Putin's Gambit and Obama's Recurring Russia Problem

Obama and Russia, again. It's an ongoing storyline, President Barack Obama's chronic problem in properly reading Russia and in particular, President Vladimir Putin. We're shocked that Putin would intervene militarily in Crimea.


My gut reaction on the Ukraine crisis was that of course Vladimir Putin would react to the overthrow of a democratically-elected Russia-friendly government in Kiev by an anti-Russian coalition -- especially taking place during his hard-won moment of triumph as the Sochi Winter Olympics concluded with Russia on top in the medals count and all threatened terrorist action quashed -- with some very hard moves. And so he has.

It should be no surprise. Putin gave Obama some very strong signals back in 2009 when Obama, evidently laboring under the delusion that then-President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's former chief of staff, was the Russian power to deal with, went to Moscow for his big "re-set" of relations speech. As I wrote then in "Obama Does Moscow, and Vice Versa," Putin (who traded the presidency for the premiership with Medvedev for four years to avoid changing the new constitution) forced Obama to come to him at his dacha in a forest outside Moscow. There he lectured Obama for the better part of two hours about NATO expanding to Russia's borders and what he views as anti-Russian activities in general on the part of the West, causing Obama to be late to his own big speech, the first time that ever happened with Obama.

After Obama belatedly set off for his own event, Putin pointedly passed up the opportunity to attend Obama's ballyhooed address himself in favor of rallying with his favorite motorcycle club, the Night Wolves. Which was then setting off for, wait for it, Ukraine to symbolize the neighboring country's deep importance to Russia and oppose attempts to move it into the orbit of the U.S. and the West. And yes, that was the same motorcycle club that Putin just sent into Ukraine's Crimea, part of Russia until the 1950s, in advance of the helicopter gunships.

Putin's extreme level of concern about keeping Ukraine out of the Western orbit was not only on ample display for Obama, it was in his face.

Now Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry talk of "isolating Russia" for Putin's gambit, which is still a measured one. That's pretty non-serious.

Why? Short form: Money, energy, and power.

Russia vetoes anything it doesn't like in the UN and has too much military power to be taken on in Ukraine.

Russia is the biggest supplier of energy to the Europe, especially Germany, especially natural gas.

Russia is a huge source of cash sluicing through global capital markets, especially the City of London. Hence the amusing photograph in the Guardian of the Downing Street document opposing serious financial sanctions.

It's like when Obama "punished" Putin for refusing to hand over ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden -- like Putin would ever in a million years do that! -- by canceling his trip to Moscow before the St. Petersburg G-20 summit last September. (I don't know if Snowden, whose revelations of massive American surveillance have roiled world politics and shocked many Americans, is a Russian spy or not. No such evidence has been introduced. Snowden doesn't seem like a spy, but that means little. What does mean something is that the Obama Administration, in cowboy mode, made it impossible for Snowden to leave Moscow for a planned Latin American getaway. Thus not so cleverly delivering what the Washington poobahs call one of the most dangerous sources in the history of intelligence into the hands of the only professional spymaster heading up a major world power.

As I wrote last September, Putin, a triple black belt in martial arts, couldn't have cared less about Obama's "punishment" of him. A month or so later, there he was with the path forward for Obama when the president shocked much of America when he nearly pushed the button on war in Syria.

The aggressive pattern of NATO expansion to Russia's borders, initiated by President Bill Clinton when Russia was flat on its back after the fall of the Soviet Union -- the supposed raison d'etre for NATO's existence -- ignited Russian nationalism and paranoia and led to the rise of Putin.

Americans, who are generally ignorant of the impact of geography on politics -- an ignorance made possible by the protection of two vast oceans, patrolled by the most powerful navy in world history, and two friendly and far less powerful countries on our only borders -- may not understand the unique combination of pride and paranoia in the Russian character. Pride in the amazingly rich culture on ample display at the Sochi Olympics. Paranoia about a long history of invasions.

Militarily, Russia is not protected by natural geographic barriers. It is protected only by depth in terms of the distance that an invader must drive to reach Moscow.

