By Timothy Spyrou
IT IS clear that, despite the howls of protest from the United States and Europe, Putin is going to get away with at least annexing the Crimean Peninsula. The Ukrainians know that any armed resistance on their part could result in their being crossed off the list of independent countries within hours.
We cannot possibly know what is going on inside Putin’s head. Maybe he always wanted to reassert Russian control over the Crimea through hard diplomacy, to the point that Ukrainian sovereignty in that territory was just a theoretical construct. The signing of a treaty extending the lease of the naval base at Sevastopol until 2042 in exchange for Gazprom not turning off Ukraine’s gas supplies during winter points in that direction. He definitely wanted to use hard diplomacy to re-consolidate as much of the old Imperial Russia and USSR geo-political space as possible by haranguing Ukraine into ditching the association agreement with the European Union in favor of the Eurasian Union.
However, we are not dealing with hard diplomacy at the moment. We are dealing with military might, albeit silent, as no deaths have resulted yet. Even though the Russian Army is not what it used to be, it is still a force that can inflict fatal blows. And that’s without the nuclear weapons.
What we don’t know is this: Is the Crimean Invasion and Annexation merely meant to be a consolation prize, or is it part of a pre-determined strategy? It definitely seems like a consolation prize, as Russia will not only expand its Black Sea coastline. It secures a permanent naval presence with which to rattle NATO and the EU, especially if Ukraine should ever join those two organizations; although the Black Sea fleet had geographical proximity to the Euro-Atlantic community before, there is little that is more frightening than having the Russian Navy illegally occupying territorial waters that belong to a prospective member-state of the EU. It makes the EU and the US look weak, especially since squabbles over exactly what sanctions should be taken have already spilled into the open. Putin is probably enjoying the cacophony of pundits claiming that he has outfoxed Obama yet again, so soon after Syria, despite the obvious fact that any US action against Assad would have just motivated Putin to be more obnoxious elsewhere. But we do not know how far Putin is willing to go to recreate as much of the Old Russian imperium as possible. Putin knows that the taking of the whole Ukraine, or just the Eastern regions with a sizeable Russian population, will invite harsher diplomatic and sanctions than are currently being discussed. He also knows that Russian middle class voters and oligarchs alike will be unhappy that their chances of greater prosperity would be limited as a result.
However, Putin potentially has five factors or cards that could bail him out of such a scenario, or at least tide him over until things calm down. One is Russian nationalism, with its Pan-Slavic roots and the resentment of ordinary Russians for the aftermath of the Cold War defeat. For them, the problems associated with the emergence of free markets and democratic politics that were really not free or democratic, thanks to Yeltsin’s incompetence, were all part of a conspiracy by the West to reduce Russia to a shambles, rather than treat it as a partner.
The forced re-unification of Ukraine into Russia will give him a nationalist boost that would compensate for any economic losses, provided that liberal opposition doesn’t grow. Once his propaganda network starts reminding the people that Russia was powerless to prop up Serbia against NATO, and stop the subsequent loss of Kosovo, the Russian people will conclude that their humiliations are being righted by Putin and the Western condemnation is worth the cost. Isolation might even serve Putin as it will ‘protect’ the Russian people from the Western concepts of freedom and the rule of law-concepts advanced so as to undermine Russia’s role in the world.
