The Putin era in Russia, now in its 15th year, has given birth to the ongoing diplomatic challenge of reading what’s going on behind the Kremlin leader’s steely eyes.
President George W. Bush famously perceived something trustworthy and sympathetic in President Vladimir Putin in 2001, while former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in his new memoir, recalls seeing “a stone-cold killer.” But there is no doubt what was preoccupying the Russian president during the closing ceremonies in Sochi on Sunday: the upheaval underway 250 miles to the west, the distance to the border between Russia and Ukraine — where Viktor Yanukovich’s government had just been toppled.
The grassroots revolution has yet to be color-coded, and its outcome is far from clear. Thursday, Yanukovich announced from Moscow that he was still president of the country he had fled, and the Russian air force went to combat alert along the Ukrainian border. Early Friday, Ukrainian officials claimed that Russian soldiers had seized two airfields in Crimea and condemned Russia for committing an act of occupation.
Suddenly, the winter games that Putin hosted have given way to his penchant for using armed force in what is beginning to look like a 21st-century version of the Great Game. This is the second time in six years that Putin has exerted Russian hard power to intimidate a neighboring country. In August 2008, Putin punished and weakened the pro-Western government in Tbilisi by sending Russian armored columns into Georgia, ostensibly to protect and ultimately to “liberate” the secessionist enclave of South Ossetia.
The bullying of the Georgian and Ukrainian governments reflects not just Putin’s worldview, motives and methods but those that have predominated for centuries in the country he rules.