Walter Russell Mead: Obama Misreads Putin

Monday, 03 Mar 2014 06:49 AM

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Russian President Vladimir Putin's strategy is based on the idea that whenever Moscow's interests are advanced, Washington's take a hit, while President Barack Obama eschews such geopolitical gamesmanship, according to Walter Russell Mead writing in The American Interest.

Obama "rightly" resists returning to a Cold War posture with Moscow, Mead wrote. But misconstruing Putin's approach has resulted in Obama miscalculating the Russian leader's resolve to pursue his country's interest at Western expense.

Obama wants Putin to be his partner, Mead wrote. The president is relying on Putin to join him in pursuing nuclear arms control, to block Iran's quest for the atomic bomb and for Moscow's help in ending the Syrian civil war.

The danger is that Putin views Washington as an adversary in a winner-take-all game, not a partner in a win-win relationship, Mead wrote.

The West underestimated Putin's commitment to blocking any deal between Viktor Yanukovych and the EU, Mead wrote. This led the Ukrainian president to move back into Putin's camp, setting off the protests that resulted in his forced departure from Kiev – the third violent change in Ukraine's regime since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In response, Putin seized the military bases Russia controls in Ukraine's Crimean peninsula. The West faces the choice of taking on the multibillion-dollar burden of keeping Kiev's economy afloat only to see Moscow funnel this money into its own coffers in return for natural gas, or to go along with a face-saving scheme that would leave Putin's gains entrenched.

Ultimately, Putin cannot rebuild the former Soviet empire because his country's economy can't afford it. In the short term, however, he can still do a great deal of harm to Western interests, Mead concluded.

Separately, an editorial in The Wall Street Journal noted that the eastern region of Ukraine which Putin has taken over has an ethnic Russian majority along with a large Crimean Tatar minority.

Putin probably took into account that neither Washington nor Europe acted to aid Georgia when Moscow invaded in 2008, according to the editorial. This raises the prospect that Putin plans to "carve up" Ukraine, the Journal said.

The West does have some leverage over Russia, the Journal said. The ruble is weak. Russia's economy is susceptible to sanctions. And Moscow wants the 2014 G8 summit to be held in the Black Sea resort of Sochi as planned in June.

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