Putin and the West

Crimea is gone. Increased sanctions and criticism from the West will not stop Russia's annexation of this largely ethnic-Russian peninsula. As Ukraine now withdraws its troops from Crimea, America and its allies should instead focus their diplomacy on the preservation of a democratic Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin carries deep bitterness over the collapse of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991. He had risen through the ranks of the Soviet system to become a colonel in the KGB, the Soviet secret police. His birthplace of Leningrad withstood a brutal 900-day siege by the Nazi's during World War II. After the Soviet Union dissolved, Leningrad was given its original name of St. Petersburg. It was built on the Neva River in 1703 by Russia's most legendary tsar, Peter the Great, as a gateway to the Baltic Sea. Tsar Peter not only built that city, he also built a powerful Russian fleet, and he led a cultural revolution that transformed Russia into a more modern society.

Because of his upbringing, President Putin has a tough, energetic and nationalistic mien. He learned how to work within the complex Soviet system, and shrewdly rose to the top.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia underwent severe economic stress. By 1998, Russia, then led by President Boris Yeltsin, suffered huge government deficits that caused a financial crisis and a steep decline in its gross domestic product. Yeltsin suddenly resigned in 1999, and handed the government over to his recently appointed prime minister, Vladimir Putin.

Putin was elected to his first term as president in 2000, and he brought stability to the country while ushering in a long period of economic growth. His accomplishments won him wide acclaim among a discouraged Russian populace. But his critics denounced his suppression of democracy, cronyism and the country's growing corruption.

In 2005, Putin said, "We should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century." He continued, "Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside of Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself."

Putin ruthlessly suppressed unrest in the Russian border province of Chechnya, which resulted in as many as 50,000 dead or missing over a ten-year conflict. In 2008, Putin sent troops into the Georgian states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to quell unrest. Despite outrage from the West, both remain under Russian occupation today.

Putin controlled the corrupt president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych -- a man who became wealthy while leading his country into financial ruin. Putin's intentions were to keep Ukraine in Russia's orbit while keeping it out of the European Union, a move that was favored by a majority of Ukraine's people. When President Yanukovych fled to Russia in February, Putin grabbed the heavily ethnic Russian Crimean peninsula, which is the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Crimea was part of Russia until former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in 1954.

Following an illegal referendum in which the largely ethnic Russian population of Crimea voted to undo Khrushchev's deed, Putin reclaimed the peninsula. "After a long, hard and exhaustive journey at sea, Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to their homeland, to the native shores, to the home port, to Russia!" Putin said Tuesday.

But what lies ahead for Ukraine, which has a large Russian population in its eastern regions along the 1,200-mile border with Russia? In his remarks Tuesday, Putin said, "Don't believe those who try to frighten you with Russia and who scream other regions will follow after Crimea." He continued, "We do not want a partition of Ukraine. We do not need this."

Of late, Russia's economy, now eighth globally in GDP, has been in crisis. No doubt Putin's actions in Crimea will play well in the short term with his supporters. But increased sanctions from the West will weigh heavily on the Russian economy. Putin will be forced to ratchet up his anti-West rhetoric.

On Tuesday, Putin denounced the West, saying, "They cheated us again and again, made decisions behind our back." He said, "That's the way it was with the expansion of NATO in the East, with the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders." He continued, "Some Western politicians already threaten us not only with sanctions, but also with the potential for domestic problems."

The fact is that Putin will try to use any response from the West to his political advantage. Nonetheless, the United States and its allies must impose additional tough economic sanctions on the economically strained Russia with the goal of preserving a free democracy for the Ukrainian people.