The second card that Putin possesses is the message his actions have sent to the other Soviet republics whose populations are contemplating whether they should move towards the West. Before President Yanukovych snubbed the EU in favor of the cheap credit and gas from Putin, Russia ‘persuaded’ Armenia to abandon talks for a similar trade and association agreement. It is speculated that Putin told the Armenians, in more ‘diplomatic’ language, “You can sign an association agreement with the EU, or you can sign up for the Eurasian Union. You can put your faith in Europe for protection which may or may not help you in a tricky situation vis-à-vis Turkey and Azerbaijan, or you can trust Russia to protect you. By the way, I hope you haven’t forgotten we have a military base on your territory.” Although Belarus is governed by a quasi-Soviet style strongman in Alexander Lukashenko, its sometimes vocal opposition wants to move away from kleptocracy towards European rule of law. At the same time, the Belarussian leader himself has expressed frustration over Russia being overbearing. The example of Ukraine being decimated, partitioned, or completely absorbed through military means will surely force Lukashenko to shut up over Russian interference. The fear of overt Russian domination could even help Lukashenko, in that he is able to stamp out pro-Western opposition forces. Many opposition supporters may conclude that indirect Russian control over their economy and polity is preferable to having Russian tanks on the streets of Minsk. Georgia, which has already sustained loss of territory in its Olympic Games 2008 war with Russia, may be beginning to have second thoughts about going ahead with the beginning of the ratification process of its own association agreement with Europe. After all, the billionaire behind the Georgian Dream Coalition Government, which is largely pro-West, Bidzina Ivanishvili, made most of his money in Russia after the collapse of communism. If he faces the prospect of losing his wealth, and Georgia faces the prospect of an economic war without substantial EU aid, then who knows how they will swing.
The third factor that gives Putin the confidence to believe he could ride out Western anger and the discontent of liberal opposition over Russia being isolated is this: Russia is unfortunately needed. Look at the Iran nuclear issue. Russian cooperation with the West is one of the main reasons why Iran has decided to open negotiations over its alleged nuclear weapons program.
Russia has refrained from selling advanced weapons systems that could enable it to withstand an Israeli, or even an US led assault on its nuclear and military facilities. Furthermore, it has refrained from supplying the Iranians any technology that would have taken its already sophisticated [for a country under sanctions] nuclear program to a capacity that would have enabled it to build a bomb a long time ago. Should Russia come under crippling sanctions over Ukraine, Putin could turn around and say the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons is not Russia’s problem, and that the Russian economy needs Iran as a major trading partner.
Then we have Syria. Russia will never abandon Assad, but Russia could retaliate against Western sanctions by supplying his forces with far more weaponry than current levels, allowing him to eliminate the opposition. This would of course exacerbate the humanitarian catastrophe. Then we have the problem of terrorism, specifically Islamic fundamentalists of Chechen origin like the Tsarnaev Brothers behind the Boston Marathon attack. It will be hard for the US to ask Moscow to share information on what Chechen insurgents captured during Russia’s ongoing operations in the North Caucasus if Russia is excluded from the G8. We have the North Korea issue. Should a crisis arise in the Korean peninsula, America and her Asian allies will have to cooperate mostly with China so as to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, war, and the possible use or loss of nuclear weapons. But what if contacts with China come under strain because of differences in approach or because of its reluctance to work with Japan? Although Russia and China are not allies in the classic sense, Russia may be the only country that can keep the channels open during a crisis. If Russia is isolated economically, Putin could just shrug and say that North Korea is not his problem.
As if all of the above isn’t bad enough, we have the issue of nuclear arms control agreements. President Obama has declared repeatedly that he hopes to be remembered as for working towards the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. Perhaps that ambition can never be fully realized, but it is still a virtuous path. The problem is that it can only be achieved by following the framework adopted by past Presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike: by cooperating with Russia, the other leading nuclear weapons power. Obama has had some success in this area because of his good rapport with then President Dmitry Medvedev, leading to the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), signed in Prague, April 2010.
In Berlin 2013, Obama proposed going even further, declaring that he “intended [sic] to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures,” “reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third.” Putin’s advisors responded with a contemptuous “nyet” within hours of the speech, humiliating Obama in front of the whole world and, by extension, exposing him to ridicule from Republican hawks back home. In fact, evidence that alleges that Russia has been undermining the 1987 Reagan-Gorbachev treaty calling for the elimination of intermediate range nuclear missiles has emerged. If America and Europe apply harsh sanctions on Russia over Crimea, Putin might threaten to pull out of several such treaties, unravelling decades of cooperation and spurring a new and costly arms race that will dangerously ricochet around the globe.
