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In wake of Crimea’s vote, West struggles to anticipate Putin’s next move

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    We take a wider look now at the U.S. and Russian response to Crimea with Cliff Kupchan. He's head of the Russia and Eurasia team at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm. He served in the State Department during the Clinton administration. And Nikolas Gvosdev is professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. He's written extensively about Russia.

    And we welcome you both.

    Cliff Kupchan, you have had the vote in Crimea. You have had the reaction from the E.U. and the United States. Where does this crisis stand right now?

  • CLIFF KUPCHAN, Eurasia Group:

    It stands at a standoff. The U.S. took dramatically sanctions against Russia today, sanctioning the Russian speaker of the Upper House.

    That is really something I never thought I would see. The next shoe to fall is tomorrow, when Vladimir Putin will likely annex or support annexation of Crimea. That, indeed, will lead to stronger sanctions over time from both the U.S. and the E.U. Somebody is going to have to look for an off-ramp here, or we're going to be back to something not like the Cold War, but something that looks a whole lot like the Cold War.


    Nikolas Gvosdev, is that what you see, a stair step situation where every day or every so days the tensions are ramped up?

  • NIKOLAS GVOSDEV, Naval War College:

    We definitely have a stalemate at this point.

    Let me slightly disagree with Cliff. We don't know what the Russians will do tomorrow. There's actually several steps they could take. One of course could be whether or not they choose to immediately bring Crimea into the Russian Federation, for which they would have to pass some enabling legislation.

    My guess is that they're going to neither say yes nor no right away, that they're going to welcome the vote, they're going to talk about the self-determination of the Crimean people, but that they're not necessarily going to take the step, the final step of having Crimea completely break off from Ukraine, because, as the report indicated earlier, the ultimate Russian aim in Ukraine is to still get Ukraine federalized and to get a neutral status.

    And Crimea is still a pawn in this game. I don't necessarily think that tomorrow means that we see Crimea automatically entering Russia. My guess is, we're going to see a welcoming of the Crimean step, but perhaps not final incorporation.


    What do you think about that intermediate scenario and the other issue that Nikolas just raised, and that is Russia — basically, they said to Ukraine today, we want you to think about splitting your country up into autonomous regions.


    Well, first, what I said was that Putin will support annexation of Crimea.


    And where I think Nick and I have the differing view is, I don't think he's going to wait very long.

    Having met this guy a number of times, I think he thinks of Ukraine, certainly Crimea, as his. He's going to take it back, and I see no sign of any firebreak in his behavior and I think, within a month, I would bet that Crimea is part of Russia.

    Beyond that, Russia, indeed, through a Foreign Ministry statement today, has called for the decentralization of Ukraine. They have asked for Ukraine to become Finlandized, to become more neutral.

    On the first, I don't think that's going to happen. The E.U. and the Ukrainians are going to agree on defense and security operation on Thursday. So, Putin's role of Finlandizing, of neutralizing Ukraine, I think that ship has left the station.

    On federalization, on decentralization, many Ukrainians, especially protesters in the Maidan Square, the core of Ukrainian protest movement, is going to oppose that, because federalization is codeword for Russian influence in Ukraine. I don't think those proposals are going to go far at all.


    Nikolas Gvosdev, where do you come down? The two of you, I see, are — have a different perspective on how quickly Putin is going to move to annex Crimea, but what about this other gesture or statement that Moscow has made toward Ukraine, talking about splitting up into federal regions, and just a different, more neutral posture?


    I think a lot depends on the strength of the Ukrainian government and what aid that they're going to receive in the next few days.

    Cliff is absolutely right. The federalization of the Ukraine is anathema to the Maidan protesters, but the Maidan protesters are not the only force active in Ukraine.

    And I think what the Russians are trying to do, what they demonstrated in Crimea, what they may try to do over the next few days in Eastern Ukraine is essentially to demonstrate that the government in Kiev cannot exercise control over large portions of Ukraine and that if a government in Kiev wants to regain control over the country as a whole, not just over the center and the western parts, where the reach of the government currently exists, that they're going to have to deal with Russia.

    They also want to essentially show up the West, that the West makes a lot of promises, politicians arrive, but that there's not going to be a lot of concrete aid. And so we do have this element of a game of chicken here where the Russians are essentially testing to see what the mettle of the European Union and the United States is, how far are they really willing to go to challenge Russia's attempt to rewrite in essence the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the terms under which the Soviet Union dissolved.


    What is this all mean, Cliff Kupchan, for whether or not Vladimir Putin will go farther into Ukraine beyond Crimea?


    There's a real risk that he is not going to feel fed by swallowing Crimea.

    This is about Ukraine. This is about the future trajectory of Ukraine. I think Putin's got a long game and a short game. The long game involves trying to get a friendly president elected in the May presidential elections, seeing if Ukraine can get its economic…


    Friendly to him.


    Right, friendly to him, yes.

    See if Ukraine can get its house — its economic house together, assuming it won't, and then come back to Russia sometime next year, that he can just sit back and wait until Ukraine fails. There's a reasonable chance he might succeed in that.

    The short game would to be foment unrest in Eastern Ukraine and use it as an excuse for invasion. And that indeed is very dangerous. And I think there's a substantial risk that this rather impetuous man could go that route.


    So it's a jump ball?


    Well, I think, on balance, he won't go in because the bloodshed and because somebody is going to tell him along the line that U.S. sanctions, sanctions like we have got on Iran, could bring his economic house down. And if he gets that message, that's a real restraint.


    Very quickly, Nikolas Gvosdev, what do you see in terms of Putin going into the rest of Ukraine?


    This isn't binary. He doesn't have to not go in with forces. There's lots of intermediate ways.

    And of course we're seeing the Russians also reacting to sanctions. They're looking at what their other options are. It's not accidental that this week the CEO of Rosneft, the state oil company, is traveling in Asia. They're looking to try to break free of some of the economic constraints and to see whether they can have new partners.

    They're understanding that they may face some sanctions from the West, so they're starting to diversify to see whether or not they can make up for that, if in the event Europe and the United States do go further in the sanctions, much further than they decided in what was announced today.


    Nikolas Gvosdev, Cliff Kupchan, we thank you both. We will keep watching the story.

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