02/24/2014 12:12 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2014

From the Pinnacle of Power, Putin Stands Before the Abyss

Vladimir Putin and I share a special bond. We both grew up believing that the Ukraine was part of Russia. My father's family was Russian, or so the story went. One parent was from the city of Uman, south of Kiev, and the other from the long-disappeared town of Ivangorod.

When I went to Kiev in 1989 as part of an international finance commission, there was no mention of the Ukraine as the nation-state it would become just two years later. It was still the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, just one of many teetering Soviet Republics being held together by Mikhail Gorbachev's vision of restructuring and openness that might forestall the urge to independence and democracy. But even then it was the Ukraine. Dating back a more than a thousand years to its inception as the Kievan Rus, it remained the integral southern realm of the Russian state.

When we met with an emissary of the Metropolitan (head prelate in charge) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church--a man with the long black beard and colorful vestments of one's imagination--he said nothing of independence or statehood. Rather, he worked himself up into a full rage as he described the seizure of the land and murder of the clerics of his church by the Uniate Catholics in the western Ukraine. For centuries, the Ukraine was riven by the sectarian tensions between the Orthodox and Catholic branches of Christian faith, and the bordering nations--primarily Catholic Poland and Orthodox Russia--played a tug-of-war for control, as the borders shifted from one century to the next. Now, our host assured us, as Communist control was weakening, the war of ages was ramping back up, and the Orthodox Church was preparing for battle with its Roman antagonists.

Faced with this raging scarlet-faced prelate, I betrayed nothing of my own Russian roots. Even in the wake of the Orange Revolution that came a little more than a decade after our lunch with the Ukrainian Church emissary, both Putin and I remained unconvinced of the independent status of the Ukraine. For me, it remained a question of identity. Russia is a nation with a long history and deep cultural roots. The literature. The poetry.The massive scale of Siberia. The massive suffering of the Gulag. To acknowledge Ukraine as a nation meant that I must recast my own roots from Russian to Ukrainian.

The challenge for Putin is tougher. He has made clear that his identity is not simply Russian, but Soviet. The collapse of the Soviet Union was, in his terms, the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. And the center of the Soviet Union was Russia and the Ukraine. Subduing Ukraine's schismatic wars and crushing the aspirations of the Ukrainian peasant farmers (kulaks) was central to the formation of the Soviet empire under Joseph Stalin.

Not to belabor the details, but Simon Sebag Montefiore's biography of Stalin In the Court of the Red Tsar, describes Nikita Krushchev's rise from Ukrainian Communist Party leader to inside member of Stalin's court largely on the basis of his ability to outperform his quotas of Ukrainians killed month after month until the numbers totaled in the hundreds of thousands. This is the history whose loss Putin laments.

The Sochi Olympics that closed this week were supposed to mark the culmination of Putin's career. Over the past few months alone, Putin was named the most powerful man in the world by Forbes magazine, he strategically out-maneuvered the Americans in Syria, exposed and thus undermined Saudi threats to fund attacks against the Olympics, and offered refuge to American public enemy number one, Edward Snowden. Two weeks ago, Putin stood at the opening ceremony in Sochi in his great coat like a commissar of old on the Kremlin wall. At the apex of his power, he broadcast images of himself as the post-modern Soviet man riding horseback bare chested across the Siberian taiga, dressed in camouflage after slaying a tiger in the wild, and in his martial arts attire after hand to hand combat.

Then it all fell apart. First, the Russian team was humiliated in Olympic Hockey. Then, just as Putin thought things could not get worse, the Ukrainian protests exploded into public view. With Putin's support, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych plied the Syrian gambit. The regime labeled the protesters terrorists and unleashed the anti-terrorist units of the Ukrainian armed forces. But it was to no avail. The Syrian gambit, it now appears, demands a ruthless absolutism at the top and loyalty across the officer corps that Yanukovych did not possess. Within days, the protesters and the Parliament assumed control, the Orange Revolution constitution was reinstated, and Russia's southern flank lay exposed.

Control over Ukraine has been the cornerstone of Putin's goal of reestablishing the Soviet empire in fact if not in name. Ukraine's departure from the Russian orbit -- if not undone by some act of force or diplomatic miracle -- looms to undo all that he has accomplished in his decade and a half in power. The looming presence of the Russian military that keeps authoritarian regimes across Russia's near abroad in line will have been shown to be a chimera. Putin's arguments that the opposition in the Ukraine was primarily instigated by the Roman Catholic Church and the American CIA have been rendered quaint. Ukraine, even Putin must be coming to realize, is a real place.

What happens next is unclear. It is easier for me that for Putin. It seems my family was Ukrainian after all, and I will just have to deal with that. I will have to unfriend my former compatriots Anna Ahkmatova and Aleksandr Pushkin. I can continue to embrace Nikolai Gogol. I will remain skeptical of my Grandmother's claim that we were related to Leon Trotsky.

But for Putin, this is a tougher moment, and his options would appear to be limited. Unlike the Russia-Georgia war, there is no standing army against which to fight. Unlike his Chechen wars, Ukraine cannot be brutally subdued outside of public view. Certainly putsch's can still work -- the Egyptian military has proven that recently -- and a terror campaign against domestic opponents is not out of the question -- as Putin has himself supported in Syria. But each of those both demand a ruthless Ukrainian leadership and a supportive Ukrainian military, they cannot simply be imposed from the outside. And then there is Khrushchev's approach, but for all of Putin's posturing, he does not have the will to power of a Stalin or a Khrushchev.

Putin has the resources in place for a military response. His armies lie across Ukraine's northern border, and his Black Sea Fleet remains berthed in its Ukrainian home port of Sebastopol, on the southern tip of the Crimean peninsula. The annexation of all or part of the Crimea to preserve Russia's naval access to the Bosphorus is not out of the question. Unlike Kaliningrad Oblast, the Russian outpost on the Baltic Sea, separated from the Motherland by Lithuania and Belarus, the Crimea is adjacent to Russia across the Strait of Kerch. But a military assault from the north against the entire Ukraine in the absence of a complicit host government and military is inconceivable.

Putin could choose to adapt to a the reality. He could offer the new Ukrainian government the $15 billion aid offer that he put on the table early on in the crisis to forestall Ukraine's acceptance of the Association Agreement with Europe. This would demonstrate goodwill and further bind Ukraine's economic future to Russia's.

But that would be a weak response. Losing Ukraine means losing his position as an historical Russian figure. Instead of comparisons to Peter the Great, who expanded the Russian empire into the Ukraine, Putin's place would be alongside Mikhail Gorbachev, an earlier handmaiden of Russian decline and humiliation. To Russian nationalists, it would bring cries of 'who lost Ukraine', and it would send the message across Russia's near abroad that Putin's plans for the reassertion of the Soviet sphere of influence have come crashing back to earth. It would compromise the leadership of authoritarian regimes in each of the lesser states that Putin has wrapped so tightly around Russia's perimeter. Even Russian democrats would be given succor.

The Sochi Olympic Games were supposed to mark the pinnacle of Putin power and prestige, but instead it may mark the moment of his undoing. Ukraine's success would show Putin's to be a Potemkin regime, with little behind the facade of strategy and power but the machinations and ego of one man.

Putin must have another plan. He must have something more. He must have one more move to change the trajectory of the Ukrainian drama. Because if he doesn't, all that he tried to build will come crashing down, and that will be his legacy. Just one man riding across the taiga, a bare chested leader with no one following behind.