Saturday, March 8, 2014

Putin: mastermind or improviser?

There are contrasting pictures of Russia's Ukraine intervention in the press today. The Financial Times portrays a secret Russian plot that was carried out masterfully. The pretexts for action fell into place as planned, and the operation succeeded. Western countries protested, but were calmed by Putin's apparent reasonableness and limited announced goals. Meanwhile in Russia, Putin's popularity jumped to the highest level in two years. [By the way, the FT also has a fascinating story behind its paywall saying that apparently Russia-based cyber attacks by a program called Snake have been ramping up in Ukraine in recent months.]

The New York Times has a different story. Its Moscow correspondent says that Putin made up his Ukraine policy on the go, with only limited input from his foreign policy officials.
The decision to invade Crimea, the officials and analysts said, was made not by the national security council but in secret among a smaller and shrinking circle of Mr. Putin’s closest and most trusted aides. The group excluded senior officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the cadre of comparatively liberal advisers who might have foreseen the economic impact and potential consequences of American and European sanctions.
The Times also suggests that the operation was conceived as a covert action in order not to violate Russia's position that the UN must approve international interventions. That explains Russian denials that the forces in Crimea are Russian.

It's possible, of course, that both pictures are accurate -- that Putin improvised rather than having a master plan, but that the Russian special forces sent to Crimea carried out a textbook operation.

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