DAVID IGNATIUS: For Putin, a possible Pyrrhic victory



It’s still possible to imagine a fuzzy, face-saving compromise in Ukraine: Crimea would have a new, quasi-autonomous administrative status blessed by Moscow and Kiev. The problem is that few analysts think Russian President Vladimir Putin will swallow this diplomatic pill.

Secretary of State John Kerry made one more try, seeing his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in London on Friday.

What happens next, if Putin doesn’t take Kerry’s offramp ? That’s quite literally a guessing game for the Obama administration. Officials can’t be sure how the Russian leader will move; they hope the West will stay united in imposing punitive sanctions, but that unity can’t be guaranteed. Above all, U.S. officials are assessing whether the Ukraine crisis will mean a real breach in U.S.-Russian relations – one that could torpedo joint diplomatic efforts over Syria and Iran – or whether common interests can prevail.

You hear two strains of opinion about Putin from administration officials and other foreign policy analysts. For simplicity’s sake, let’s summarize these two views as Putin is strong and Putin is weak.

Those who see the Russian leader playing a strong hand argue that he has been readying such a military intervention for more than a decade. He invaded Georgia in 2008 and faced little Western opposition. He has now used military force to protect Russia’s interests in Ukraine and, perhaps, other neighboring states – prompting talk of sanctions but no serious military response. He has shown that a dictator’s bullying tactics can be successful.

The alternative view of a weak Putin begins with the fundamentals: Russia is in political, economic and social decline. Putin’s abrasive tactics, far from intimidating Ukraine, led its people to depose Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych last month and form a new government. By his truculent behavior, Putin has driven Russia’s neighbors closer to NATO. A weak Putin, in this view, has stumbled into the very situation he most fears.

My guess is that Putin will be a winner only in the short run.

A small sign of Putin’s long-term problem is that both China and Japan have pulled back from Moscow, thanks to the Crimea adventure.

U.S. officials also doubt that Russia will sabotage the chemical-weapons disposal agreement in Syria or the international negotiations to limit Iran’s nuclear program.

Putin must also be careful about the domestic consequences of his Crimea putsch. It may encourage secessionists in Dagestan, Chechnya and other potential breakaway regions.

The Ukraine showdown, in a sense, has been a confrontation, as Kerry argues, between a 19th-century worldview and a 21st-century approach. Putin’s moves on the ground have been decisive, with immediate impact. The U.S.-led response has been collective, deliberative and slower to emerge. The world was impressed initially by the “shock and awe” of America’s military intervention in Iraq in 2003. One thing on which Putin and President Obama can agree is that the benefits of that military intervention didn’t last.

Contact David Ignatius at davidignatius@washpost.com. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group. Read more from Ignatius’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

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