Job No. 1? Ukraine.
You can only imagine Russian President Vladimir Putin is none too pleased about the civil unrest there — and the less than flattering spotlight it’s shining on Russia — not to mention distracting attention from his signature sports event in Sochi.
But oozing confidence as the Olympic Games draw to a close, you can bet that once the snow and ice-making equipment are switched off at the balmy Black Sea resort, Putin will turn his full attention to those pesky protesters next door.
You see: Losing Kiev from Moscow’s orbit is simply a non-starter for the Kremlin & Co.
Russia wants to hold Ukraine firmly under its sway. Moscow sees the country as protecting its soft strategic underbelly where hopeful conquerors of the past (e.g., the Nazis) invaded Mother Russia.
Ukraine is a central part of Russia’s perception of its own history and security. It’s a critical buffer state between Russia and American-led NATO, surprisingly still part of the Kremlin’s paranoia two-plus decades after the end of the Cold War.
To keep Ukraine as a loyal part of its periphery and locked into its sphere of influence, Russia is willing to use whatever influence is necessary to ensure success.
Now we’re not talking about Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine. Rather, financial weapons such as energy deals and foreign aid are the likely instruments of this political warfare. Ukraine’s economy is weak and a convenient point of leverage for influencing Kiev.
Putin spent $50 billion on the less-than-strategic Olympics. How much do you think he’d spend to hold on to Ukraine?
There is an added caveat for Putin: He has to defeat the West — the United States and Europe — in the battle of ideas in the East.
The West has a strong interest in the country of 45 million having political and civil liberties, the rule of law, free markets — and friendly ties with its European neighbors and the United States.
The United States and Europe are also concerned that Russia wants to reassert political, economic and security hegemony — think Soviet Union 2.0 — over Ukraine and the region through the establishment of a Eurasian Union.
Allowing Ukraine to have closer ties with its free neighbors through politics, trade or other ways could mean that Kiev would slip from Moscow’s grip and the wheels would come off Putin’s plans for rebuilding another Russian “empire.”
Even worse, Putin can’t take the chance that the “freedom flu” will spread from Ukraine to Russia or Belarus, another buffer state for Moscow.
And while the battle for the heart and soul of Ukraine will continue, the effects will ripple well beyond Eastern Europe. Russia will be sure its displeasure is known elsewhere.
Putin would love to torpedo the talks on Iran’s nuclear program, but that wouldn’t be in his interest. Russia wants the Iran negotiations to succeed to protect the Motherland — as well as sink the justification for U.S. missile defense in Europe.
But the Kremlin will dig its heels in on Syria and its support for the Bashar Assad regime, opposing the West’s efforts at ending the three-year-old civil war that has taken 140,000 lives and caused immeasurable human suffering.
In fact, Putin probably doesn’t feel like he’ll have to double down on Ukraine because the West seems reluctant to contest the future of this strategic country. The American and European rhetoric and threats seems half-hearted — even empty.
In the short-term, that approach might preserve the already-tattered state of relations with Russia. But in the long-term the outcome of freedom and liberty in Ukraine — as elsewhere — really does matter.