At the moment, Putin is doing very well in Ukraine. Clueless arrogance by both US and EU policymakers gave Putin a heaven-sent opportunity to block a worst-case scenario for Russia in Ukraine last fall. Then-President Yanukovych, a man of the east long associated with Russia, was moving toward signing an Association Agreement with the EU that offered a historic opportunity for a united Ukraine to move firmly west. But both Washington and the EU underestimated Putin’s determination to block that outcome and failed to ensure that Yanukovych went all the way. Putin seized the opportunity and with a combination of official and perhaps unofficial, more personal incentives, was able to keep Yanukovych from finalizing the deal.
Yanukovych’s obvious yielding to Moscow’s blandishments touched off the unrest that would ultimately bring him down and set the current crisis afoot. When pro-European street protesters overthrew Yanukovych, there were plenty of Western analysts (some, unfortunately, working for governments) who drew the comforting but deeply false conclusion that these events represented a triumph of the West. Instead, the revolution (Kiev’s third since 1990), unleashed the chaos that gave Putin his chance for his Crimean gambit. Now Putin seems to be seizing the most important military assets Russia holds in the country and can reasonably hope to increase Russia’s influence throughout the country as a weak government struggles with intractable problems.