WASHINGTON, 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.
Putin as ‘bored kid’
When Putin spurned an offer of “flexibility” Washington’s tone turned glib.
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