Putin Has Won on Ukraine: Is He Savvy Enough to Seize Victory?

Putin's gains are an embarrassment for Obama, though U.S. options are few.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting in his Novo-Ogaryovo residence, outside Moscow on March 5, 2014. (National Journal)

Vladimir Putin has won. Of the most likely outcomes in Ukraine, the one most perplexing to the United States and most damaging to President Obama's legacy is the status quo.

Putin could accept Obama's diplomatic "off-ramp:" shift his troops back to their Crimea bases, permit international monitors, and open relations with the interim government. He also could escalate, pushing troops into eastern Ukraine.

But he has little incentive to either pull back or push forward, because the current state of affairs favors Putin in two ways.

First, his troops are deployed throughout Crimea, a boon to his expansionist domestic politics and an embarrassment for the West — particularly for Obama who, as the U.S. president, is Putin's de facto stopgap.

Second, Russia's geopolitical adversaries are divided on how to respond, with Obama pushing for international sanctions and many of European leaders balking over their dependence on Russian fuel.

Putin knows that withdrawing his troops from Crimea would be a victory for Obama, and that escalating aggression would strengthen Obama's case for mega-sanctions. If Putin is savvy, he'll stay put and seek from this self-created crisis what he gained in Georgia, where Russian troops have occupied northern sections of the nation since 2008, when he put then-President George W. Bush in a similar box.

How handcuffed is Obama? Read this paragraph from Peter Baker's analysis in the New York Times:

"For the moment, the White House was focused on preventing the confrontation from escalating. While dismayed if not surprised by Mr. Putin's bellicosity and justification of his actions, American officials took some solace that he said he saw no need at this point for intervention in Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine. They were also encouraged by his seeming acceptance of elections in May as a way to legitimize a new Ukrainian government and by his decision to cancel a military exercise near the border. And they detected no new influx of troops in Crimea."

When you find "solace" in a Putin promise and encouragement in his "seeming acceptance" of democracy, you're losing — big time.

As I wrote the other day, Obama shoulders some blame for misjudging Putin, just as Bush did before him. Also, Obama's allergy to personal relations is exposed during a crisis like this, when the president needs to make a tough sell to allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. His relations with much of Europe were strained already over is Bush 2.0 policies on surveillance and terrorism. Finally, Obama's penchant for making threats he can't or won't back up (see: "Syria, red line"), while less of an issue in recent days, is no doubt a factor in Putin's calculations.

But the Bush-Georgia lesson is instructive. Regardless of the man or woman occupying the Oval Office, Putin will do what Putin does, until the international community reduces its dependence of Russian oil and gas, and, when he acts out, unites behind tough sanctions and/or military action.

As things stand now in Ukraine, Putin has succeeded to divide his enemies and reclaim Soviet-era territory for Mother Russia. Status quo is a victory for him. The question is whether he's smart enough to seize it.

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