Ever since the Cold War ended, Western interests have been pushing against the defensive depth enjoyed by Russia. If you look at a map of Europe, you see that NATO is already hard against much of Russia's western border.

Ukraine has been a constant target for NATO expansion. And for Western political expansion. Some years back I called a Republican political consultant and noticed a few tells that his phone was out of the country. I asked him where he was. "Ukraine, land of the supermodels," he answered brightly. He was working for a pro-Western politicians opposed to the candidate preferred by Russia.

Indeed, it was another attempt to bring Ukraine into the Western orbit that prompted the present crisis.

An association and free trade agreement with the European Union was on the table. Ukraine would get $838 million in loans, but those loans would require new conditions from the International Monetary Fund which would allow the currency to devalue and would require the removal of public subsidies for natural gas users.

Russia countered with the offer of a $15 billion loan with no strings. No financial strings, that is.

Just deposed President Viktor Yanukovich, already Russia-friendly, chose the bigger Russian umbrella. Almost immediately, pro-European Union demonstrations against the government began in Kiev's Maidan, or Independence Square.

Putin views all this in a continuum, as part of an ongoing Western strategy. It's understandable why he would do so. He might be a little paranoid, but the KGB didn't train its officers, part of arguably the best intelligence service in the world, to accept a lot of coincidences. And in the intelligence game, it's better to be paranoid than naive.

None of which makes Putin a good guy. He's not. What he is is the sophisticated culmination of a brutal political system.

Back in 1994, the State Department placed a touring top aide of then Russian President Boris Yeltsin with me for several weeks as part of his education in American politics. I was working with the Brown family then, with an office in former Governor Pat Brown's suite of offices in LA's Century City, focused on helping Kathleen Brown, Jerry's sister, run for governor. If it was odd taking my new mostly Russian-speaking friend to various meetings -- though he did get to speak Russian with Warren Beatty, the director of the biggest American movie about Russia, Reds -- it was even odder listening to his calls in the adjacent office.

He was on the phone constantly with friends in Moscow, where the new democratic reform party they were building was under constant attack. And by "attack," I don't mean simply with words. Serious reform-minded politicoes were being not only beaten, but stabbed and even shot.

As the '90s went on I went on to help this party, but its days were numbered. Politics in Moscow was chaotic, violent, corrupt, mirroring the dramatic uncertainty of Russia itself in the immediate post-Soviet era.

In the end, with Russia's territorial integrity under threat from Islamic fundamentalism and the successful revolt in Chechnya, President Yeltsin turned to FSB security service chief, a former KGB colonel who made his way into post-Soviet politics as a reformer in sophisticated St. Petersburg. Vladimir Putin. Yeltsin made him prime minister of Russia. Where George W. Bush infamously looked in Putin's eyes and saw "his soul," I saw a white-out blizzard and imagined wolf call in the background. Almost immediately upon becoming premiere, Russia resumed its war with the Chechen separatists. This time, with Putin's ruthlessly efficient approach, Moscow prevailed, though an insurgency continued for years.

Yeltsin suddenly resigned the presidency and endorsed Putin as his successor. Having reestablished the honor of the Red Army, Putin was immediately very popular, using all the intelligence agency tricks to further his popularity and advance his control. He became such a pervasive and powerful presence in the Russian consciousness that my Russian ex used to have dreams in which she was Putin's daughter.

Later, of course, Putin's popularity faded, though he is still about as popular as a successful American politician. And I believe his popularity is going up.

What became of the democratic reformers of the '90s? Virtually none were siloviki, the men of power from security service and/or military backgrounds who proved dominant in the Putin scene. More intellectual and activist types, they've gone into their niche in the regime, gone into new fields of endeavor, gone silent, or just plain gone. Into exile, that is.

So what will Putin do next? Let his Crimea move settle in and see if a Ukrainian president emerges whom he can deal with.

There are deals to be made with Putin, deals that will benefit the U.S. and its interests. But only if one understands that he operates on the basis of his own analysis of Russian interests and has no desire to share a cheeseburger summit with Barack Obama or become a Twitter pal of Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the far nicer Mr. Medvedev did.