West needs to articulate Ukrainian interests, Stanford scholar says

A Stanford faculty fellow argues that America and Europe should clearly articulate what Ukraine means to the West and consider some economic sanctions. Beyond this, the only force powerful enough to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin's ambitions might just be the Russian people demanding more democracy and freedoms.

Mikhail Metzel/RIA Novosti Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin's endgame in Ukraine must be discerned before the West can craft an appropriate response, says Stanford scholar Kathryn Stoner.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's goal in the Ukraine crisis is to restore Russia to its former great power status, according to a Stanford political scientist.

Meanwhile, America and Europe need to develop a coherent message on what Ukraine means to the West, said Kathryn Stoner, a senior fellow with Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

But right now, the Western powers do not have a lot of options to rein in a suddenly expansionistic Russia. "We don't have a huge amount of leverage," she said.

Suspending planning for the G-8 meeting in Sochi in June was a good first step, according to Stoner. "Beyond this, it is reasonable to consider kicking Russia out of the G-8 completely, or at least downgrading the status of their membership to the G-20. Travel bans and asset freezes for Russian officials and business people would be the next step."

Most important, Stoner said, is for America and Europe to clearly articulate what the Ukrainian issue means to the West.

"Russia is too prone to viewing any support we may give to Ukraine, or Georgia before it in 2008, as us wanting to undermine Russian power and interests. There is a tendency within Russian decision-making circles that we are imperialistic inherently and they are merely protecting what is rightfully in their sphere of interest."

However, Stoner said, America does not want to "own" Ukraine or even use it as a bulwark against Russian expansionism. Rather, the United States is concerned solely about the rights of sovereign nations that have not acted aggressively toward their own citizens or those of other countries.

"We need to articulate more clearly to Putin that Russia is risking longer term foreign investment opportunities from the U.S. and Europe that his country pretty badly needs," she said.

Stoner noted that the Russian economy is not booming along in the same way it did between 2000 and 2008, when it grew 8 percent a year on average and Russians' real incomes tripled. In 2013, it grew only 1.5 percent and is projected to grow only about 2 percent this year.

"It is not an innovation economy and without investment it will continue to fall behind. Ill-considered military incursions don't tend to sit well with investors. We need to get Putin to understand that continuing this aggression with Ukraine will hurt Russia in the longer term," she said.

People power

Stoner suggested that perhaps the only obstacle to Putin's great power ambitions might just be the Russian people. His government has always feared something like the Ukrainian Orange Revolution of 2004 happening in Russia and spawning a democratic movement with people demanding free and fair elections, rule of law, due process and equality.

And Putin is less popular than he used to be with Russian voters, she said. He has about a 60 percent approval rating, down from a high of about 80 percent.

Stoner points to demonstrations against him in December 2011 following what some thought were fraudulent parliamentary elections when his party, United Russia, won more seats than it deserved. Also, there were protests against Putin personally and his re-election in Moscow and St. Petersburg and a few other large cities in the winter and spring of 2012 when he was re-elected president.

"The problem is that he has systematically disassembled the Russian political opposition and dissuaded people from demonstrating in favor of just about anything but himself," said Stoner. "So we are unlikely to see large protests against his incursion into Ukraine."

Resurrecting Russia

Russia seeks to dominate its neighbors economically and even militarily, wrote Stoner this week in an essay for Foreign Affairs magazine. These neighbors include Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia and possibly Azerbaijan, Belarus and Moldova.

"Officials at all levels of the Russian Foreign Ministry and within the presidential administration truly believe that Russia has a natural sphere of political and economic influence," she said.

Putin's endgame in Ukraine is not to protect persecuted Russians, Stoner observed. And it is not national security in the Black Sea region – Russia knows that Ukraine's new government would never challenge Russian forces in the Crimea region. Nor is a revitalized Soviet Union the goal.

Rather, she said. Putin wants to reestablish what Russians historically – well before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 – viewed as theirs.

Kathryn Stoner, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies: (650) 736-1820, kstoner@stanford.edu

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu