Last updated Thursday, July 24, 2014 11:06pm

A Ukrainian soldier and armored personnel carrier guard a checkpoint near the village of Salkovo, in the Kherson region adjacent to Crimea, March 20, 2014. — Reuters picA Ukrainian soldier and armored personnel carrier guard a checkpoint near the village of Salkovo, in the Kherson region adjacent to Crimea, March 20, 2014. — Reuters picWASHINGTON, March 21 — The United States and its allies had hoped for a partner in Vladimir Putin—albeit an acerbic and capricious one.

But his incorporation of Crimea, in defiance of the West, and a speech scorching the post Cold War world order, suggest an adversary now rules the Kremlin.

As a result, President Barack Obama and European counterparts are facing accusations they were taken in by the Russian president and did not spot the expansionist reflex of a man who saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as a tragedy.

Keen to end draining wars and beset by extremism, nuclear proliferation and a great recession, it made sense for Obama to take one problem off the table with a “reset” of relations with Russia in 2009.

But within months of Putin returning as president two years ago, it was clear the reset would wither without his co-sponsor, ex-president Dmitry Medvedev.

Brent Scowcroft, a wise man of US foreign policy who helped engineer a soft landing to the Cold War as George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser, admitted this week he—like many others—misjudged Putin.

“I thought that... Putin would see that Medvedev got a lot further with sugar, than he was getting with vinegar,” Scowcroft said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event.

“He hasn’t.”

Putin as ‘bored kid’

When Putin spurned an offer of “flexibility” Washington’s tone turned glib.

In the Gallery


  • Trucks used by armed men are seen at the entrance to Belbek Airport in the Crimea region March 1, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • People hold placards during a small protest outside the Russian embassy in Kiev March 1, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • A woman holds a placard during a small protest outside the Russian embassy in Kiev March 1, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • A woman wears a ribbon in Ukraine's national colours around her braid in Kiev March 1, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • People march on the street with a Russian flag in Simferopol, Crimea March 1, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • People march on the street holding a Russian flag in Simferopol, Crimea March 1, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • A pro-Russian man (not seen) holds a Russian flag behind an armed servicemen on top of a Russian army vehicle outside a Ukrainian border guard post in the Crimean town of Balaclava March 1, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Armed servicemen stand near Russian army vehicles outside a Ukrainian border guard post in the Crimean town of Balaclava March 1, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Pro-Russian protesters with Russian flags take part in a rally in central Donetsk March 1, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Protesters, some wearing national Ukrainian costumes, demonstrate against Russia’s military intervention in Crimea, in front of the Russian Embassy in Washington, March 3, 2014. ― Reuters pic

  • Armed men stand guard at the local government headquarters in Simferopol, Crimea, March 3, 2014. ― Reuters pic

  • People attend a protest rally against Russian intervention in Crimea, in front of Russia’s embassy in Riga March 3, 2014. ― Reuters pic

  • A baby sits in a stroller with a poster in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, which was placed by its mother, during a protest march in support of peace in the Ukraine in Times Square in New York, March 3, 2014. ― Reuters pic

  • Members of Crimean self-defence units stand guard near local government headquarters in Simferopol, March 3, 2014. ― Reuters pic

  • Ukrainian servicemen play with a football near Russian military vehicles at the Belbek Sevastopol International Airport in the Crimea region March 4, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Ukrainian serviceman Igor Filonenko holds the hand of his wife Julia through a fence at an air base located in the village of Lyubimovka near a local airfield, southwest of Simferopol, Crimea's capital March 5, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Ukrainian servicemen stand guard at an air base located in the village of Lyubimovka near a local airfield, southwest of Simferopol, Crimea's capital March 5, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Pro-Russian demonstrators take part in a rally in the Crimean town of Yevpatoria March 5, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • People hold a rally in the Russian southern city of Stavropol, in support of the people of Crimea, March 7, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • A Ukrainian sailor stands guard on top of a Ukrainian navy ship at the Crimean port of Yevpatorya March 8, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • A Ukrainian sailor stands guard on top of a Ukrainian navy ship at the Crimean port of Yevpatorya March 8, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Pro-Ukrainian supporters join hands as they take part in a rally in Simferopol March 9, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Soldiers, believed to be Russian, ride on military armoured personnel carriers on a road near the Crimean port city of Sevastopol March 10, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Women with their mouths taped over attend a pro-Ukraine rally in Simferopol March 13, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Women talk as they take a walk with a child in a pram while armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, follow them outside a Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye, near the Crimean city of Simferopol, March 14, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Men walk in the old town of Simferopol near the Kebir-Dzhami mosque March 14, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Crimean Tatars attend a Friday prayer at the mosque in Bakhchisaray March 14, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • A girl rides a bicycle at the Monument to defence of Sevastopol at the Crimean port of Sevastopol March 14, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • UDAR (Punch) party head Vitaly Klitschko speaks to Ukrainian soldiers during a military exercise near Zhytomyr March 14, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • People participate in the ‘Brotherhood and Civil Resistance March’ in Moscow March 15, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • A pro-Russian supporter displays a flag with pictures of Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left) and President Vladimir Putin during a rally in Sevastopol, Crimea March 15, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • An election commission official installs a Crimean flag during preparations for a referendum at the polling station in Simferopol March 15, 2014. — Reuters pic

