A quick thought on the Crimean situation

I’ve heard more than a few people talk about Vladimir Putin as if he is some sort of genius who easily outwitted our flat-footed president. But I’m not that confident. Here is a story from the New York Times:

MOSCOW — The day after he returned from the Winter Olympics, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia gathered the 12 members of his national security council for a crisis meeting to manage a political implosion in Ukraine that, by all accounts, had surprised Russia’s political and military elite and, above all, infuriated Mr. Putin himself.

One prominent member of the council, Valentina I. Matviyenko, chairwoman of the upper house of Parliament, emerged from the meeting declaring that it was impossible that Russia would invade Crimea, yet a couple of days later Russian troops were streaming into the peninsula.

When Mr. Putin made his first public remarks on the crisis on Tuesday, he said that Russia would not support Crimea’s efforts to secede. On Friday, the Kremlin allowed a mass pro-secession rally in Red Square while senior lawmakers loyal to Mr. Putin welcomed a delegation from Crimea and pledged support to make it a new province of the Russian Federation.

That doesn’t exactly scream “methodical evil mastermind” to me.

Of course some people will criticize this narrative because it comes from the New York Times. I’m not so sure. Some people just like to see misdirection and intelligence where there isn’t; it’s part of the human mind’s nature to see patterns where they don’t exist. I’m not, by any means, calling Putin stupid; he is a shrewd, dangerous man. But still, I think Ukraine probably blind-sided him; nobody expected Yanukovych to flee so suddenly and give up power so quickly. Putin also probably felt he had a duty to protect and secure the Russian naval base in Sevastopol, which is a strategic interest for himself and Russia. His only card to play? Send in troops to secure the region as Ukraine entered a period of instability.

Putin probably doesn’t want to take over Crimea directly as a Russian federal subject. It would make a difficult situation more tense and no matter how hypocritical the rhetoric might be or fallacious the argument, it would stir up a lot of resentment towards Russia that Putin frankly doesn’t need. But I would bet dollars to donuts that there are some ultranationalists within Putin’s own party who would love to get Crimea, and are subtly pushing things that way. So what we have is that Putin needs to appease the more radical members of his own government while also trying not to annoy the West too much. Even though the West is, admittedly, powerless to do anything in Crimea, he still wants to keep relations smooth for future needs. And bad PR is just bad PR.

I don’t envy the guy, that’s for sure.

Of course, not being a foreign policy expert, I could be completely wrong, but I don’t think things are playing out right for Putin either. Which only reinforces my opinion that right now, the best thing we can do (other than exporting American natural gas to Europe, which would weaken Russia’s economic hegemony over Europe, as well be, you know, free trade) is really nothing at all. This is not America’s business, and for once I can say I am content with our president’s current stance.