The current extremely successful campaign of aggression by Russia’s dictator-candidate Vladimir Putin illustrates two of the fundamentals of geopolitical history:
* A demagogue’s capability of achieving remarkable results through bluff.
* How history often turns on relatively small margins only later to be dis-remembered.
Putin, with a home front in near crisis, has nevertheless won an important strategic victory by his covert invasion of the Crimea and wresting it, at least temporarily, from Ukraine. The disarray in Kiev after an unbelievably corrupt regime was dismembered by a popular street revolt has facilitated his pretense of superior power. That a rapidly declining Russian population, beset with all sorts of economic and social ills has embraced his new nationalist fervor, is no surprise. The old bandwagon effect of propaganda is notorious; pace Germany in the Nazi takeover after 1933 when the celebrated “good Germans” were increasingly few and far between – as long as Hitler was winning.
Putin’s victorious march from one propaganda feat to another is occasioned more by the utter collapse of a naïve U.S. policy in regard to Russia. Not least has been Washington’s inability to present a common front with the European Union. It is one of the many contradictions of the current scene that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, presumably the most exposed of the EU’s members to blackmail because of its heavy (one-third) dependence on Russian energy imports, has taken the firmest line, at least publicly. President Obama’s statements, on the other hand, ring hollow as another “red line” that will turn out meaningless.
Putin’s success is all the more “illogical” given the fact that he appears to have no ideology — other than a vague wish to return Russia to Soviet and/or Tsarist glory. Yet he dare not maximize that nostalgia given the still unresolved issue of Stalin and his domestic terror within the living memory of at least a few Russians. Nor, one suspects, is he moving systematically from one strategic move to another, but rather improvising tactically as he goes along.
What is clear is that his aim is to reassert Moscow’s authority over the former “lost” areas of Soviet dominance. Ukraine with its 45 million people, great agricultural resources and ancillary industry to the old Soviet decentralized industrial networks (not the least munitions) is a special prize and first in his agenda That would suggest that rather than proceed with dismembering it — that is, repeating the process of detaching Crimea and linking it to Russia which he might be able to do in Eastern and Southern Ukraine — he may well want a weak and subservient Ukrainian central regime.
Thus Secretary of State John Kerr’s repeated efforts to smooth the Russian feathers with his almost constant exchanges with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavror are worrisome. That’s especially true since announcements of successful agreement between the two are followed almost immediately by aggressive statements from the Kremlin. If an attack on a sovereign nation is the international issue that precipitated the present crisis and must be dealt with, as it is, then surely Putin’s dictating the formation of a restructured Kiev regime — perhaps with a few inputs from Washington — is not the way to go.
Therefore, there may be wishful thinking to British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s guessing that Putin has lost control of his assets in Ukraine. That is a little hard to believe. Western observers on the ground are generally agreed that those little men in “green uniforms” wearing masks and wielding sophisticated arms were infiltrated KGB and Russian Special Forces. They led the charge of local Russian ethnic dissidents against the fragile Kiev government. Yes, Putin did publicly call for halting this weekend’s referendum in Eastern Ukraine. (No one dares use that old Hitler appellation “plebiscite” with its evil 1930 connotations.) It calls for separation and possible affiliation to the Russian Federation. But that certainly does not mean that Putin’s agents aren’t, in fact, pushing his backhand program. Is Hague really that naïve?
This kind of subterfuge has been the chief characteristic of Putin’s program since he began the effort through the ousted bought-and-paid-for former Ukrainian President Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych. That miscreant was so unsavory that Moscow has treated him with rubber gloves after he ran for his life to Russia. The incredible revelations of hedonistic lifestyle have been staggering, even by the standards of the many present worldwide kleptocracies. It suggests just how far the improvised Kiev administration at the same time must create a new regime resisting very real disruptive tendencies within a new state but at the same time resist Putin.
In the last few days, Putin has played an old Stalinist card: the appeal to loyalty to the Motherland, a massive display of military pomp and ceremony on Red Square not seen since Soviet days. The call to loyalties of World War II when Russians paid a terrible price for Stalin’s dallying with Hitler for a temporary truce in the Fascist-Communist struggle and the purging of his veteran generals to exert maximum control. It also, subliminally, recalls the Russian complaint that they rather than the West with their enormous casualties (8.7 million soldiers, 6 to 12 million civilians) downed Hitler. That, again, feeds into the kind of anti-Americanism which is the flip side of a genuine admiration for Americans that has always characterized the Russians.
Yet Putin’s military in 2014 — despite its threatening hoard of nuclear weapons and some lingering success in continued Soviet missile propulsion — is nothing like the Soviet inventory. Of the Soviet fleet of 110 deep water ships, for example, Putin has only 12. (The submarine fleet is less than a third.) Putin’s military modernization — ironically in part based on acquiring actual weapons in addition to technology from the West (drones from Israel, SUVs from Italy, training equipment from Germany, etc.) — has introduced new flexibility into the old Soviet gigantism. Progress made since the Russian army stumbled into Georgia in 2008 includes remolding the Spetsnaz (special forces) so abysmally ineffective in the two (recent) Chechnya wars. But his army still hangs suspended somewhere between a conniving and evading draft and volunteers. Nor has the nightmare of brutality of relationships between NCOs and soldiers been assuaged.
But while Russian forces are no match for NATO, Russian strategy cannot be dismissed by Washington. For example, by setting up an expanded anti-aircraft defense for Belarus — increasingly under Russian influence and control, and perhaps the No. 2 target after Ukraine — Moscow has partially checked any Western air effort to defend the Baltic States in the event of a surprise attack by Russia. NATO’s commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, acknowledges that Russian forces which remain deployed along Ukraine’s border (despite Russian denials) could overwhelm Ukraine in as little as five days.
Still, Putin is also paying an enormous price for the increased instability his international ploy has introduced into the Russian economy. Never mind that the Obama Administration’s sanctions so far — “move another inch and I will let you have it!” — are virtually meaningless. The capital outflow of Putin’s own oligarchic playmates, always enormous, is suddenly a hemorrhage that can’t be staunched. The estimated $70 billion in the first quarter of 2014 is more than all last year’s losses. Despite nominally attracting Western oil companies to still unexplored Arctic reserves, Putin’s fossil fuel exports remain high-cost. And they are under threat from the U.S. shale natural gas and oil exports dynamiting world fossil fuel prices. The effort by Russian government companies to grab European gas distribution networks has only been partially successful, with new pipelines from Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Israel, and with new LNG/LPG facilities independent of Russia and Ukraine already falling into place.
Putin’s potential for troublemaking, of course, is virtually unlimited. Every one of the former Soviet-occupied countries — the so-called “near abroad” — have significant Russian ethnic populations. He can, as he did in Crimea and now in Eastern Ukraine, manufacture incidents of discrimination and persecution of Russian-speakers. (There is considerable evidence of naiveté of some Western observers about the complicated loyalties of these minorities. Their real sentiments were for special rights under a Kiev government but a longing to go west with it to the EU rather than east to a failing Moscow economy.) It is a pattern the Nazis used in the run-up to World War II, and a Polish official who suggests Putin’s speeches might have borrowed from Hitler’s may not be that much of an exaggeration.
When, how and where Obama and the EU must call Putin’s bluff is now the question hanging in the air. The ball is in their court. There is an ever-present danger that events or hubris will drag Putin along and create the kind of armed conflict neither side wants but will not be able to avoid.
A version of this column will be published at http://yeoldecrabb.com/ on Monday, May 12, 2014