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What is Vladimir Putin thinking?
The most alarming thing about Putin’s takeover of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula may be that even some of the people most familiar with the behavior of the Russian leader are baffled.
“He does like to act by surprise. But this one is more than just a surprise,” said Kimberly Marten, an expert on U.S.-Russian relations at Barnard College and Columbia University. “There’s something about this that doesn’t make sense.”
While the world scrambled to come up with a response and persuade the Russian president to pull back, academics were not the only ones left wondering what he was up to.
Secretary of State John Kerry called the incursion “stunning.”
And Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, went further after speaking to Putin over the weekend. She told President Barack Obama that he seemed to be “in another world,” perhaps out of touch with reality, The New York Times reported.
There are some things we know about the psychology of Putin: He cannot abide humiliation or chaos. He will not be lectured to. He relishes the chance to poke a finger in the eye of the United States. Informed by his own training in the KGB, he is all about rebuilding Russia as a world power not to be messed with.
In his mind, the Soviet Union collapsed a generation ago, and “the West has been dancing in the end zone ever since,” David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker and the author of “Lenin’s Tomb,” about the Soviet disintegration, told MSNBC on Monday.
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The naked aggression is not the part that’s hard to understand.
Putin fought a war with Georgia in 2008 for control of two disputed territories, and has waged an unrelenting battle in the Caucasus region against Islamic militants. In Russia, he has imprisoned dissenters and muzzled gay rights.
But the incursion into Ukraine squandered whatever global goodwill he built by staging his Sochi Olympics, which were terror-free, successful at least on their own terms, and meant entirely to raise Russia’s prominence on the world stage.
Ironically, a surge of post-Olympic nationalist pride may have nudged Putin to act, Michael McFaul, who just left his post as U.S. ambassador to Russia, said Monday on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”
“I think he is in a dangerous state of mind and not thinking fully about the long-term consequences of other things that he, his government and his private sector have tried to build,” McFaul said. “And that’s not a good situation for the world right now.”
Adding to the intrigue, Putin took the gamble of invading Crimea at a time when neither Russia’s economy nor its military is in great shape.
And the invasion was indeed a risk: Besides angering the world, Putin risks stirring up a civil war in Ukraine that would leave the Russian military fighting a counterinsurgency campaign in a neighboring country.
If Russia elects to punish Ukraine’s new pro-Western leaders by cutting off natural gas supplies, it would also cut off major customers in Europe, hurting the Russian economy further.
Russia suggested it was acting to protect the interests of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. But even after demonstrators drove Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president of Ukraine, from power, Putin still could have exerted influence there. After Yanukovych’s ouster, Ukraine scheduled a quick election for May.
There are still ways to ensure a pro-Russian leader,” Marten said. “Putin could have bought votes, bought ad time. He could have put pressure on through gas price increases. It would have been crafty and underhanded, but, hey, he’s old KGB.”
The United States spent Monday grappling with how to counter the Russian leader. President Barack Obama accused him of violating international law, and called on Congress to help Ukraine.
U.S. officials have also floated the idea of dropping out of the G-8 summit of world powers, scheduled for Russia in June, booting Russia out of the G-8 altogether, imposing sanctions on Russia and suspending military cooperation with Russia.
“No country has the right to send in troops into another country unprovoked,” he said.
But foreign policy analysts have conceded there is little the West can do, at least with any substantial effect, except wait for Putin’s next move.
“Two weeks ago, a week ago, I would have been been surprised that he would do this,” Remnick said on MSNBC. “I would be very surprised if he wants this to spread and become very bloody. But we don’t know.”