Responding to Putin’s Plan Post-Crimea

Russia’s occupation of Crimea, and the use of covert and overt force there and in Eastern Ukraine, raise fundamental questions about both Vladimir Putin’s motivations and the challenges facing the United States, Europe, and the NATO Alliance in framing appropriate responses. The downing of the Malaysian airliner and the evidence presented by the Obama administration of Russian arms flows into Ukraine have made these issues especially salient.

Understanding why Putin broke international law and challenged state sovereignty is critical to shaping such responses. What was driving this behavior, and what does it signify? Could this be an initial step (in his mind) to reconstitute the Soviet Union? Or is this a “one-off,” where he is trying to undo another moment in history—the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev? And what of Putin’s claim regarding the “responsibility to protect” ethnic Russians wherever they reside? Given his ability to introduce covert forces, coupled with the relentless media blitz by Kremlin-controlled television to foment the very instability needed to justify any intervention, what does this mean for NATO members such as Latvia and Estonia with sizable ethnic Russian populations? What does it mean for former Soviet states with Russian-speaking populations that are not part of NATO such as Moldova? Finally, how should these events be reflected in U.S. security posture and planning? In particular, what, if anything, do they mean for nuclear modernization programs? Below we offer answers to these timely questions.

Putin’s Plan or Panic?

Let’s go back to the events of February and March 2014. Why did Putin authorize the occupation of Crimea? Of course Crimea has important military value in its strategic location and economic value in its access to oil and gas resources in the Black Sea. But Putin’s behavior is better understood as fundamentally driven by psychological impulses and highly emotional responses to a situation that was, in his view, spinning dramatically out of control. Specifically, we posit that when Viktor Yanukovich fled Kyiv on February 22, Putin believed he was losing control of Ukraine. This potential loss harkened back to the seminal moment in his own life vividly described in First Person: The Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (PublicAffairs, 2000), when he was a KGB officer stationed in Dresden, and the Berlin Wall was coming down. He was frantically calling Moscow to get instructions, but no one was picking up. He was not going to preside, as he saw it, over “the loss” of Ukraine. Moscow was not going to be silent yet again.

Russia is not the Soviet Union, and Ukraine has in fact been a sovereign state since the breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Evidence suggests, however, that at least in the last decade, the Kremlin has been able to wield enormous overt and covert influence in Ukrainian politics, its economy, and the very well-being of Yanukovich himself. Russian involvement in the poisoning of then-presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko has long been speculated, and the administrative means used in numerous elections to benefit Yanukovich and the Party of Regions most experts believe leads back to the Kremlin. Indeed, the May 25 election was widely heralded by parties across the political spectrum as the first post-Soviet election in Ukraine where such fraudulent practices did not occur.

Putin regrets deeply that Russia is not the Soviet Union, and certainly there is wide-spread nostalgia for great power status (and thus a source of popular support for Putin as he tries to reclaim it). Indeed, the organizing principle around which Putin has framed his nationalistic, xenophobic, anti-Western ideology rests on the statement that the collapse of the USSR was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” By making this claim initially in April 2005, just weeks before the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, he may have been making a statement that tied the collapse to that truly epic sacrifice. Specifically, the collapse was a “catastrophe” because tens of millions gave their lives in the service of the Soviet Union fighting fascism and now that state was gone. The alternative understanding of the collapse is, of course, that tens of millions who had been subject to Soviet control were at last independent, and that the system that had spawned the Terror and the GULAG, imprisoning (again) tens of millions, was finally history. Competing narratives of history, or historical memory, are fundamental to understanding Putin’s Russia.

Beyond ideals, Putin may also have had financial reasons. In Crimea, he will likely try to lay claim to the natural gas and oil off the coast—presumably possible only if the international community recognizes the occupation of Crimea as legal. The Russian economy is literally fueled by natural resources so access to new fields is always desirable. And then there may be issues of corruption that will come to light clearly linking Putin to Yanukovich. U.S. Treasury officials have stated that Yanukovich’s family was taking $1 billion a month out of Ukraine, and Ukrainian officials claim that over $100 billion went missing; it may be that some of those resources were going as patronage fees to Putin. We may never know the full extent to which their finances were linked, but the videos of hundreds of Ukrainians calmly but intently walking about the manicured lawns, exotic animals, and golden toilets that made up Yanukovich’s palatial estate, Mezhyhirya, may have caused Putin to panic. Ukrainians disturbed nothing, knowing that all of it was evidence for a court case against the president who fled.

