4 March 2016

Putin's Rational Choices

February 29, 2016
There Is More to His Strategy Than Western Weakness
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s September 2015 decision todeploy military forces to Syria’s battlefields surprised even the sharpest foreign policy experts. Yet Putin does tend to do the unexpected, especially lately. His annexation of Crimea and support for the two breakaway statelets in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region are cases in point.
In the summer of 2014, the self-proclaimed republics were heading for defeat. The Ukrainian army and a gaggle of warlord-led private militias had advanced into the rebel-held territories, and it seemed as though the rebels would not be able to hold out for much longer. To save them, Putin supplied the arms and personnel for a counteroffensive and to help open a new front on Ukraine’s southern coast near Novoazovsk. The maneuver was designed to split Ukrainian forces.

The Russian intervention did, in fact, push the Donbas front westward. Putin eventually halted the rebels’ Russian-backed offensive—but not before the rout of Ukrainian forces at Debaltseve in February 2015. Trapped in a pocket and taking fire from all directions save one, Ukrainian troops retreated in humiliation.
Putin’s escalation largely nullified Ukraine’s previous gains and sent a message about Moscow’s resolve. Today, back-and-forth shelling along the new front continues, and the resulting stalemate gives Putin leverage.

From Ukraine, Putin went to Syria. Critics—for example, Gary Kasparov, a former leader of Russia’s political opposition and a chess grand master, as well as Western commentators—have implied that it was U.S. President Barack Obama’s

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