MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin has left little doubt he intends to cripple Ukraine’s new government, forcing it to make concessions or face the de facto partition of areas populated predominantly by ethnic Russians, from the Crimea to Odessa to the industrial heartland in the east.
That strategy has been pursued aggressively by subterfuge, propaganda and bald military threat, taking aim as much at the United States and its allies in Europe as Ukraine itself. The pivotal question now for Kiev and Western capitals, is how boldly Putin continues to push his agenda, risking a more heated military and diplomatic conflict.
So far, the Kremlin has shown no sign of yielding to international pressure — but it also has not taken the most provocative step yet, openly ordering Russian troops to reinforce those already in Crimea and expand its incursion into southern or eastern Ukraine.
Asked on Sunday about President Barack Obama’s suspension of preparations to attend the Group of 8 summit scheduled for June in Sochi — along with Canada, France and Britain — Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, replied cuttingly and dismissively. “It’s not a minus for Russia,” he said. “It will be a minus for the G-8.”
Putin has yet to make public remarks on the crisis in Ukraine, leaving his ultimate goals uncertain and unpredictable. Yet with a strategy aimed at blunting the impact of a popular uprising that sought to push the country away from Russia and deepen ties with Europe, Putin has already left the fledgling government disorganized, discredited and forced to compromise on terms that would keep the country firmly within Russia’s sphere of influence, especially regarding the Crimea peninsula.
The Kremlin’s pledge to protect compatriots in Ukraine from suppression of a Western-minded majority mirrors Russia’s role in other disputed territories of the former Soviet republics over the years, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Those two breakaway regions of Georgia survived in a diplomatic limbo after the collapse of the Soviet Union with overt and covert Kremlin pressure until war erupted in 2008 and Russia routed ill-prepared Georgian troops.
Russia brushed aside strong warnings from the United States and others at the time and recognized them as independent countries — and paid little price for it in the long run. Putin appears to be calculating again that Russia is too important for other countries to respond more forcefully, despite warnings like those by Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday that the United States would consider an array of sanctions that could include freezing assets and travel of senior officials here.
Any escalation of Russia’s military intervention, especially if it meets resistance and bloodshed, will almost certainly rattle investors and plunge Russia’s unsteady economy into free fall. With the value of the ruble already falling, there was quick speculation of a rocky start when the stock market opens Monday.
For now, such calculations appear to be secondary to the fury that the toppling of Yanukovych’s government has caused inside the Kremlin. Ukraine has deep historical, social and religious connections to Russia that are often underestimated in the United States, especially. More significantly, Putin and the close circle of aides he relies on most, view the overthrow of Yanukovych as a coup orchestrated by the West to undercut Russia’s vital interests.
Sergei Utkin, the head of the Department of Strategic Assessment, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that the relentless anti-Americanism on state media was in the past dismissed as crude propaganda that served a transparent political purpose but appeared now to reflect the actual worldview of the Kremlin. “It’s a catastrophe for Ukraine and for Russia,” he said. “The problem is that quite a few people in Russia don’t understand the consequences. They believe the country is strong and can do whatever it wants to do.”
How Putin perceives these events remains central to what happens next, experts said. Does he believe he has already succeeded by making clear that Russia has the will and the means to force its agenda in Ukraine? Or does he feel the job is only half done and that having stoked Russian nationalism, he has no choice but to plow ahead?