In fact, the Euromaidan movement, the popular uprising in early 2014 that led Yanukovich to run to Rostov-on-Don, was driven, according to its organizers, by popular demand for transparency and accountability. While Russian television relentlessly casts this movement as “fascist”—as “heirs of Bandera, Hitler’s accomplice during World War II”—it is as close to a movement for dignity and human rights as this region has ever seen and is part of a global trend of citizens demanding more open government. Setting aside whether this popular uprising will ultimately lead to a prosperous and democratic Ukraine, the tirade coming from Putin condemning the protests and the protestors in Kyiv suggests that the Kremlin has a lot at stake in trying to convince its own population that the Euromaidan movement is bad for Russia. Ukrainians on the Maidan (or Independence Square) demanding transparency and accountability of their leaders was only slightly less threatening to the Kremlin than Russians on Red Square demanding transparency and accountability of Putin—something that Putin’s Russia explicitly forbids.

Ultimately, Putin may have presided over the occupation of Crimea and continued to arm separatists in parts of Eastern Ukraine because he calculated that, simply put, he could; that is, the West is feckless, international norms and laws are highly elastic, and thus Russia’s behavior would incur no real consequences. Indeed, he repeatedly used force against his own population in a bloody war in the North Caucasus and in counterterrorism operations that left thousands of civilians, including children, dead. Russia used force in Georgia with few repercussions. Putin now cynically invokes the “responsibility to protect” ethnic Russians in Ukraine even as Russia’s Rosoboronexport sells arms to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who has, according to Secretary of State John Kerry, committed crimes against humanity. The downing of the MH 17 has at least temporarily brought all eyes to this part of Ukraine, complicating Russia’s efforts to arm the separatists for the foreseeable future. Once international attention inevitably moves on to the next crisis, we should expect that such assistance will resume.

In some policy circles, Putin’s actions in Ukraine, including the occupation of Crimea, are seen as being strongly influenced by President Barack Obama’s failure to use force when Syria in August 2013 crossed the president’s self-proclaimed “red line” by using chemical weapons. On the contrary, purported U.S. weakness in Syria was likely not determinative in regard to Putin’s actions. Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, set in motion a politically risky process, with no assurance of success, to convince Syrian president Assad to eliminate his store of chemical weapons. They acted as if they believed that Obama’s use of military force against Russia’s client was indeed credible. How else can we explain the extraordinary set of events leading to the elimination of Syria’s chemical arsenal? Would Putin and Lavrov have taken on these risks, would Assad have agreed to eliminate a major source of his power, if they thought Obama was weak and unwilling to act? In the case of Ukraine, more likely Putin calculated that U.S. vital interests were not at stake to the degree he believed Russia’s were, and that the West therefore would not prevent him from achieving his objective of undermining Ukrainian sovereignty and keeping it in Russia’s sphere of influence.

Indeed, there was no credible military option for the West to prevent the takeover of Crimea even if we had substantial warning of Russia’s intent. At present, we have no alliance with Ukraine and no commitment to come to its defense. While we abhor Putin’s trampling of the post–Cold War order in seeking to change national boundaries by force, and fear its implications for future international security, the United States had no compelling national security interests that would have justified the risks of direct military intervention.

What Is to Be Done?

Putin assumes that the West is unable to speak with one coherent voice, or at least, not for very long. In response to Moscow’s use of force in Ukraine, the G-7 threw Russia out of the G-8. Capital flight out of Russia has been significant, and stock markets there have suffered for a time. The United States and the European Union have coordinated on targeted financial sanctions of dozens of individuals and companies, and we can expect more to come. That said, U.S. business associations publicly complain about sanctions, and France, Italy, and Germany as of this date continue to sell Russia high-tech arms, even as Russia continues to destabilize parts of Ukraine. Of particular concern is France’s planned sale of Mistral-class amphibious-assault ships to Russia. If Moscow had had those ships in February and March, they could have played an important role in the invasion of Crimea.

If we are witnessing a pattern of Russian behavior from Georgia to Ukraine, then the use of force by Russia (and by proxies for it), will occur again and most likely in a non-NATO member country. Moldova, a country that hardly grabs world headlines, is especially vulnerable.

