Expertise on Putin and the Ukraine

Putin and The Ukraine: American Expertise


Howard Adelman

I am not an expert on Russia and Putin or I might be very embarrassed. I am just a reader who mines expert analyses and relies entirely on the information they supply. Yet a lot of what I read is very embarrassing to the experts. Read these assertions in February just before Putin invaded Crimea: Most Russian experts have not learned much in the last fifteen years. Their tea leaf reading of the USSR at the end of the Empire did not allow them to anticipate the crumbling of that empire just days later. Similarly, most misread Putin. I certainly did not expect his aggressive action. But I am not an expert, only an amateur. I had expectations but no expert pronouncements. It saves me from considerable embarrassment and allows me to embarrass myself now.

The BEFORE quotes are taken from articles, op-eds and statements, mostly from February 2014, while the AFTER quotes come from the first few days of March.

Eugene Rumer, former U.S. national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the CIA and now Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace:


“This crisis is really a domestic political crisis in Ukraine” and not an interstate crisis between Ukraine and Russia.

AFTER: (with Andrew Weiss)

Vladimir Putin’s surprise decision to ask for a Russian-style War Powers resolution from his parliament dramatically ups the ante in the Ukraine crisis and positions Russia for full-scale military action. It also signals Putin’s commitment to use all necessary means—many of which have already been in use in Crimea—to keep Ukraine in Russia’s orbit. If Putin follows through on his threat to invade Ukraine, he will signal yet again that the post-Cold War era that began with the “Velvet Revolutions” of 1989 has ended. The damage to Russia’s relations with the West will be deep and lasting, far worse than after the Russian-Georgian war.

Andrew S. Weiss, Vice-President , Carnegie Endowment


“If you’re sitting in the Kremlin the prospect of a Yugoslav scenario in Ukraine is quite scary.”


The forces of Ukrainian nationalism are on the rise throughout much of the country, provoked by Moscow’s disregard for Ukrainian sovereignty and irresponsible attempts to portray the Maidan revolution as a fascist triumph—patently offensive to a nation that suffered so much during World War II.

Simon Saradzhyan – Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, HarvardU.


Vladimir Putin has condemned the forceful seizure of power in Ukraine and suspended promised purchase of Ukrainian bonds. But the question remains: will Russia’s strongman get actively involved in the chaos of Ukrainian politics as he did back during the previous Ukrainian evolution when he rallied for Yanukovych? I would argue there is no real need for the Russian leadership to get entangled in the Ukrainian quandary in an attempt to influence who becomes its next leader as long as Russia’s interests there—including the safety of ethnic Russians and the presence of the Black Sea fleet in the Crimea—are not threatened. In fact, Putin may even benefit if Yanukovych’s arch-foe Yulia Tymoshenko—who has been released from prison and already announced she would participate in the 2014 presidential elections—became the next leader of Ukraine. After all, she was the one who agreed to buy gas from Putin, as Ukraine’s premier in 2009, at exorbitant prices, making Kiev even more vulnerable to economic pressure from Moscow.


Before there was no real need for the Russian leadership to get entangled in the Ukrainian quandary. Now that Putin is involved, there is no real need for the West to get involved in the Ukrainian quandary:

I have been scanning op-eds on what West/US can/should do on the Ukranian crisis and I must say there are not too many sensible approaches out there, except for, maybe,
“The power of sanctions against Putin on Ukraine,” Michael O’Hanlon, Brookings, March 3, 2014.   There
 are also quite a few pieces that acknowledge that West cannot and shouldn’t do much.

And, of course, there are many step-by-step guides on how to start a new cold war, such as

Dmitri Trenin, Director of the CarnegieMoscowCenter


“The Russians have long given up on Yanukovych.”

“It’s very much Mr. Putin’s preference, in fact, priority, that Ukraine stays in one piece.”

“I don’t think the Russians are about to invade Crimea,”


“There is clearly pressure building up inside the Russian establishment for strong-armed tactics, a strong-armed strategy vis-à-vis Ukraine and the West because Russia feels it had been outmaneuvered in Kiev and they have a very bad taste in their mouth over the behavior of the U.S. and Europe in the past few months.”

