Analysis |

Ukraine Crisis? Time to Call It the Putin Crisis

There are still many in the West impressed and enamored with Russian President Vladimir Putin – and not just his number one groupie at Mar-a-Lago. Perhaps the current crisis will lead to the revision of this skewed view

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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Pro-Ukrainian protest in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin
Pro-Ukrainian protest in front of the Russian embassy in BerlinCredit: JOHN MACDOUGALL - AFP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

It is reasonable to assume that a third world war and exchange of nuclear missiles between the United States and Russia will not happen. But since Monday night, the standoff concerning Ukraine definitely represents the most dangerous time in global security since, arguably, the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.

“To put it simply, Russia just announced that it is carving out a big chunk of Ukraine. … I’m going to begin to impose sanctions in response, far beyond the steps we and our allies and partners implemented in 2014. And if Russia goes further with this invasion, we stand prepared to go further with sanctions. Who in the Lord’s name does Putin think gives him the right to declare new so-called countries on territory that belonged to his neighbors?” U.S. President Joe Biden said Tuesday in a short and focused speech.

After President Vladimir Putin’s declaration Monday that Russia recognized the independence of the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, hundreds of hyperventilating pundits, analysts, observers, diplomats and politicians worldwide were perplexed and tormented by one question: does this constitute an invasion? If it does, then harsh sanctions will be imposed, as the United States pledged to do. But if the U.S. started to split hairs on the exact definition of what Russia’s action was, then everyone can feel free to tear into Biden and the Americans for hesitation, weakness and loss of credibility.

When Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez and committee member Sen. Chris Coons called it an invasion and described a sanctions package the U.S. Senate has put together, the answer should have been clear.

And on Tuesday morning, when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz suspended the $11-billion Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia directly to Germany, the answer was even clearer. Naturally, the punditocracy and diplomatic world waited for Biden himself to call it an invasion before they issued their learned verdict on what it all means.

He did. Unequivocally.

The sanctions the United States is imposing, together with those by the European Union and possibly also Japan, Taiwan and Singapore, are very harsh. Russia may have expected this and factored it in, but it does not and should not diminish the severity of those sanctions. Dismissive comments of “Russia is strong enough to withstand this” are premature.

There are still many in the West impressed and enamored with Putin – and I’m not just talking about his number one groupie at Mar-a-Lago. Putin is a genius who sees beyond the geopolitical horizon. He skillfully plays four-dimensional chess while the simpletons of the world, particularly U.S. presidents, can’t think beyond backgammon. They throw dice while he concocts intricate, multilayered campaigns.

Perhaps this crisis can precipitate a revision of this skewed view.

Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week.Credit: ALEXEY NIKOLSKY - AFP

Throughout, Putin has been outmaneuvered by Biden and made erroneous assumptions on U.S. resolve, NATO unity and the extent of sanctions. He was forced into having only bad policy options, and he chose one. This should be qualified: crises have dynamics and crises evolve. Putin’s current miscalculation can conceivably be turned around. Unlikely, but possible.

This not just about his decision-making process – a process reduced to one insulated man who has transitioned from authoritarianism to full dictatorship. A simple comparison of the speech Putin made Monday and the one delivered Tuesday by Biden demonstrates the respective characters and states of mind of both presidents.

Putin gave a long, rambling and disjointed lecture on Russian and Ukrainian history, essentially negating Ukraine’s sovereign status and saying it does not deserve to be a state. Scholars of Russia and Putin observers know this strain from previous speeches and articles he wrote about Russian nationalism. He sounded less like a Homo Sovieticus intent on restoring the Soviet empire and more like a Romanov czar infatuated with Russia’s historic glory, going as far as to blame Vladimir Lenin for the Ukraine problem and Mikhail Gorbachev for allowing former republics to flee Russia’s orbit.

As Fiona Hill, a noted Russia expert in several U.S. administrations, told The New York Times, Putin believes the entire crisis “is about him personally – his legacy, his view of himself, his view of Russian history. Putin clearly sees himself as a protagonist in Russian history. ... He’s living in history and his narrative of history.”