Given this new reality, we also need to have a much better understanding of the attitudes of Russian-speaking populations in NATO and non-NATO member countries. This group is not a monolithic block by any means; ethnic Russians who are leaning toward open societies in the West, are, however, a target of the Kremlin. This population is the “Russian nation” of which Putin speaks: an “ethnic group…divided by borders” since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia seeks to reach this audience, not just by hard power, but through sustained soft power projection. Specifically, the Kremlin has control of virtually all Russian television stations, and Moscow’s Channel One broadcasts to Russian-speaking populations across the former Soviet space the falsehoods articulated at home. Are Russian speakers outside Russia being duped? If this is the case, we ought to counter Putin’s disinformation campaign with a full-on communications strategy.

What would that look like? Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America, all relics from the Cold War, have both been criticized for not adapting to the twenty-first-century media environment quickly enough and, at the same time, have had their budgets squeezed as resources have been shifted to other geographical regions. Now is the time to rethink which sources of independent media across Europe—BBC, Deutsche Welle, Radio France International, etc.—could most effectively speak to these ethnic Russian populations and to consider whether sufficient resources are being allocated to this task.

Reputable experts from the United States and Europe ought also to refrain from appearing on the Kremlin’s international television station, RT, and those who attend the yearly Valdai conference, hosted by Putin, ought to understand very clearly on which side of the crisis they wish to align themselves. The days of rationalizing or pretending that RT and Valdai are anything but explicit propaganda tools of the Kremlin must come to an end.

The financial flows from Russia need very much to be on the table. The United States and the European Union need to stay focused on locating the bank accounts and companies linked to those individuals on the sanctions lists, which undoubtedly will expand. We need also, as many have argued, to use this crisis to reduce Western reliance on Russia for energy by advancing new technologies for exploiting existing energy supplies and increasing investments in alternative energy sources. And when countries are asked not to sell weapons and ships to Russia, we may need to help them address the potential loss of jobs at home, the penalties for not fulfilling contracts, or find alternative buyers.

A comprehensive economic and energy response package ought to be addressed by a call from the G-7 countries working together to put forward recommendations within the next 90 days. If that had happened after the initial invasion of Crimea, responses by Europeans today, after the grisly tragedy that consumed 298 innocent lives, may well have been swifter and more robust.

Putin’s modus operandi in Ukraine has not been an all-out armored assault with tank battalions as in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. Rather, he seeks to achieve his political ends by introducing covert forces, employing “gray ops” to incite, or amplify, instabilities and insurgency among fringe elements in Eastern Ukraine. Therefore, as Zbigniew Brzezinski recently pointed out, the military assistance that could be of most value to Ukraine is the equipment, material, and training to counter insurgencies, including urban warfare. The United States should be providing Ukraine such assistance. Moreover, it is not too soon for NATO to refine its doctrine and planning to address the linkages between internal and external security and, in resourcing forces, to provide comparable military assistance to member states with significant ethnic Russian populations.

For NATO members, perceptions are vital. Polish (and Russian!) authorities must believe that Article 5, the principle of, and commitment to, collective defense, is real and rock solid. Article 5 requires unanimous consent among all NATO members and has been invoked only once—after 9/11—and done so without substantial delay. In certain cases (e.g., Russian covert use of force), an attack may not be so clear cut, and achieving timely unanimous consent could be a heavy lift. NATO should reexamine how it could strengthen assurance of its most worried members through a continuing dialog addressing new circumstances under which Article 5 could be invoked and consider any needed reforms to the processes governing Article 5.

With the end of the Cold War, NATO has not maintained conventional forces or force deployments adequate to counter a Russian invasion, for example, of Baltic member states. It would take months to mobilize and deploy forces needed to reverse a territorial grab. Few would argue to ramp forces back up to pre-1989 levels. That said, in light of the capabilities Russia demonstrated in achieving its objectives in Crimea, the strong element of surprise it incorporated, Putin’s expressed “commitment” to ethnic Russians wherever they live, and the arming of insurgents in Eastern Ukraine, NATO would be foolish not to pay attention and plan accordingly. Contingency planning must take into account such scenarios, and from time to time, NATO must exercise critical components of those plans including reinforcement of new member states at risk. Forward stationing of conventional forces, on a routine and potentially permanent basis, must be on the table. Our sense from talking to numerous NATO experts in the United States and Europe, however, is that the alliance is, in fact, reluctant to step up in these areas. Some argue that planning, and related exercises, are threatening to Russia and would result in a dangerous reaction. More likely, Putin will interpret the alliance’s failure to address the nuts and bolts of collective defense as weakness in the extreme, which in itself encourages bad Russian behavior. NATO must do better.

