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What’s Russia really after?

For Ukraine, the crisis has no end in sight. Yet again, Russian tanks and troops entered Ukraine with bourgeoning numbers on the border. Coupled with countless incursions into sovereign territory, Russia seems hell-bent on sabre rattling with every Western power. Naturally, the G20 meeting greeted Putin with condemnation and demands to leave Ukraine. Of course, let the record show that representatives of the Russian Federation deny that current troops in Ukraine are not theirs. Not to be confused with the previous incursion of unmarked green troops, those were Russia’s.

Humor aside, one can only wonder what Putin is hoping to accomplish. With the recent troop movement, Western officials are considering whether or not to slap additional sanctions on Putin’s regime. Bear in mind that the sanctions are imploding the Russian economy. In the last three months the ruble has decreased in value by 23 percent. Moreover, economic forecasts for Russia in 2015 and 2016 come in at neck breaking growth rates of zero and .1 percent respectively. Don’t forget the falling prices of oil to about $80 per barrel which is down 33 percent. While the idea of another Cold War certainly excites ex-KGB Putin, the high tension standoff seems nothing more than stalemates and economic attrition. Without a game changing moment, Putin seems to be holding his breath until inevitably losing consciousness.

In Putin’s defense, sabre rattling could have paid off. If anything was to scare the West into removing sanctions or ceding Ukraine, it would have been with the possibility of conflict, thereby banking on what former Secretary of Defense Zbigniew Brzezinski would call the ‘lethargy of multilateralism’. Close but no cigar: Putin’s military incursions have angered key leaders like Angela Merkel and David Cameron.

Despite Putin’s talk, I am not too worried about military conflict with Russia. Considering how quickly Russian officials jumped on the off-handed remarks from Secretary of State John Kerry; Putin knows that it would be foolish to fight NATO with a fourth of the standing military and a dysfunctional economy. So if sabre rattling, full out conflict, and general tension are not effective avenues what would provide leverage against the west? Iran.

Already planning to boycott major nuclear weapons talks in 2016; Russia is sending very worrisome messages on nuclear proliferation. The next major meeting on Iran’s nuclear program is on the 24th; and some would say this could be the breakthrough. While some remain cynical of a deal being signed, most if not all of the deal rests on Russia. Historically, the major barrier in talks is the West demanding that Iran shut down thousands of centrifuges, but the standing discussion involves Russia building nuclear power plants which would receive nuclear material from Iran, convert the materials into fuel rods and return the rods to Iran. Russia recently agreed to build new plants to accommodate the plan, which makes sense as the resolution gives the Russians an avenue to lots of money. However, if history tells us anything, Russia or the Soviet Union usually do acts for symbolic worth more than practical concerns. If Putin really wanted to send the West into frenzy, pulling out of the Iran nuclear talks would more than suffice. And knowing Putin, he just might.

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