [Petro] Poroshenko is saying it's time for normalization with Moscow," she noted. "He knows who's going to call the shots over Ukraine's future: not Brussels, not Washington. It's Moscow."

This isn't a ridiculous read of the situation, but I think it's missing something key: compared to what? Sure, Putin might have found a way to salvage his disastrous intervention in Ukraine, but the right way to look at this is to compare Russia's situation now to its situation in, say, October of last year. It's true that Putin scuttled Ukraine's free-trade deal with the EU, but look at the fallout. In order to turn things around after his incompetent diplomatic efforts failed, Putin was forced to intervene so clumsily that it inspired the Maidan protests that ended up causing Ukraine's president to flee. He massed troops on Ukraine's borders and used Russian special forces—again, disguised so clumsily that no one was fooled for even a second—to try to force a secession of the east. When that failed, Putin was forced to back down. He can pretend that he never had any intention of using military force in the first place, but no one takes that seriously and he knows it. His threat failed because the Russian military is weak and the American/EU sanctions had already begun to bite. He was hoping for a bloodless takeover, but he miscalculated badly and failed to get it.

So what's the scorecard? On the plus side, Putin has Crimea. Maybe all by itself that was worth it—and if he'd been smart enough to stop there he might have come out ahead. But on the downside, Putin has demonstrated once again that Russia isn't a reliable supplier of natural gas and will use it as a club whenever it feels like it. He's earned the enmity of most of his neighbors. He's gained nothing in Ukraine except the end of the EU association agreement, which was never a huge threat in the first place and will probably end up being implemented piecemeal over the next few years anyway. He's damaged the Russian economy and set back relations with Europe. And sure, Poroshenko is saying it's time for normalization with Moscow, but Putin had that back when Viktor Yanukovych was president.

So....Crimea. And possibly a slowdown in the pace of Ukraine's integration with the West. That's about it. But I wouldn't underestimate the cost of this to Putin. Threats of military force are flashy, but unless you're willing to back them up regularly, they do a lot more harm than good. I'm not sure why so many people who are generally clear-sighted about the drawbacks of military action suddenly get so smitten by it when it's wielded by a thug like Putin. Hell, he doesn't even use it well.

When the dust settles, it's hard to see Putin gaining much from all this in the places that count. Regardless of the brave face they put on it, I'll bet there aren't many people in the inner sanctums of the Kremlin who think of the past six months as much of a triumph for Russia.