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Putin looks for an off-ramp in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin
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Calling President Barack Obama, 61-year-old tough-talking Russian President Vladimir Putin asked for a way out of his pickle, now that he’s facing negative fallout from his March 1 invasion of Crimea. Watching the anti-Russian revolution in Kiev Feb. 22 while hosting the Sochi Winter Olympics, Putin has dug the Russian economy into a deep hole alienating the U.S. and European Union. Seizing Crimea cost Putin what’s left of his sinking credibility after winning a disputed third six-year-term March 5, 2012 as Russian president. Putin tried to build on the legacy of his predecessors Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin normalizing Russia’s business ties with the West, transforming Big Brother into Western-style capitalism. Western nations looked on warily when Putin arrested Russian oligarch Mikhail Khordorkovsky Oct. 25, 2003, confiscating his Yukos oil company.

Once named Forbes’ 16th richest man in 2004, Putin seized Khordorkovsky’s oil and natural gas company to help turn around Russia’s fortunes in a post-Yeltsin oligarch world. Over the past 10 years, Russian became Europe’s biggest energy supplier with revenues exceeding $160 billion a year. Putin’s seizure of Crimea forced the U.S. and EU to apply economic and travel sanctions, essentially returning Russia to the economic doldrums of the old Soviet Union. With Visa and MasterCard pulling out of Russian banks, Putin promised to set up his own credit card system, knowing full-well that it reversed economic gains made since the 1991 end of the Soviet Union. Russia’s ruble and stock market have lost nearly 20% of its value since Putin decided it was more important to seize Crimea. Now that the realities finally sunk in, Putin called Obama to find a way out.

U.S. and EU officials expressed concerns about some 40,000 Russian troops sitting on the Ukrainian border, prompting more worry about a possible invasion of Ukraine. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have asked Russia to pullback its forces away from the border to help defuse the crisis. Whether admitted to or not, Putin’s disturbed over his eviction from the G7 but, more importantly, the world’s perception that Russia’s been pushed out of the global economy. Seizing Crimea reverted back to Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia where he still occupies some 20% of the country. Working to isolate Putin in the EU, Obama turned up the screws, forcing the brazen Russian president to rethink his moves. Losing standing in the world economy turns back on the clock on Russia’s economic progress, forcing Putin to weigh the costs of the Crimean invasion.

Kerry presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a proposal to help resolve the current mess. Asking Russia to pull back its forces from the Ukrainian border, agree to talks with the Ukrainian government and accept international monitors to “protect” Russian citizens living in Ukraine, Kerry has applied pressure on Putin to stop advancing on Ukraine. “President Obama suggested that Russia put a concrete response in writing and the presidents agreed that Kerry and Lavrov would meet to discuss next steps,” read a White House statement. White House officials acknowledged that Obama and Putin discussed a “working document” designed to resolve the issues but the two sides remain light-year’s apart. Russia believes that Ukraine’s new revolutionary government threatens Russian interests, prompting Putin’s actions to seize Crimea as a security buffer.

U.S. and EU officials want Russia to accept Ukraine’s post-revolutionary regime as its legitimate government. Once anti-Russian demonstrators toppled the Yanukovich government Feb. 22, anti-Russian forces left Putin little choice but to protect his interests seizing Crimea. When Putin didn’t raise strong objections to the U.S. invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Putin assumed incorrectly that his American “partners” would back him on Crimea. Rallying strong EU opposition to seizing Crimea, Putin faces some real threats to the Russian economy. “We have been in close touch with the Ukrainian government in this process,” said an unnamed White House official. Speaking to NATO in Brussels March 26, Obama led a move for more sanctions economic and travel sanctions against Moscow if they don’t make urgent concessions when Kerry meets with Lavrov March 30 in Paris.

Much to the dismay of Ukraine’s new government led by 49-year-old interim President Oleksandr Turchynov and 39-year-old Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Obama and EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton have ceded Crimea to Putin. All Putin has to do now is accept Ukraine’s current boundaries, withdraw his forces from the borders and promise in writing not to take another inch of territory and economic and travel sanctions will be lifted. “President Obama made it clear that this remains possible only if Russia pulls back its troops and does not take any steps to further violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty,” said a White House communiqué. Now that Putin knows he’ll be keeping Crimea, he’s willing to ingratiate himself back into the good graces of the U.S. and EU. Stating in writing that he’ll stay out of Ukraine, Putin might even salvage his G7 meeting in Sochi.

About the Author

John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’d editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.