The fourth card that Putin holds against the West is this: the Western politician’s nightmare of an economic and political winter of discontent as a result of sanctions on the Russian economy. The Russian Bear is probably roaring with laughter at the British Bulldog who is experiencing difficulties regarding his indulging in Russian vodka. The Guardian photograph of an advisor entering No10 Downing Street with a document urging against “the closing, for now, of London’s financial centre to Russians,” is one of those pictures that speaks a thousand words. For years, the City of London, has been complacent about the origins of the hundreds of billions of pounds worth of Russian money that was enriching the London Stock Exchange and the London property and art markets. As Russia scholar Anne Applebaum said in her latest Washington Post column, “Illegally acquired Russian assets can receive the imprimatur of the international financial establishment, as long as they are sufficiently valuable. That tacit decision to accept all Russian money at face value has come home to roost in the past week.” According to Applebaum, the Russian kleptocracy that Putin presides over believes it can act with “impunity” as long as it believes that the West is open for business.
The Economist, which is vocal in its support for tough measures to contain Putin and isolate his regime economically, nevertheless doubted whether European leaders could summon the courage to achieve this. In its 3/8/2014 “Charlemagne” column, the journal noted that a major German business lobby warned that up to 300000 German jobs are dependent on trade with Russia. The observer can conclude that companies ranging from Siemens to the smallest Mittelstand firm in the most particular niche market will struggle as a result. Even if only a fifth of those 300000 jobs were to disappear, it would still be a major blow to the German economy, leading to more problems in the Eurozone. Other analysts have noted that many Western firms have billions of dollars of investments in Russia, and it is not just the likes of oil majors Exxon Mobil and BP. General Electric, Siemens, Rolls-Royce, Boeing, PepsiCo, Danone, PepsiCo, Ford, Volkswagen-all of them and more are going to suffer pain should the West impose sanctions on Russia and Putin retaliates. The world economic recovery is very frail and this crisis could tip it back into recession, decimating stock market value and jobs. As you can imagine, the economic cost of sanctions to the West could very well end up carrying big political costs because of an increase in unemployment and anger on the part of businesses and their lobbyists who happen to be campaign contributors. European consumers facing higher electricity prices will howl to the moon.
This brings me to the fifth and concluding card that Vladimir Putin holds; the dysfunction that has taken over politics in the West. As I mentioned before, Putin is probably enjoying the uproar his latest adventure has caused in US politics, with Republicans damning Barack Obama for weakness. The whole story is even worse. Yesterday, it emerged that Congressional and Senate Republicans may very well reject the emergency legislation put forward by the Administration that would enable the IMF to bail out Ukraine before it completely collapses. The row is centered on a technicality increasing American funding for the IMF. The Republicans are not willing to set aside some money previously booked for supplementary defense expenditure so that the IMF can proceed quickly with helping Ukraine. It can also be said that, despite their professed admiration for the plucking Ukrainians, they do not really want to cooperate with Obama on a foreign policy crisis in a year with Congressional elections. Meanwhile in Germany, there is the embarrassing fact that the party of former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who took a position on the board of a crucial pipeline linking Russian gas to Germany, is Merkel’s coalition partner. Throw in the voter frustration over the global financial crisis now entering its sixth year, and fatigue over foreign affairs and globalization, and you can imagine voters saying “How absurd it is that we sacrifice jobs because of a crisis in a country between people of whom we know nothing”?
Vladimir Putin has a lot of factors that enlarge his room for maneuver in this crisis. A lot of Westerners have yet to realize this, but Putin is the real-life, Russian equivalent of Francis Urquhart and Frank Underwood. Just as those two fictional villains are portrayed as having the whole of their respective countries political system at their mercy, [Britain and America], Putin feels confident that, should the West be courageous enough to take action, he could demolish them like they are a House of Cards with a few swift movements. The only missing ingredients are an equally fierce spouse and the references to Shakespeare that could be found in the series.