  • Election commission officials count ballots as they take part in preparations for a referendum inside a school in Sevastopol March 15, 2014. — Reuters pic

Obama compared him to a “bored kid” at the back of the class, playing out a “tough guy” shtick.

Still, Washington secured Putin’s help on the Syria chemical weapons crisis and in Iran nuclear talks—justifying a strategy of engaging Putin.

But the administration was left flatfooted when Putin claimed the Ukrainian region of Crimea and its ethnic Russians for Moscow.

The White House publicly argued Putin’s move made no sense—terming it an act of the 19th Century not of a sophisticated modern nation.

“Putin (may have his version of history), but I believe that he and Russia, for what they have done, are on the wrong side of history,” Secretary of State John Kerry said.

Washington insisted it would not get drawn into a “zero sum” game of geopolitical chess with Putin.

But paraphrasing Sting’s anti-war anthem “Russians,” Putin does not subscribe to this point of view.

From Washington, Putin’s move seems illogical for a nation which ditched socialism for raucous capitalism and put on a welcoming face to the world at the Sochi Olympics but now faces punitive isolation, sanctions, expulsion from the G8 and economic damage.

But judging by the image of resurgent Russia liberated from the humiliation of the Soviet collapse sketched in his speech this week, Putin follows different logic.

Fiona Hill, a Brookings Institution scholar and author of a new book on Putin, says his world view is shaped by his KGB training and the zero sum calculus of the Cold War.

“We always see these things in our frame of reference,” Hill said.

“Putin feels that only he knows Russia’s interests.”

Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Europe think tank, said leaders on both sides of the Atlantic had misunderstood Putin.

“Both the Americans and the Europeans have greatly underestimated Mr Putin’s real intentions,” he said.

“We were thinking about the same cost benefit analysis that they would apply and we would apply.”

‘Wake up call’

Now, the West has had its “wake up call” from Putin — as NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen put it and must contemplate a new relationship.

Obama will likely begin by offering skittish post-Soviet states now in NATO a firm restatement of security guarantees when he travels to Europe next week.

That will simultaneously be a sign to Moscow that wider territorial land grabs will not be tolerated.

Obama on Thursday slapped new sanctions against Russian officials and businessmen Washington now mocks as Putin’s “cronies” and wants to bankroll fragile Ukraine’s economy.

Trade, military and diplomatic engagement with Moscow is also in the deep freeze.

But Obama hopes to keep diplomatic partnerships on issues like the Iran nuclear talks walled off from the tumult.

Putin, however, figures to be a difficult customer—especially when it comes to diplomacy over Ukraine.

“Putin seems to be suggesting that when it comes to Russia’s periphery... the Russians intend to be heard. They will not be ignored,” said Anton Fedyashin, a Russia specialist at American University.

Iran nuclear talks, meanwhile, may become the latest issue where Washington and Moscow diverge in judging Russia’s national interests.

“We would not like to use these talks as an element of a stakes-raising game,” deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said in a veiled threat.

But forced to choose between Crimea and Iran talks—Moscow would opt for Crimea, he said.

Washington thinks Moscow is bluffing.

“Were Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, that weapon would be a whole lot closer to Russia than to many of us,” one senior official scoffed. — AFP

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