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Putin's War in Crimea Could Soon Spread to Eastern Ukraine

And nobody—not the U.S., not NATO—can stop him

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Vladimir Putin has asked the Federation Council—the upper chamber of Russia's dummy parliament—to authorize the use of force not just in Crimea, but "on Ukraine's territory until the socio-political situation is normalized." And though American spies and the Washington Post categorically ruled this out just days ago, this was not entirely unexpected. The situation is changing rapidly, but here are some initial thoughts.

Why is Putin doing this? Because he can. That's it, that's all you need to know. The situation in Kiev—in which people representing one half of the country (the Ukrainian-speaking west) took power to some extent at the expense of the Russian-speaking east—created the perfect opportunity for Moscow to divide and conquer. As soon as the revolution in Kiev happened, there was an unhappy rumbling in the Crimea, which has a large Russian population and is home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. It was a small rumbling, but just big enough for Russia to exploit. And when such an opportunity presents itself, one would be foolish not to take it, especially if one's name is Vladimir Putin. 

We didn't think Putin would do this. Why, exactly? This has often puzzled me about Western analysis of Russia. It is often predicated on wholly Western logic: surely, Russia won't invade [Georgia, Ukraine, whoever's next] because war is costly and the Russian economy isn't doing well and surely Putin doesn't want another hit to an already weak ruble; because Russia doesn't need to conquer Crimea if Crimea is going to secede on its own; Russia will not want to risk the geopolitical isolation, and "what's really in it for Russia?"—stop. Russia, or, more accurately, Putin, sees the world according to his own logic, and the logic goes like this: it is better to be feared than loved, it is better to be overly strong than to risk appearing weak, and Russia was, is, and will be an empire with an eternal appetite for expansion. And it will gather whatever spurious reasons it needs to insulate itself territorially from what it still perceives to be a large and growing NATO threat. Trying to harness Russia with our own logic just makes us miss Putin's next steps. 

Pessimism always wins. One of the reasons I left my correspondent's post in Moscow was because Russia, despite all the foam on the water, is ultimately a very boring place. Unfortunately, all you really need to do to seem clairvoyant about the place is to be an utter pessimist. Will Vladimir Putin allow the ostensibly liberal Dmitry Medvedev to have a second term? Not a chance. There are protests in the streets of Moscow. Will Putin crackdown? Yup. There's rumbling in the Crimea, will Putin take advantage and take the Crimean peninsula? You betcha. And you know why being a pessimist is the best way to predict outcomes in Russia? Because Putin and those around him are, fundamentally, terminal pessimists. They truly believe that there is an American conspiracy afoot to topple Putin, that Russian liberals are traitors corrupted by and loyal to the West, they truly believe that, should free and fair elections be held in Russia, their countrymen would elect bloodthirsty fascists, rather than democratic liberals. To a large extent, Putin really believes that he is the one man standing between Russia and the yawning void. Putin's Kremlin is dark and scary, and, ultimately, very boring.

Remember the U.N.? Russia loves the U.N. Anytime the U.S. or Europe want to do anything on the world stage, Russia pipes up, demanding the issue be taken to the U.N. for the inevitable Russian veto. As Steven Lee Meyers, Moscow correspondent for the New York Times, pointed out, Russia does not seem to even remember that the institution exists today. Ditto for all that talk of "political solutions" and "diplomatic solutions" and "dialogue" we heard about in Syria. In other words, what we are seeing today—Russia's unilateral declaration of war—is the clearest statement yet of Russia's actual position: Putin empathizes with Bashar al-Assad as a fellow leader holding his country back from the brink and doing the dirty work that needs to be done to accomplish that, and the U.N. is just a convenient mechanism for keeping nay-sayers with large armies at bay.

As I wrote earlier this month, Russia, like the U.S., projects its own mindset onto the rest of the world. So when you hear Putin and his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and the talking heads on Russia Today crowing about American cynicism and machinations, well, keep in mind whom they're really talking about. 

Speaking of America. Today's meeting of the Federation Council was an incredible sight to behold. Man after Soviet-looking man mounted the podium to deliver a short diatribe name it. Against Ukrainian fascism, against Swedes, and, most of all, against America. One would think that it wasn't the illegitimate government in Kiev occupying Russian Crimea—which, lordy lord, if we're going to get ethnic, let's recall who originally lived there—but the 82nd Airborne. The vice speaker of the Council even demanded recalling the Russian ambassador to Washington. America was amazingly, fantastically behind events in Kiev and proved utterly inept at influencing them, and yet none of that seemed to matter. America, the old foe, was everywhere, its fat capitalist fingers in every Slavic pie. Watching the Federation Council, where few of the speakers seemed to be under the age of 60, I couldn't escape the feeling that this was an opportunity for Russia not just to take back some land it's long considered its rightful own, but to settle all scores and to tie up all loose ends. You know, while they're at it.

Double standards. This is another howl you often hear rending the skies over Moscow: Western double standards. But let's get real for a second. We've spoken already about the U.N., but what about the holy Russian mantra of non-interference in a nation's internal affairs? When it comes to Syria, to take a most recent example, the fight between Assad and the rebels is something only the Syrians can sort out. Ditto every other country in the world—unless it's in Russia's backyard, where Russia still experiences phantom limb syndrome. The internal issues of former Soviet republics, you see, are not truly internal issues of sovereign nations. This is because, by Stalin's very conscious design and very deliberate border drawing and population movement, most former Soviet republics are ethnic hodgepodges. So Ukraine has a sizable Russian population. Ditto Estonia, ditto Georgia, ditto Kazakhstan. And, according to Putin's unspoken doctrine, anywhere Russian citizens are determined to be at risk, Mother Moscow can intercede with force on their behalf.

In other, blunter words, Russian ethnicity and citizenship trump national sovereignty. At the very least, they provide a convenient pretext for territorial expansion, as they did in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where Russia was also ostensibly protecting Russian citizens—also newly minted for the occasion. Just this week, for instance, Russia introduced a law to make it easier for Ukrainians to get Russian citizenship—you know, to give Russia someone to protect.

Russia manufactured this crisis to create a pretext for a land-grab. There are now protests swinging Russian flags and hailing Russia's glory not just in Crimea but all over the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine. I was just in Donetsk, Yanukovich's hometown, on Monday. It was calm, calmer than calm. There were a couple dozen people guarding the Lenin statue in the center of the city from vandals, but that was it. A muckety-muck in the city's administration told me, "If they send new people in to replace us, we'll leave peacefully, we won't try to hang on." The same was the case in Simferopol, in Crimea. And then, out of nowhere, men with unmarked uniforms were taking over government buildings and airports, and huge demonstrations were pumping on town squares all over the regions. The Kremlin often refers to "a well-organized informational war" when their enemies broadcast something they don't like on repeat. And now, looking at the alarmist, blanket coverage on Russian television—now all loyal to the Kremlin—about fascists and radicals staging a coup in Kiev, it's hard to think of a better term. This was indeed a well-organized informational war. 

Neither America nor NATO can stop this. They've shown they won't in Georgia, because nobody wants to start a war with nuclear-armed Russia, and rightly so. So while Washington and Brussels huff and puff about lines and sovereignty and diplomacy, Russia will do what it needs to do and there's not a thing we can do about it.

Russia's next target is eastern Ukraine. Because pessimism conquers all, don't bet that Putin is going to stop once he wrests Crimea from Kiev's orbit. Eastern, Russian-speaking Ukraine—and all its heavy industry—is looking pretty good right now. And if you're thinking "Why would Putin take eastern Ukraine?," well, you haven't been reading very carefully.

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