Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a phone conversation with German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, said that Ukraine was on the edge of civil war. We can argue back and forth about whether whether Russian troops are involved in the Eastern Ukraine protests. It turns out that the "Russian Colonel" was a local Mafia crime boss.
But the real question is, whether Putin is a rational or irrational actor. If he is rational, then he will not invade Ukraine. After all, Ukraine is offering Russia what they want -- dialogue with the east and southeast parts of the country, federalization, and protection of Russian minorities. If he is irrational, then he will invade with the troops that NATO says he has massed behind the border.
The problem is that Putin is not the kind of person who is willing to back down. He is even less so than George W. Bush. On the other hand, he has not (up to this point) entered a battle unless he has already won it. But if he follows through and he invades and occupies Ukraine, he will be making the same tragic mistake that numerous conquerors in the past have made. Foreign Policy Magazine explains:
But for all the justifiable fear that Putin is contemplating sending Russian troops into Ukraine, doing so would be a monumental blunder. As it is, Russia's annexation of Crimea is proving costly. Single-handedly, Putin has put the shaky Russian economy at peril; brought down international scorn, suspicion, and shame; awakened Europe from its strategic coma; revived NATO's fortunes; and boosted foreign competition for one of the few commodities Russia can produce and sell: natural gas. If Putin thought seizing Crimea would make the rest of Eastern Europe deferential to Moscow, the opposite is occurring, as anti-Russian/pro-NATO sentiment surges throughout the region.Fred Kaplan of the Council on Foreign Relations says that Putin will not invade because Ukraine is already offering him what he wants.
And yet, Putin seems not to have intuited this lesson. Or perhaps he thinks he's already paid the price, and that taking eastern Ukraine now is worth suffering a bit more opprobrium. But this would be a major strategic misstep -- it would bring much greater harm to Russia's people. The problem is that Putin shows all the signs of following in the footsteps of history's most infamous blunderers, and the decision-making traits he exhibits are both familiar and ominous.
Leaders who make big strategic mistakes are often afflicted with excessive hubris. Both Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941 had gained a string of decisive battlefield victories which gave them a sense of invincibility, if not destiny. Both, of course, invaded Russia and lost massive armies. Putin's hubris is not based upon a string of military victories, however, but upon a conviction that he knows how to intimidate Russia's neighbors. He has occupied two provinces of Georgia, directed cyberwarfare against Estonia, threatened Poland with nuclear missiles, manipulated the dependence of customers on Russian gas, and sought to provoke unrest among Russian minorities in other countries. He appears to think that the seizure of Crimea is a great success -- ignoring the self-harm it will do -- which reinforces his belief that he is in control, and that he can write a script in which others will meekly play their assigned roles. Such unwarranted confidence is a classic cognitive flaw that correlates strongly with a potential to commit blunders.
Contrary to appearances, the crisis in Ukraine might be on the verge of resolution. The potentially crucial move came today when interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said that he would be open to changing the country’s political system from a republic, with power centered in the capital Kiev, to a federation with considerable autonomy for the regional districts.Putin, for all his bluster, acted in his conversation with Merkel today as though the talks for later this week are still on. While Putin is not the kind of person to back down, if he can get what he wants diplomatically, he will take it.
That has been one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s key demands. It would weaken the political leaders in Kiev, many of whom want a stronger alliance with the West, including membership in the European Union—and it would strengthen those in southern and eastern Ukraine, many of them ethnic Russians who want to preserve and tighten their ties to Moscow.
If Putin can win this demand—and the political, economic, and cultural inroads it would provide—an invasion would be not just be unnecessary, it’d be loony. War is politics by other means, and a revamping of Ukraine’s power structure would accomplish Putin’s political aims by less costly means.
"While there were differences in the interpretation of current events, preparations for the planned meeting in Geneva...were the focus of the talks," Merkel's office said in a statement.It will be in all parties best interest to come to a deal at the upcoming talks. That means that all parties have an obligation to show restraint. If a deal comes about in which Ukraine is a federalized state that is neutrally aligned similar to Switzerland or Austria or Sweden, Ukraine will get bailed out of bankruptcy, the US and the EU will have a buffer against further Russian aggression, and Putin will be able to say to his people that he successfully stood up to the West. But if worst comes to worst and Putin decides that he is "forced" to invade and occupy Ukraine, I would say let him. If he wants to make a blunder of colossal historic proportions, then we can go in and pick up the pieces in 10 years when Russia is shattered and $1 trillion in debt and thousands of their troops' lives are lost or permanently shattered.
Putin meanwhile expressed hope that the Geneva talks will help to de-escalate the situation, and return it to peaceful cooperation.
The president also reiterated the importance of stabilizing the Ukrainian economy, and ensuring the supply and transportation of Russian natural gas to Europe.