“The crisis in Crimea could lead the world into a second cold war.”

Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Director, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative | Senior Fellow, Foreign PolicyCenter on the United States and EuropeCenter for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, Brookings Institute


“To punish Moldova, Georgia and perhaps Ukraine for their overtures to the European Union, Putin’s Russia might impose trade sanctions, gas cut-offs and other policies to bring these nations in line. While U.S. leverage is limited, President Obama should work with the EU to exert pressure on Russia, demonstrating its actions could impact relations with the West.” Note, no anticipation of invasion.


“Russia would much rather keep the new government in Kiev destabilized than have them become an independent force in the region.”

Andrew Kuchins and Jeffrey Mankoff, Director and Deputy Directors respectively of the Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, D.C.


Ukraine’s survival depends on ensuring all its people—east and west—have a stake in its future. If it eventually leads to a more united, democratic Ukraine, the current crisis will not have gone to waste, and Yanukovych will in exiting be able to undo some of the damage he has done over the last few months.

Neither side (U.S. or Russia) wants—or benefits from—an escalation of the violence and instability in Ukraine. While it is going to be up to the Ukrainians themselves to decide how to manage their relationships with neighbors, Ukraine will always maintain close economic, political, and cultural ties to Russia. That said, Russia’s own actions going forward will do much to determine whether there can be a durable and peaceful resolution of the crisis.

The United States should focus on is making sure that Moscow remains very much in the loop, while trying to bridge the divide between Russia and the EU that has broken out over Ukraine in the past couple of years and urging Russia to play a constructive role in de-escalating the crisis.


Vladimir Putin has dramatically raised the stakes with what amounts to a stealth annexation of Crimea this weekend, securing in the process a unanimous vote from the Russian parliament allowing for the deployment of Russian military forces in Ukraine. To date, the Obama administration’s response, including Friday’s vague warning about “costs,” has amounted to little more than a threat to boycott the G8 meeting taking place in Sochi in June. 

Daniel Treisman, UCLA, author of The Return: Russia’s Journey From Gorbachev to Medvedev


The West should narrow its criticism of Russia to issues where its views line up with those of the Russian people. Russia has emerged from the hermitic life of socialism to join in the normal process of international politics and Russians have joined the modern scramble of global travel, communications, and consumption.


He (Putin) did not want to ruin the spectacle of the Sochi Olympics by intervening in Ukraine. It would have been a major embarrassment for those heads of state and other dignitaries who did accept his invitation to attend.

Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief, Russia in Global Affairs


“The main driving force behind his [Putin’s] policy towards Ukraine will be not a desire for expansion, but a desire to reduce the risk of chaos spilling into Russia.”

“In his [Putin’s] view, unrest must be suppressed before it turns into a huge fire. Unrest produces nothing but chaos. A weak state drives itself into a trap. Once a state falters, external forces will charge through the breach and start shattering it until it falls.”


“If the internal conflict escalates, Russia may opt to establish closer contacts with pro-Russian regions in eastern and south-eastern Ukraine.” Russia would just seek closer contacts; it was the West that was interfering and offering unilateral support to the opposition.


A new phase has begun between Russia and America: 25 years of assurances that the Cold War is over and that the United States and Russia are no longer enemies is ending with an open political confrontation over Ukraine. Washington’s intention to impose sanctions against Russia threatens to radically change not only the atmosphere of relations, but also the nature of their cooperation.


Alexander Motyl, Rutgers University, Ukraine expert.


Putin’s. He has to ask himself a very important strategic question. On the one hand, for Putin to absorb Crimea is, frankly, a piece of cake. It wouldn’t require any military aggression because the military is already based in Sevastopol in the Black Sea Fleet. All they need to do is leave the base and declare Crimea independent. Piece of cake. The problem is that for Putin this would set an unpleasant and dangerous precedent vis-a-vis his non-Russian neighbors. If Putin goes into Crimea to liberate it, so to speak, or annex it, he would effectively be declaring that Russia has the right to annex Russian-populated territories in the former Soviet Union. (my italics) Once Russia declares that it has the right to go in and seize territories that are populated by Russians, he is suggesting to all of these countries that they are in potential future danger of an annexation by the Russian Federation. This will undermine his efforts to regather the non-Russian republics [of the former Soviet Union] through the so-called Customs Union and the so-called Eurasian Union. At this point, it is Belarus and Kazakhstan that are on board. Putin has to ask himself the question: Is Crimea worth torpedoing the Customs Union and the Eurasian Union?

