UNITED NATIONS (AP) — As world leaders gather at the U.N. this week, the U.S. and its European allies are consumed by efforts to blunt the savage advance of the Islamic State group, to end the raging Ebola epidemic and to make progress in nuclear negotiations with Iran. That's likely just fine with Vladimir Putin, since these issues distract from Russia's presence in neighboring Ukraine.
While attention focuses elsewhere, the Russians are consolidating their annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. They are also deeply involved in turmoil in Ukraine's east and south, hoping to prevent the country from moving out of the Kremlin's orbit. Europe and the United States insist the independent nation must be free to choose its own course.
Russia is already enraged over NATO's having brought former Soviet satellite nations in Eastern Europe and some Baltic nations, once Soviet republics, into the alliance over the past two decades. The Kremlin insists it was promised, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that that would not happen. It's doing its best to prevent Ukraine from making the same move.
What's more, says American University professor Keith Darden: "Their strategy all along has been to argue that what they did in Crimea is not abnormal. Intervention in Ukraine is not unusual for great powers. The U.S. has intervened in Latin America consistently. Ukraine, they say, is their sphere of interest."
And given the chaos in other areas of the world, says Andrew Weiss, of the Carnegie Endowment, "I can't say I see the Russian challenges and issues as being front and center. Ukraine, to a degree, already has been pushed out of the public eye by the Middle East crisis and the Ebola epidemic. I don't think Ukraine will have the same centrality."
The Russians will likely raise objections to U.S. threats to bomb Syria to take out Islamic State group fighters and facilities. But, since the focus in Syria has shifted from the counter-revolutionary brutality of President Bashar Assad, Russia's obstinate backing for him likely will not come to the fore.
Putin, the Russian president, won't be in New York for the U.N. General Assembly. The Kremlin will be represented by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who, Weiss says, will be on the defensive and unpersuasive as he argues that "Russia is behaving in a normal way in Ukraine." But Russia's actions in Ukraine aren't likely to take center stage at the world gathering.
While the United States has delivered aid to Ukraine, the White House has so far refused to send lethal military equipment that would beef up Kiev's forces in the battle against eastern rebels who are fighting to break away and join Russia.
Moscow, no doubt, is happy about Washington's military restraint in Ukraine, but is feeling the effects of heavy sanctions levied against Russia by the United States and the European Union. And it's no doubt heard the rumblings in Washington of serious divisions in the White House over increased lethal aid to Kiev.
So far, Putin has voiced determination not to be diverted from his course in Ukraine regardless of Western actions. He has also been able to use the punitive measures in a propaganda drive to build support at home — creating anger against the U.S. and Europe as a distraction from the pain his citizens absorb from the economic sanctions.
Beyond that, key Putin advisers are promoting his desires to protect and perhaps reabsorb regions with predominantly Russian speakers. They are not only in Ukraine's east but in former republics like Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — the Baltic nations on Russia's northwest border. U.S. President Barack Obama recently visited the region and promised that NATO would indeed fight to protect those new alliance members if attacked by Russia.
"It is a miscalculation because Russia is far stronger, and the West far weaker, than many imagine," writes Putin foreign policy adviser Sergey Karaganov. "The West that Russia now faces is not the self-confident alliance that proclaimed itself victor of the cold war. It is a directionless gaggle, beset with economic insecurities and losing sight of its moral convictions. America and its allies once held the future in their hands, but at the beginning of this Asian century they have let it slip through their fingers. Their crowning accomplishment was globalization - and they are destroying it with economic sanctions they incoherently describe as instruments of self-defense."
That is a message that plays well with Putin and the Russian people. There is a latent xenophobia and fundamental distrust of the West abroad in the sprawling country, where Putin grows more and more popular as he stands up to Washington and its European allies.
Steven R. Hurst, an AP international political writer based in Washington, reported from Moscow for 12 years and has covered international relations for 33 years.