This explains why his speech lasted a full hour.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaking in a televised address about the Russia-Ukraine crisis, in the White House yesterday. Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI - AFP

Biden, meanwhile, is a policy-oriented, Cold War-shaped, seasoned American politician. He gave a cogent, tight, structured and practical policy speech that wrote its own headlines and takeaways.

This explains why his speech was less than nine minutes long.

Putin admirers and advocates should look at the state of Russia under the president. Forget for a moment kleptocracy, corruption and grievances. Look at the big economic picture.

Russia is a vast country with an abundance of natural resources, a very powerful military with advanced weapons systems. But it is not a superpower. Not in terms of its diplomatic dominance and clout, and not in terms of its weak, energy exports-based economy.

The Russian stock exchange (MOEX) fell by 40 percent in the last year and 30 percent in the last two weeks. The weakness is far more apparent when viewed comparatively.

The population of Russia in 2020 was 146 million. Its gross domestic product – granted, an imprecise indicator – was $1.48 trillion, not much bigger than those of Australia (population 26 million) and Spain (47.5 million), and less than three U.S. states: California, Texas and New York. This makes Russia the 12th largest economy in the world, or 15th if you include the U.S. states. Russia’s GDP per capita is a meager $11,000. For comparison, Israel’s is $44,000.

A woman walking past a neon sign showing currency rates for the Russian ruble, yesterday in Moscow. Credit: DIMITAR DILKOFF - AFP

Ukraine is the focal point and the arena where this crisis is unfolding. But an examination of the core reasons underlying it and Russian arguments clearly indicate that this is far beyond Ukraine in both space and time.

Putin frequently invoked the “NATO expansion” argument and Ukraine acceding to the military alliance as his relevant grievance and justification. So much so that gullible minds in the West started believing he may have a point. But first, NATO does not threaten Russia. Second, Ukraine was already invited to join in 2008, an idea nominally suggested again after the 2014 Maidan revolution. However, it has not joined, nor did the United States or NATO have any serious intentions of making it happen.

From an American perspective, Putin’s objectives are far more nefarious with him embodying the Romanov dynasty. He wants a clear and demarcated sphere of influence, and therefore wants NATO out of Eastern Europe – or what used to be the Warsaw Pact countries. What starts with Ukraine will then be extended to the Baltic states.

Furthermore, if the United States allows Russia to challenge and try to remodel the European security order, China may replicate the pattern in Taiwan and the South China Sea. If the Americans consent to halting NATO exercises in Eastern Europe, why shouldn’t China demand the same in respect to Japan and South Korea? And if it does, what will prevent Japan and South Korea from developing a nuclear deterrent?

The next 48 to 72 hours will be critical in terms of the direction and characteristics of this crisis. Will Russia further penetrate Ukrainian territory, expanding a limited incursion into a fully-fledged invasion? How will Putin react to the harsh – but anticipated – sanctions imposed by the United States and the EU? Can and will he be deterred?

As for escalation, Putin controlled that element by virtue of possessing both the decision and the timing. Yet as of Monday night, Ukraine also has partial control of the escalatory process by virtue of deciding whether to confront the aptly named Russian “peacekeeping forces” that entered Donetsk and Luhansk.

Then there is sanctions escalation. Biden has vowed to scale-up sanctions when and if Russia deepens the invasion. He purposely omitted injurious and robust sanctions – such as targeting the Central Bank of Russia and disconnecting Russia from SWIFT, the international interbank information and money transfer platform – hoping that they serve as potent threats for a next phase. There are doubts whether this will deter Putin, who seems locked in a mode impervious to such interactions and considerations.

Keeping everything in perspective and in the broader global context, as the United States does, it should again be emphasized that, in and of itself, Ukraine is a peripheral issue and arena for the Americans. Yes, the U.S. is being tested. Yes, it recognizes that the crisis transcends the Donbas region and is part of the formation of a tacit Sino-Russian axis. And yes, it recognizes that the “American order” is being challenged.

More than anything, though, it’s a major headache that distracts Biden from his domestic agenda and his overarching foreign policy priority: China and the Pacific Rim.

A positive outcome, coupled with concluding the Iran nuclear deal – another nagging headache for the Americans – will restore U.S. credibility and leadership, and that is critical. But Biden would be the first to admit that he wasn’t elected to deal with Russia, and he will not be reelected as the liberator of Ukraine.

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