Power Delusions: U.S., Russia Face Off Over Ukraine

During the Cold War, Vladimir Putin manned the KGB’s post in Dresden, East Germany, recruiting local journalists, scientists, and engineers to spy on the West. It was a cushy job for a while: Putin took his family on weekend trips to Saxony, ate lunch at home, and drank the finest beers East Germany had to offer, straight from the keg. After the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, Putin and his fellow agents in Dresden burned so many secret documents that their furnace broke. At one point, a mob of locals surrounded the office, preparing to ransack it. When Soviet troops stationed nearby refused to help, Putin pulled out a pistol and warned the trespassers in German that he would open fire if they came closer. The crowd dispersed, but Putin recounted in his memoir that he viewed the USSR’s demise as a personal humiliation. “The whole country no longer existed,” he lamented. “It disappeared.” A quarter-century later, that experience goes some way toward explaining Putin’s decision to launch a military adventure that has pushed Russia to the brink of war with neighboring Ukraine, a country of 46 million; sent the Russian stock market plunging and the ruble to record lows; and provoked the most bitter clash between the Kremlin and Washington in a generation. Putin has long seen his role in epochal terms—to restore Russia’s imperial glory and reclaim the sphere of influence the nation surrendered after the collapse of communism. The Feb. 22 overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was as much a blow to Putin’s self-image as to Russian national interests. In ordering troops to assert control over Crimea, a predominantly Russian-speaking peninsula given to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev, Putin dispelled any doubt about his willingness to use force to advance his ambitions.

Putin justified his invasion of Crimea by claiming that the region’s Russian speakers were under threat from the new authorities in Kiev. But his true motives had more to do with vanity, vindictiveness, and fear. In the eyes of Russian hardliners, Yanukovych’s overthrow amounted to an extra-legal coup d’etat, carried out by anti-Russian, nationalist hooligans and financed by the U.S. and the EU. The prospect of an EU-aligned Ukraine is intolerable to Putin, who has designs on absorbing his western neighbor into an economic union of regional client states. Kathryn Stoner, a Russia expert at Stanford University, says the Kremlin bristles at what it perceives as American and European meddling in Russia’s historical backyard. “They see it as an erosion of their buffer zone, a further Western incursion into their natural sphere of influence. It would be like Russia going to Mexico and saying to the Mexican president, we stand with you against the U.S. That’s the way they see it. They don’t see what possible interest we could have in Ukraine.”