As Pressures Mount On Putin, Analysts Wonder What He Hopes To Gain

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U.S. and Russian relations are rapidly deteriorating over Russian President Vladimir Putin's agenda in Eastern Europe. Sanctions and other pressures haven't convinced Putin to change his course — so why is he persisting? And what is his goal?


It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

U.S.-Russia relations have deteriorated since Russia's annexation of Crimea and there are still questions over Russian President Vladimir Putin's agenda in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Targeted sanctions, political isolation and NATO's plans to beef up its presence in Eastern Europe haven't persuaded Putin to change course.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has more from Moscow.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: To Vladimir Putin, it's all about history. He justifies taking Crimea because it belonged to Russia before Nikita Khrushchev gave the peninsula to what was then the Soviet Republic of Ukraine in 1954.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: In a recent speech, Putin likened the annexation to German reunification a quarter century ago. He adds, Russia backed Germany then, so Germany ought to back Russia now. That's a view very popular in Russia where Putin's approval ratings are soaring.

MARGARITA: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: This subway commuter who gave her name as Margarita, says she hopes the Russia leader won't cave in to Western pressure over his actions. Even his critics here grudgingly acknowledge Putin's success. They say, for now, patriotic pride has replaced public frustration over Russia's lagging economy and widespread corruption.

Vladimir Ryzhkov is a liberal opposition leader and former member of the Russian parliament. He likened the Crimea takeover to the U.S. grabbing parts of Canada without firing a shot.

VLADIMIR RYZHKOV: So I think that many Russians hate it because they did not pay nothing for this. It's just for free, just as a bonus trick on city.

NELSON: Many Putin opponents and supporters blame the U.S. and Europe, saying Putin had little choice but to act after the West embraced the pro-Russian government's overthrow in Kiev. Dmitry Babich is a political commentator for the pro-Putin Voice of Russia radio network.

DMITRY BABICH: Russian elite since the early '90s was not interested in territorial expansion. It was rather more concentrated on developing Russia economically, getting the money for, you know, for the oil and gas that Russia can export. But, unfortunately, the events developed in a different fashion.

NELSON: Some analysts here say what's happening now highlights the West's failure to address Russian concerns about maintaining the neutrality of key former Soviet states. Still, few here believe Putin's actions in Crimea and the buildup of Russian soldiers on the country's border with Ukraine will lead to further military action or land grabs in Eastern Europe.

Dmitri Trenin heads the Carnegie Moscow Center and is a retired Russian army colonel. He says 50,000 troops aren't enough to secure half of Europe's second largest country.

DMITRI TRENIN: The idea that Russia would now strike West to create a corridor across southern and eastern Ukraine all the way to Transnistria, I think, was ludicrous.

NELSON: Nor do supporters and detractors of Putin, who NPR interviewed, believe he's trying to restore Russia's former status as a superpower, mainly because that would cost too much. Nevertheless, analyst Trenin says the Russian leader's objectives are much bigger than Crimea. Besides wanting to keep Ukraine out of NATO, Trenin says Putin is likely to pursue a Eurasian alliance that unites countries and peoples who are historically connected to Russia.

TRENIN: I think he sees himself as the last in line in the long, long, long, long line of Russian rulers. He keeps company with the Peters and Alexanders and Katherines and others in Russia's history.

NELSON: But analysts here say Putin would do well to revamp Russia's economic policies and not just change the world order. They say the country can't afford to rely as heavily as it does on oil and gas sales, and instead needs to beef up production of manufactured goods. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Moscow.

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