Argument

From Chess Player to Barroom Brawler

There's increasing evidence that Vladimir Putin is dangerously drunk on power -- and reckless.

It is too easy to forget that beneath Vladimir Putin's glossy and faintly plastic exterior of chilly abstraction beats the heart of a truly red-blooded homo sovieticus.

While Russian airborne forces gather at airfields near the Ukrainian border and artillery shipments roll into Crimea, it seems -- to the naked eye -- that the real battle is on the ground. In truth, it's being fought inside Vladimir Putin: namely, the Russian president's head and heart.

The head says that Crimea is just a bargaining chip -- something to make a deal that protects Moscow's interests in Ukraine without precipitating sanctions, which could cripple the Russian economy and alienate the elite. But the heart says that Ukraine is not a real country -- just a lost portion of a Greater Russia -- and that the West and its Ukrainian cohorts are cowards who will never make good on their brave words.

This is perhaps why it has proven so difficult to predict Putin's next move -- his ultimate game plan. He himself does not seem to know, or at least appears torn.

Certainly in the early days of intervention, the head seemed to be calling the shots. In both Moscow and Simferopol, the language was of autonomy, federalism, and "respect for Russian interests." While the Russians still described Viktor Yanukovych as the legitimate president of Ukraine, they also acknowledged that he was politically dead. Symbolically, he was not accorded the pomp due to a head of state, and Putin did not meet him: The Russian president seems to feel that failure is contagious.

However, after Crimea was swallowed up so easily -- it's typically easier for a leader like Putin to send the boys in than to bring them home -- Putin's emotional side appears to have come to the fore. The inability or failure of the new government in Kiev to make overtures and start haggling appears to have affronted him. Likewise, Western criticisms only seem to have toughened his resolve.

Today, "military exercises" mean that forces are being mustered along the eastern Ukrainian border. Especially alarming are indications that -- as well as the paratroopers who spearhead an invasion -- the Russians are mobilizing the regular ground troops who would follow up the initial blitzkrieg, seizing and holding territory.

If I felt confident that Putin's head were in charge, I'd see this as a characteristically muscular political gesture, a heavy-handed nudge to Kiev to make him an offer to stand down. However, Putin's heart now seems committed to following through and not appearing cowed by Western challenges.

Of course, all leaders make decisions based on both rational calculation and emotional response. But in this case, Putin's unexpected bifurcation matters more for a number of reasons.

The first of which is because of the very lack of checks and balances. Putin's regime was never as unreservedly autocratic as it often seemed. Putin was first among equals, deriving much of his power precisely from his ability to manage, balance, and build coalitions within a varied and fragmented elite. Since his return to the presidency in 2012, he has become increasingly isolated, apparently by his own design. Bit by bit, this is eroding his position. But given that the controls on him were political rather than institutional, it leaves him virtually unconstrained at the moment.

Figures such as Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister, and political technologist Vyacheslav Surkov -- who once could tell him tough truths -- fell from grace. The nationalists, bigots, and ex-spooks (often one and the same) who were always a part of his court, now seem to dominate it. People who understand the wider world end up relegated to simply executing the orders from the Kremlin.

Here in Moscow, for example, sources in the foreign ministry and the military make little secret that they were neither involved in the deliberations about Crimea nor have any real sense of where the Kremlin is taking them. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, as wily and experienced an operator as you'll find, apparently was not part of the inner circle that decided to invade Crimea. Instead, he had to mouth unbelievable lies, saying no troops were there -- even as video footage showed units in their Russian battledress and Russian weapons spilling out of Russian armored vehicles with Russian license plates.

Likewise, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, one of the most efficient and honest technocrats of the administration, has been notably detached from the most significant military deployment since the 2008 invasion of Georgia. The word from the general staff, after all, is that no one in the Kremlin is asking their opinion; they are just there to make sure that whenever the vlasti, the powers-that-be, tell them what needs to be done, they get it done. One just-retired officer -- a high-flying young lieutenant in 1979, when Soviet forces rolled into Afghanistan over the misgivings of the general staff -- glumly told me how similar things seemed today.

But while all of this unfolds, the West is unprepared to deal with this new Putin. It becomes harder to know which of the usual instruments of diplomacy and statecraft will be most useful or appropriate. Measures intended to appeal to a rational actor in the Kremlin, such as targeted sanctions and threats to support Kiev, may actually only inflame the emotional Putin.

Not only has Russia become accustomed to Putin's heart taking second place to his head, so have we.

What is playing out in Crimea and, potentially, in eastern Ukraine, is thus not just proof of Russian hegemonic ambition in post-Soviet Eurasia. It is also an expression of a genuine and serious change that is taking place at the core of Russian politics.

Until now, Putin was a bare-knuckled and often confrontational geopolitical player, but -- even invading Georgia -- he retained a clear sense of just how far he could go. Indeed, this was his genius, to know when to play the game and when to break the rules.

But Putin today is increasingly a caricature of Putin in his first two terms. He is listening to fewer dissenting voices, allowing less informed discussion of policy options, deliberately narrowing his circle of counselors. Perhaps feeling the chill touch of political, if not physical mortality, he appears not just unwilling but unable to seem to be backing down from a fight, more concerned with short-term bravado than long-term implications.

Is this a passing phase? Probably not. Put aside the old clichés about Putin the chessplayer: We may have to get used to dealing with Putin the barroom brawler.

Marianna Massey/Getty Images for USOC

National Security

Who Lost Europe?

How the standoff in Ukraine could split NATO and kill the Asia pivot.

Even if the United States succeeds in its last-ditch effort to prevent Russia's annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian crisis will have long-lasting reverberations for U.S. foreign policy. For the past five years, the Obama administration's focus has been on limiting overseas commitments while shifting resources from Europe and the Middle East to Asia. The current standoff with Moscow will almost certainly make that harder. In addition to further eroding the U.S.-Russian relationship, it will force Washington to take European security more seriously, reduce the prospects for a negotiated outcome in Syria, and limit the scope and ambitions of Washington's Asia rebalance.

The most direct impact of the current standoff will be on Washington's relationship with Moscow. Although the U.S.-Russia "reset" was a signal achievement of Obama's first term, bilateral relations have cooled significantly in recent years. With tension mounting over Russia's support for Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, crackdown on dissent and gay rights at home, and decision to grant asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the Obama administration made a conscious decision to de-prioritize relations with Moscow, cancelling a September 2013 summit and refusing to send a high-level government delegation to the Sochi Olympics.

Nevertheless, Washington attempted to preserve limited cooperation in order to broker an end to the Syrian civil war and roll back Iran's nuclear program. Even before the crisis in Ukraine, it was becoming clear that a second round of Syria talks in Geneva were going nowhere, and that the fate of an Iranian nuclear deal would depend on direct contacts between Washington and Tehran. Coupled with the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan (a priority area for U.S.-Russian cooperation during the reset), these developments were already reducing Washington's interest in partnership with Moscow. With its need for Russian cooperation significantly reduced, the invasion of Ukraine sets the stage for the U.S. to further disengage, and to pursue a harder line toward Moscow, likely for several years.

But it's not just relations with the Kremlin that will be affected. America's European allies have frequently accused the Obama administration of taking Europe for granted. To the extent that these criticisms are justified, they reflected a belief within the administration that European security -- Washington's principal foreign policy concern for the past century -- had been solved and that it was time for Europe to become a producer, rather than a consumer, of security. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian crisis has called that assumption into question.

At least until President Vladimir Putin exits the Kremlin for good, Washington is going to have to focus more on sustaining its NATO alliance commitments and providing reassurance to vulnerable states on Europe's periphery, even if doing so undermines the Obama administration's desire to simultaneously slash defense spending and divert resources from Europe to Asia. Washington has already taken some short-term, mostly symbolic measures to reassure its allies, including holding Article 4 consultations within NATO (invoked when a member state believes its security or independence is threatened) and dispatching additional fighter jets to the Baltic states and personnel to Poland. In the wake of the current crisis, the United States may also need to reconsider its 2012 decision to withdraw two full brigade combat teams from Europe as a cost-saving measure, and possibly consider the re-deployment of forces from traditional bases in Germany to NATO's eastern flank. Similarly, the Ukraine crisis will strengthen opposition on Capitol Hill to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's plan to impose cost savings on the Pentagon by slashing the size of U.S. land forces following their withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Russian aggression against Ukraine will also re-open the perennial debate about NATO expansion. NATO's 2008 Bucharest summit, which first promised Georgia a path into the alliance -- and factored into Russia's decision to invade South Ossetia in 2008 -- made a similar commitment to Ukraine, then led by the pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko. Though Yanukovych withdrew Kyiv's application to NATO in 2010, Ukraine's recent upheaval is sure to put this issue back on the table.

Depending on the outcome of the scheduled May 25 election, Ukraine's new government may well seek a renewed path into NATO -- especially if Russia attempts to annex Crimea, removing more than one million ethnic Russians from Ukraine's electorate and further stoking anti-Russian sentiment elsewhere. Ukrainian NATO membership would likely provoke Moscow into a larger scale use of force, which in turn could lead to a rupture within NATO if allies proved reluctant to uphold the alliance's mutual security commitment. Starting now, Washington will need to handle this issue with extraordinary strategic foresight, balancing Ukrainians' right to choose their own future with recognition that a precipitous move toward NATO could prove disastrous.

Of course, the implications of the Ukrainian crisis extend beyond Europe. Though the Geneva talks were already on the road to failure, the invasion of Crimea likely eliminates the possibility that the international community will be able to impose a solution on Syria. Assad reportedly believes the Ukrainian crisis gives him a window to pursue an outright military victory. Since directly arming Syria's fractious rebels still risks empowering a range of extremist, anti-Western groups, Washington's options are narrowing, and it may soon have to resign itself to the prospect of Assad continuing to preside over a brutalized, unstable Syria.

Meanwhile, the administration's Pacific ambitions may also be stymied. The corollary to Obama's belief that European security had been solved was the decision to rebalance U.S. resources to Asia. The factors driving the rebalance, including Asia's economic dynamism and the potential for a rising China to precipitate conflicts with neighbors, will not change. Nevertheless, Washington's ability to give substance to its rebalance strategy will be limited by the need to take European security more seriously.

Within Asia, Washington's challenge will be to reassure nervous allies like Japan and the Philippines that the Ukrainian crisis does not imply a weakening commitment to the principle of territorial integrity. It will also have to prevent an increasingly isolated, paranoid Russia from pursuing a strategic alignment with China. Fortunately, Russia's disregard for Ukrainian sovereignty plays poorly in Beijing, and even a Russia increasingly alienated from the West will be reluctant to become China's junior partner. Japan, meanwhile, remains eager to deepen cooperation with Russia, but recognizes that Moscow's actions in Ukraine make that prospect more remote. As a result, Asia may be the only part of the world where U.S. and Russian interests will continue on largely parallel tracks, even if active cooperation is now unlikely. At best, Washington can provide quiet support for the efforts of Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and others to deepen economic and security ties with Russia, which remain in the longer term U.S. interest regardless of developments in Ukraine. At worst, it will struggle to promote a stable, prosperous Asia as it copes with a wider conflict on the borders of Europe.

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