Finally, do those NATO countries not now allocating the recommended 2 percent of gross domestic product to national defense need a more compelling “wake-up call” than Putin’s recent activities in Ukraine? Certainly Latvia and Lithuania, reportedly spending less than 1 percent of GDP, ought to rethink their allocations.

The Nuclear Dimension

Although Putin’s activities in Ukraine are deeply troubling, it is too early to argue that he has jumpstarted the Cold War in all its permutations. It would be premature, and ill advised, for example, to ramp up strategic forces at this point by uploading “geopolitical hedge” warheads or to start work on warheads with new military capabilities. After all, current U.S. nuclear forces are designed to deter a hostile Russia. The nuclear dimension of this crisis, therefore, is muted but not insignificant. It is important to keep nuclear modernization programs on track and to make them be seen by all to be demonstrably on track. This will help to assure new NATO members who have experienced Soviet occupation and are worried by recent Russian behavior.

We must fully engage allies in dialog about their security concerns and respond appropriately as President Obama did in Poland in June 2014. As a result of Putin’s actions, the B61-12 warhead life extension program, our plans to introduce nuclear capability to the Joint Strike Fighter, and the ability to forward deploy such dual-capable aircraft (DCA) have risen in importance. But this is not to threaten Putin; rather, it is to assure our allies, both in Europe and Asia, that the full range of U.S. military capabilities is available for their defense. In this regard, now is not the time for the alliance to reenergize debate on withdrawing U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe or for the United States to reduce unilaterally its strategic forces.

In consultations with allies, we may discover increasing interest in their being provided new opportunities to be more fully invested in U.S. extended deterrence, including, where and when appropriate, in sharing the burden of associated DCA deployments. Let’s be clear. Such burden sharing does not mean a rush to deploy DCA with nuclear weapons in the Baltics, Poland, or the Czech Republic where they are not currently deployed. Rather, it is the concerted effort to engage new members in serious dialog about the implications of Russian behavior in Ukraine, including the continued occupation of Crimea and arming of insurgents in the East, for U.S. and NATO extended deterrence commitments. Such discussion could lead to prudent steps well short of stationing nuclear weapons and/or DCA in these countries, including providing new members (1) increased transparency on how DCA forces are maintained, secured, and operated, (2) information about required infrastructure to facilitate DCA deployments, and (3) opportunities to participate in NATO interregional DCA deployment exercises.

In June 2014, coincident with Obama’s visit to Poland, the United States flew B-2 and B-52 nuclear-capable bombers to a base in the United Kingdom for training missions that included exercises with NATO forces. These flights were carried out under the operational control of Strategic Command and have not occurred in over a decade. In March 2013, the United States carried out similar B-2 and B-52 flights over the Korean peninsula in response to then-recent provocations by North Korea and were designed in part to send a message. Whatever the stated rationale for heavy bomber operations in Europe, they also send a powerful message that underscores the U.S. security commitment to NATO Allies, most specifically, its commitment to extended nuclear deterrence.


The United States and its NATO Allies need to be clear-eyed that the demands by Ukrainian citizens for greater transparency and accountability of their government were viewed by Putin as a threat worthy of using force. As he stated on March 18 in a remarkable address to the Duma and the Federation Council: “If you compress the spring [i.e., Russia] all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard. You must remember this.”

Understanding Putin’s historical narrative (and his threats) does not mean either bending or ignoring facts. Given its contours, however, it does suggest that having a solid alliance approach—combining prudent economic, diplomatic, political, and military elements of power, with no daylight between us—is essential to advance the security, prosperity, and independence of the countries that reemerged in December 1991. So which is it? Russia as a serious threat to world order, changing international boundaries in Europe by force for the first time since World War II and illicitly supplying weapons to rebels that shoot down civilian airliners? Or Russia as a reasonable partner to which one sells lethal weapons? This task of shoring up the alliance is more important today than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Are we up to the challenge? And what does the future look like if we are not?

Sarah E. Mendelson is a senior adviser and director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. From 2010 to 2014, she served as deputy assistant administrator in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development. John R. Harvey is a physicist and independent consultant with over 35 years’ experience working nuclear weapons and national security issues at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Stanford University, and with both the Departments of Defense and Energy. The authors wish to acknowledge the helpful comments from Linton Brooks and David Yost, and from participants at two meetings held in July 2014: the U.S.-UK-France Tri-Lateral Meeting in London hosted by CSIS and one hosted by the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris and France’s Atomic Energy Commission.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Sarah E. Mendelson and John R. Harvey