Vladimir Putin Has Been Outplayed by Barack Obama

| Fri May 16, 2014 10:27 AM EDT

Max Fisher notes this morning that although President Obama got a lot of flak for his restrained response to Russia's aggression in Ukraine, his approach of giving Vladimir Putin enough rope to hang himself has turned out to be a lot cannier than his critics expected:

This has been so effective, and has apparently taken Putin by such surprise, that after weeks of looking like he could roll into eastern Ukraine unchallenged, he's backing down all on his own. Official Russian rhetoric, after weeks of not-so-subtle threats of invading eastern Ukraine, is backing down. Putin suddenly looks like he will support Ukraine's upcoming presidential election, rather than oppose it, although it will likely install a pro-European president. European and American negotiators say the tone in meetings has eased from slinging accusations to working toward a peaceful resolution.

Most of this is economic. Russia's self-imposed economic problems started pretty quickly after its annexation of Crimea in March and have kept up. Whether or not American or European governments sanction Russia's broader economy, the global investment community has a mind of its own, and they seem to have decided that Russia's behavior has made it a risky place to put money. So risky that they're pulling more money out.

A lot of that may have come the targeted sanctions that Obama pushed for against individual Russian leaders and oligarchs. Those targeted sanctions did not themselves do much damage to the Russian economy. But, along with Russia's erratic behavior in Ukraine and the lack of clarity as to whether Europe and the US could impose broader sanctions, it appears to have been enough to scare off global investors — the big, faceless, placeless mass of people and banks who have done tremendous damage to Putin's Russia, nudged along by the US and by Putin himself.

I'm a little less surprised by this than Fisher, though Obama's policy was always a bit of a crapshoot since there was no telling (a) just how important Putin thought annexation of eastern Ukraine was, and (b) how much economic pain Putin was willing to put up with. This wasn't necessarily a rational calculation on Putin's part, which meant it was never entirely amenable to rational analysis on our part.

Still, there have always been good reasons to think that a military annexation of eastern Ukraine represented a huge risk for Russia—potentially turning into a long and wearying guerrilla war—and that even the existing economic sanctions were biting hard enough to be worrisome. After all, Putin's nationalistic fervor may have initially played well domestically, but in the long term domestic opinion depends heavily on economic performance. If the Russian economy started to tank, those adoring crowds would have turned surly in pretty short order.

In my mind, the biggest wild card has always been this: what, really, is the value of eastern Ukraine to Russia? Yes, there's some industry, and potentially a land border with Crimea. But those are frankly small things, especially if annexing Ukraine was likely to lead to prolonged low-level war and even stiffer sanctions from the West. As for Putin's claim to be responsible for oppressed Russian-speaking minorities, I don't think anyone should take that too seriously. He may sincerely feel aggrieved about this, but even the threat of action has already gotten him what he wants on this score: a strong likelihood that Kiev will negotiate a certain level of autonomy for regions in eastern Ukraine, and perhaps a more accommodating approach in other countries toward Russian speakers.

With the caveat—again—that this has never been an entirely rational situation, I continue to think that eastern Ukraine simply isn't valuable enough to Russia to justify a lot of risk. Putin made a play for taking control without any real opposition, and it failed. It's obvious now that the cost would be pretty high, both in military opposition and in economic pain. Too high. And Putin knows it.

Would a more assertive military posture from Obama have made a difference? Maybe. But there's as much chance it would have made things worse as there was that it would have made things better. This is something that the John McCains of the world have never understood, which is odd since they know perfectly well how they themselves respond to threats of violence. Why do they think Putin would respond any differently?

In the end, Putin will probably come out of this OK. He has Crimea, and he's regained at least a bit of the influence over Ukraine that he lost via his bungled foreign policy early in the year. If he backs off now, the economic pain will ease; Ukraine will be a more pliant neighbor; and he'll retain his popularity at home. If he's smart, he'll decide this is close enough to victory, and call it a day.

But the United States will come out OK too. The punditocracy will have a hard time acknowledging this, since they're pretty dedicated to the idea that there are only two kinds of foreign policy success: military intervention and flashy, high-stakes diplomatic missions. But there are more subtle kinds of success too. This may well turn out to be one of them.

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