Putin dedicated to recapturing Russian power

| Saturday, May 17, 2014, 9:09 p.m.

MOSCOW — Vowing to defend ethnic Russians wherever they live, President Vladimir Putin has embarked on an aggressive campaign to rebuild the pride and assertiveness of the Russian people, which he says was lost in the breakup of the Soviet Union.

A week ahead of a presidential vote in Ukraine that will help determine that nation's relationship with Russia, Putin has been devoting new power to redressing what he has called the historical tragedy that shattered the Soviet Union into 15 nations.

From annexing Crimea to collecting separatist petitions in Moldova to handing out passports to compatriots in the Baltics, Putin has spent recent weeks focused on neighboring countries, many of which have substantial ethnic Russian minorities.

The strategy puts Russia on a collision course with the NATO defense alliance, because two of its members — Estonia and Latvia — have significant Russian-speaking minorities that have long complained of discrimination. NATO has boosted air patrols over the Baltic states and sent troops to do exercises on the ground. Russia earlier this month unleashed missile tests and war exercises, including along the border with Latvia and Estonia.

The new efforts have helped rocket Putin's domestic approval ratings to multiyear heights, and they have also inspired some ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers abroad. Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine this past week asked to join their region to Russia. Days earlier, a top Russian official traveled to the breakaway Transnistria region of Moldova, where he collected what he said were more than 30,000 signatures in favor of unity with Russia.

The swift moves complicate efforts to bring stability to roiling Ukraine, which will vote this week on a new president to replace pro-Kremlin Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February. Although Putin's ambitions appear to fall far short of rebuilding the Soviet Union, the newly nationalist tone is boosting the cohesiveness of Russian-speaking populations in Russia's neighbors and inside Russia itself. Even if Putin refrains from military action, his efforts are likely to create pressure points that can be used against neighboring countries that displease Russia, security officials and analysts say.

Russian speakers extend far beyond Russia's boundaries, in part because the breakup of the Soviet Union spun off territories that were historically part of the Russian Empire — such as Kazakhstan — and in part because of economic migration and deliberate resettlement programs during the Soviet era.

Russian officials have kept open the option of direct military intervention in eastern Ukraine.

Putin's policy “really has acquired a very different and very new quality to it, of aggressive expansionist nationalism,” said Eugene Rumer, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who until January was the national intelligence officer for Russia on the U.S. National Intelligence Council.

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