Putin and the West are in ‘uncharted waters’ regarding Crimea, expert says

The United States and European nations announced sanctions against Russian officials over Crimea's vote to break away from Ukraine. The Post's Douglas Jehl, Scott Wilson, and Anne Gearan explain the implications. (Jonathan Elker, Jeff Simon and Kate M. Tobey/The Washington Post)
March 17

Russians are reveling in their country’s Crimean triumph while the West is rolling out the weaponry of economic sanctions. The man responsible for all this, President Vladimir Putin, may find himself caught in the middle.

Popular at home but under fire abroad, Putin has little time to savor the rapid takeover of Crimea. The Russian president is scheduled to appear Tuesday before his country’s parliament to lay out a vision for what should happen next.

With Western governments demanding loudly that Russia stand down, even some of Putin’s allies say they will be watching to see whether he intends to lower the tension — or embark on a more defiant course.

The sanctions that the White House announced Monday against seven of Putin’s top aides and political allies are going to put that question to the test.

On Monday night, Putin signed an order recognizing Crimea as an independent state, effective immediately, according to the Kremlin.

That appears to be a first step toward mutual “reunification,” as outlined earlier in the day by the speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament.

And some experts here say that the prospects of Russia softening its stance over the longer term seem increasingly unlikely.

‘Uncharted waters’

“We are in uncharted waters,” said Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “I don’t see any trust between Russia and the West, none at all, zero.”

Fyodor Lukyanov, an editor who has a good sense of the Kremlin’s foreign policy thinking, said Russia’s handling of Crimea reflects a decision to call a halt to a post-Cold War era of worrying about the West.

“Moscow has started a serious game,’’ Lukyanov wrote on the news Web site Gazeta.ru. “The risk is huge, but the prize seems attractive. The old world order ceases to function and the new one will have to start forming soon.”

The seven Russians targeted under the new White House sanctions are key aides and political allies of Putin. Among them are two architects of the Kremlin’s Ukraine policy, Vladislav Surkov and Sergei Glazyev, and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, the hard-line head of the armaments industry here.

At the moment, a great many Russians seem to be uplifted by the West’s hostility. A poll by the independent and respected Levada Center found that 63 percent of the population believes Russia is once more a great power. Putin’s popularity rating has risen in other polls. Pundits on television talk about this as a “spiritual moment.”

The Foreign Ministry posted a popular World War II poem, by Konstantin Simonov, on its Web site early Monday, without additional commentary. It’s about the emotions of return — as if to underscore the depth of feeling in Moscow about Crimea.

In response to the sanctions, Rogozin, formerly the Russian representative to NATO, tweeted tauntingly, “Comrade Obama, what should those who have neither bank accounts, nor real estate abroad do? Or did you fail to think about that?”

Yet Russia is far more dependent on its trade with the West than vice versa. If sanctions begin to bite, and if the Kremlin lowers what Konstantin Kalachev of the Political Expert Group calls a new Iron Curtain, discontent could be close behind. Nostalgia for the Soviet era is widespread here, but millions of middle-class people also enjoy being able to vacation in France or Turkey, drive imported cars and eat imported food — and the diminishment of all that would sting.

Putin, especially in this moment of domestic triumph, must manage expectations.

“Politics is politics; business is business,” Denis Manturov, the industry and trade minister, told reporters Monday. Russia is so tied to the global market that a drop in foreign investment is impossible, he said in remarks quoted by the Interfax news agency.

Experts see risks

Among Putin’s critics, however, there are some who believe that the Kremlin has veered off in a dangerous direction.

Sergei Guriev, the former rector at the New Economic School in Moscow, who fled Russia a year ago and is living in exile in Paris, wrote in a blog post that the Russian approach now borders on “irrationality .” Such an approach could spook investors, he warned, because no one knows what Putin may do next.

The Duma is expected to take up the question of Crimea and its request for annexation after Putin’s appearance Tuesday.

Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of the Duma, said the most likely course will be for the Duma to recognize Crimean independence, sign an “inter-state agreement” with Crimea’s leaders and take up the question of “reunification.”

The Duma is expected to pass legislation, perhaps by Friday, that would make annexation possible; the mechanism for doing so would be in Putin’s hands, to be used when and how he sees fit.

Trenin said he thought that Western sanctions would be unable to achieve much, because the Russian president is acting out of passion rather than cold calculation.

“Now, I think he cannot turn back,” Trenin said. “Turning back would mean he was afraid of Western sanctions, that he is no longer the master of the game. I think it’s a bad deal if you’re talking in pragmatic terms, but we’re no longer talking in pragmatic terms in Moscow, and certainly not in the Kremlin. In the Kremlin, they’re thinking of a historic act, reuniting one part of the Russian people with another part. That’s how they see it.”

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