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Expert: Putin playing a 'conniving game' in Ukraine maneuvers

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Russian President Valdimir Putin has seen soaring popularity in his country since his intervention in Ukraine.  (Source: MGN/Wikimedia Commons) Russian President Valdimir Putin has seen soaring popularity in his country since his intervention in Ukraine. (Source: MGN/Wikimedia Commons)
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(RNN) - As the crisis in Ukraine evolves, Vladimir Putin has history, public opinion and economic leverage on his side, said an international relations specialist.

With the May 25 Ukraine elections fast approaching, the Russian President's ultimate objectives are not immediately obvious, but his methods are clear.

"Putin is hard to read," said Mark Habeeb, PhD., who is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a past chairman of the Forum for U.S.-Soviet Dialogue. "But he clearly has the mentality of an aggressive chess player. He'll make a move and see what you do. He took Crimea, and not much happened except the U.S. put sanctions on some of Putin's friends and his inner circle. So now, he's seeing how far he can go in Ukraine.

The region's turbulent history - particularly in the past 25 years or so - has made Putin's apparent land grab an enormously popular move in his own country. The Levada Center, a Russian public opinion research institute, released a new poll showing Putin has an 82 percent approval rating in his country, up from 80 percent in March.

Russia also has a great deal of economic leverage in Europe, making meaningful retaliation difficult and costly. Similarly, the United States' tenuous recovery from the recession has limited what sanctions President Barack Obama is willing to impose to make Russia "pay a price" for the violation of the sovereignty of a neighboring country.

"In theory, we could hurt the Russian economy, but we could go down with them," he said. "Would Obama really jeopardize the recovery over Dunyetsk, Ukraine? The American population does not want to get involved in overseas ventures – we had war for eight years under President George W. Bush."

And while economic sanctions could do as much harm to the U.S. and Europe as to Russia, they could also galvanize public opinion behind the already popular leader.

"He's a true Russian nationalist," Habeeb said, "And nationalism can get kind of paranoid. A lot of people don't realize what a narcissistic wound Russia felt after the fall of the USSR. They went from being a world power to a laughing stock after [Boris] Yeltsin.

"They are a proud culture. Not long ago, anything the U.S. did, it had to think about how the USSR would react," he said. "Suddenly, they don't matter at all. Putin comes in, gets the economy back on track and suddenly attacks Georgia. Then he takes Ukraine back. The people in Russia are elated."

Obama said at a May 2 news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the U.S. is prepared to impose more sanctions on Russia if the incursion threatens Ukraine elections on May 25. Obama and Merkel both said they would prefer not to use sanctions on economic sectors that might hurt U.S. allies in Europe, but both are prepared to implement them if the elections do not go on.

This could backfire, Habeeb said.

"Russians are good at suffering," Habeeb said. "They might rally behind Putin. Russia has a historical narrative of the West trying to hurt them. Hitler, the Cold War, World War I, it's not hard for a Russian leader to sell the narrative that ‘the West is trying to hold us back.'

"The last thing we want to do is play into a narrative that supports their national paranoia."

Putin most recently announced that troops have pulled back from the Ukrainian border, and he urged insurgents in southeast Ukraine to postpone a May 11 referendum on declaring their autonomy from the rest of the country.

The Pentagon denied any change in Russian force along the border, and a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman would not identify the troops' location.

Saying one thing and doing another are typical of the Russian's strategy.

Late in April, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to sponsor negotiations in Ukraine to reunite the country at the same time that pro-Russian militants were holding members of the organization hostage in the east of the country. A few days later, the hostages were released.

"The foreign minister was talking one thing while there were gangs going around creating havoc," Habeeb said. "It's a conniving game."

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