I think the country is headed toward [President Viktor] Yanukovych’s collapse though. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of days, weeks, or months. But in cracking down he’s essentially signed his own death warrant. 

Andrei Zubov, Professor of Philosophy, Moscow State Institute of International Relations, author of two volume history of Russia in the twentieth century


In Slavic Winter: “The unrest in Ukraine has been caused by the authorities’ unwillingness to strengthen the country’s ties with the EU.”


From: “It Already Happened Before”: “We always make prognoses based on the assumption that the politician, even if selfish and cruel, is intelligent and rational. But what we see now is the behavior of a politician who has lost his mind. These actions are absurd because of [the possibility of international]” sanctions and of the sharp economic downturn, which is causing the collapse of the Russian financial market. If this continues, it will lead to the impoverishment of the population in a matter of months and huge social protests.” Andrey Zubov: 1 March 2014.

Andrei Zubov was fired on Wednesday, one day after he published these comments.

Ambassador Michael McFaul, recently resigned US Ambassador to Russia who returned to teach at StanfordUniversity,


“I have gotten frustrated watching the Russian press, the state-controlled press. The relentless mischaracterization of the Obama administration and my country, and, I don’t know, the cynicism, the—I’m not quite capturing this right. Being assaulted by that. The hate, these virulent tweets that come to me every day.”


Russia President Vladimir Putin’s description of the Ukraine crisis as an unconstitutional coup is an “ominous threat” that could be used to justify a further Russian push into Ukraine. “It’s complete nonsense as far as I’m concerned,”

One comment on “Expertise on Putin and the Ukraine

  1. Well my pieces on experts on the Ukraine really hit a chord with readers, especially among academics. Here are just six:

    No. 1

    Howard, this is not only a great blog, it’s a public service! I’ve been onto this idea for a long time — accountability in expertise. It’s amazing how people in general, the media and others have ignored this.


    No. 2

    I think the issue is the intersection of knowledge and celebrity.

    Hypothesis: academics feel so marginal that, faced with a microphone or a camera, they throw uncertainty and ambivalence to the wind, thinking that — perhaps not unreasonably — people will listen only to unambiguous convictions.

    “Piece of cake”? I hope the guy’s eating some of his own.

    Of course, the genre is not new. What’s new is the scale and stakes of academic celebrity culture. Bloggers (at least you foreground the fallibility of amateurism), TED talks, mediatized thinkers (Fareed Zacaria, Melissa Harris-Lacewell (a former colleagues now MSNBC diva), the new format of NY Times week in review, half of which is dedicated

    Some humor and humility might help.

    Check out these send ups of TED talks:

    And my favorite self-discovery epic:

    No. 3

    I have been thinking recently about how hard it is even now — certainly for this non-expert — to understand how the ‘Great War’ was allowed to be triggered by the assassinations at Sarajevo.

    Also related to the difficulty of making sense of the present, I listened several times to the taped phone conversation between Estonia’s Foreign Minister and the EU’s Catherine Ashton. While the conversation, I think, revealed some important facts, particularly about the snipers being not solely the agents of Yanukovich and about the justified and deep lack of trust in the current Ukrainian Members of Parliament, the conversation left me with new questions.

    I was touched by the humane and emotional response of the Estonian Foreign Minister. I was impressed by both speakers’ personal engagement.

    I was struck by the extent of what seemed to be their foregone agreement on what is to be done in Ukraine. They agree that certain things (money infusion, security) must happen quickly. Pragmatism about having to deal with “dirty” politicians in the short and maybe medium or somewhat longer terms is required. Their talk included details such as the need for the current Ukrainian Parliament to manage people’s anger by, for example, placing flowers in memory of fallen protesters.

    And I was struck by the sangfroid tone. (Here I must confess my Jewish voice does not include sangfroid in its range, and I may be awed and alienated by sangfroid in equal measures.) The exchange was clipped and quick. These are busy people who seem to share a vision of how Ukraine is to be managed and led. They also seem to share a belief that they have some of the levers ( plenty of people with relevant expertise and experience from other countries, for one) at their disposal to work towards realizing their shared vision.

    They are experts. They are also serving world actors. If these experts have real influence, I hope they have wisdom. Though I avidly read the experts, I fall back on hope.

    Best regards,

    No. 4

    Hello , interesting comments all. I think that the dynamics of foreign policy formulation are quite different in Russia from the US. In the US the entire political machine turns around elections every two years. The ill considered utterances in the recent past by people such a Hilary Clinton comparing Putin to Hitler speaks to this quest for emotional reactions and posturing rather than rational deliberation. The US is not about to send an army to get rid of this second Hitler .

    Putin still controls the media and is able to manipulate popular feeling . I wonder how many Americans have the faintest idea where the Ukraine is? Mackinnon ( I think) in the G&M this Saturday wrote a nice story explaining why Putin got pissed off with the Americans. He should have familiarized himself with American political dynamics long ago. I think he was naive and got side swiped by the system.
    I am in the process of wading through the final chapters of Dr Faustus by Thomas Mann. If I understand him correctly ( a big if) the imposition of the Weimar republic was doomed from the outset because the German population had until then only experienced authoritative centralized political power. The Ukrainian and Russian peoples have over the last 100 years moved no further along the path of democratic institutions to the point of wanting to fight for them. How do you change a people’s mindset?. Perhaps it requires an apocalypse imposed either from within or without.

    No. 5

    Hi Howard,

    Cast your mind back 25 years and try to think of an expert who predicted that the Berlin Wall would come down in early November, 1989. Cornelia and I were in Bavaria in late September and early October of that year, part of the time staying in a holiday apartment near Passau, where East Germans who had left their country through Czechoslovakia and had been allowed to pass through Austria entered West Germany in their Trabants and Wartburgs. Exciting things were happening: I remember images of several thousand East Germans camping on the grounds of the West German embassy in Prague, hoping to get farther.

    We watched a good deal of television, both German and Austrian, and got to listen to expert after expert analyzing what was happening and trying to predict what was going to happen. There was broad agreement that the GDR would have to adapt in order to accommodate the evident desire for change among its people. But although the Wall was within weeks of being breached, no one came close to predicting that event. As for the reunion of the two Germanies, then less than two years off: the consensus was something close to “not in our lifetimes.” The arguments that I remember: The GDR still had lots of support; the USSR would never stand for its demise, let alone reunion; western leaders also opposed reunion; West Germany could not stand the strain of uniting with the East. I recall Guenter Grass arguing passionately that reunion would be a huge mistake: bad for Germany and bad for Europe. Others took a more positive view, but none thought the event was anything but a remote future possibility.

    So much for experts trying to predict the future!

    As a historian I face daunting challenges trying to make sense of the past. Making sense of the present is even harder, and trying to predict the future is hazardous at best and futile at worst. Things will happen that no one could have predicted; people and their political leaders will behave in unexpected ways. Only afterwards can we discern patterns that seem to explain what happened. And yet: historical analysis suggests that people who feel threatened will behave in generally predictable ways, often striking out against perceived enemies because they believe an attack is the best form of defence. This may be relevant to the current situation in eastern Europe. Am I certain of this? Of course not.

    Have you read Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 ? I recommend it highly. The contingency of momentous events is both humbling and frightening to behold. We must hope that the current differences between Russia and Ukraine do not develop remotely like the way the differences between Austria-Hungary and Serbia did a century ago. A chilling fact to keep in mind: on July 1, 1914, two days after the assassinations at Sarajevo, no one of any consequence predicted the general European war that began a month later.

    Best regards,

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