March 21

Jim Hoagland is a contributing editor to The Post. His e-mail address is jimhoagland@washpost.com.

Shake hands with Vladimir Putin, as I have three times, and you do not feel you are in the presence of a master strategist or a visionary ready to change history with his ideas. Putin comes across in conversation as vain and petulant, with a taste for cruelly needling others.

This is key to understanding where the Crimea crisis goes next. The Russian Supreme Spy will probe for weaknesses and exploit them by buying, bullying or backstabbing his adversaries. Like all spies, he assumes there is a little treachery, and a lot of larceny, in us all. Proving that is what makes him tick.

Russia’s move to slice Crimea from Ukraine was an example of “black ops,” as Tom Donilon, President Obama’s astute former national security adviser, put it over the weekend. The White House may be going to school on the espionage novels of John Le Carre and Robert Ludlum rather than the memoirs of Dean Acheson and George Kennan.

The available evidence suggests that the former KGB colonel did not set out to restart the Cold War. He is not operating from a grand design to dismember Ukraine, though he would greedily pocket that outcome if it happens.

For now, he intends to extend his invasion deep into Ukraine’s east only if events encourage or, in his view, force him to do so. He acts out of opportunism and an obsession with inflicting payback on his professional rivals. He is, however, containable if confronted with consistency and clarity.

Putin assumes that CIA agents were behind the ousting of his clients in Kiev last month. It is what he would have done in their shoes. You can almost see him beaming with (misguided) professional pride: a (highly visible) covert operation emphasizing (implausible) deniability by (inadequately) disguising invading Russian troops and then establishing a (puppet) Crimean regime to appeal for annexation.

This is skillful espionage work — by the standards of U.S. covert operations in Guatemala, Iran and elsewhere in the 1950s. That seems to be Putin’s chronological frame of operational reference, not the 19th century.

But in the process he has made the mistake of proclaiming what amounts to a Putin Doctrine: Moscow will intervene to protect ethnic Russians in other countries against even imaginary dangers. He updates the ideologically motivated Brezhnev Doctrine with obsolescent ethnic and nationalistic guidelines for intervention.

This is not where he intended to be a few months ago, when he was magnanimously releasing his arch foe Mikhail Khordorkovsky and the Pussy Riot dissidents and basking in the reflected glory of the Sochi Olympics. Then, he was working to bring Russia deeper into the international system, not plunge it into isolation.

Rather than admit defeat in the spy-vs.-spy contest that rages largely in his head, Putin has ended the 30-year post-Cold War era dedicated to making Russia a normal state. That gives Obama, who possesses no realistic immediate option to roll back the annexation of Crimea, room to use diplomatic jujitsu by employing Putin’s own momentum against him.

The Baltic nations and the former Soviet states in Central Asia have much to fear from a Putin Doctrine. Even China shrinks from voting with Russia at the United Nations to defend Putin’s land grab. Most important, the Crimea operation has swung Germany away from an attitude of non-engagement in foreign crises toward active support for the Ukrainian reform movement and for initial modest reprisals against Putin. His repeated insulting macho behavior toward Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to have pushed her to the breaking point with him.

Returning German-American cooperation to the center of NATO policymaking would be a major accomplishment for Obama. It would facilitate use of the existing Ukraine-NATO partnership to provide Kiev with carefully measured but effective security assistance, and make coordination of U.S. and European economic aid easier. Germany’s desire for a new transatlantic trade agreement and the United States’ growing potential to export energy gives Obama leverage to create a new foundation for North Atlantic unity.

This crisis comes at a point when a second-term president is thinking hard about Project Legacy. Already, some at the White House are urging Obama not to endanger the still-struggling economic recovery by hitting Russia with broad sanctions. There is also worry in those precincts that Obama’s diplomatic holy grail — a nuclear agreement with Iran — would be at risk.

Obama must take those dangers into consideration. But he must also be aware that his choices would help shape Crimea, Ukraine and, perhaps most significant, the Russia the world will be dealing with a decade from now.