The Russian President might not fear the west, or seek its approval, but his current imperialist policy is deeply flawedby James Sherr / March 14, 2014 / Leave a comment
Putin plays by rules his opponents fail to understand ©Utrecht Robin/ABACA/Press Association Images
Had Western governments preserved their institutional memory, Russia’s assault on Crimea would not have come as a bolt from the blue. As far back as 1992, Russia declared that it must be a “leader of stability and security in the former USSR”. Since 1993, military doctrines and foreign policy “concepts” have asserted its right to intervene in support of its citizens and “compatriots” abroad. After NATO’s Bucharest summit of 2008 (which many cite as the trigger for the war against Georgia), Putin warned George Bush that Ukraine was an “artificial state” whose existence could be “called into question”.
The triggers are different now. But Russia still believes that restricting the sovereignty of its neighbours is essential for its own security. It views the West as the architect of revolutions in its “sphere of privileged interest”, and it connects Ukraine’s fate with its own. Just over 20 years ago, the former United States National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski famously said: “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire”. As the commentator Alexander Vasiliyev said in January this year, the Russian view is different: “Russia can be an empire without Ukraine, but it can’t be Russia.”
That certainly is the view of Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin has invested almost ten years in the battle against Western “messianism.” In 2012, Vladimir Putin invoked the “historically conditioned civilisational choice” of the Slavic people and claimed that this choice “had not been made by plebiscites or referenda, but by blood.” It is now no longer histrionic to claim that the end of the post-Soviet order in Ukraine could threaten the same in Russia.
In this narrative the EU is cast in an unfavourable light. During the 1990s, Russians viewed EU integration as a counterbalance to US power. Today, they accept that its purpose is indeed integration—but on the basis of rules and values starkly at odds with those observed in Russia. The Kremlin insists that the EU model can’t apply to Russia and its “fraternal” neighbours. But it still fears its success.
That fear was the motivation for a well-orchestrated policy of soft coercion against candidates for EU Association, which ran from last summer to the Vilnius summit in late November. Russia’s shift to hard coercion was sparked by the swift collapse of Yanukovich’s brutal and brittle regime. Having boasted at the end of last year that “Ukraine is now ours”, Moscow now finds itself with no influence in Kiev.
As a result, the Crimean operation is partly fuelled by a desire to show Kiev, Brussels and Washington that nothing can be achieved in Ukraine without Russia’s consent. Putin’s other goals include making Ukraine appear ungovernable, pushing IMF and investor risk beyond acceptable limits, and securing constitutional “solutions” that would fragment the country.
Those objectives as described are clearly unacceptable to the western powers, but there is another possible interpretation. A recent headline in Ukraine’s news magazine, Korrespondent read, “Putin understands the code of the new world order better than others.” Is that assessment correct?
The Russian President is a high-risk player who understands that economic interdependence is not politically neutral. Instead of constraining those with the most to lose, it constrains those who are most afraid of losses. The EU summit of 7th March was a victory for those who fear losses. Putin also understands that business interests take priority over geopolitical interests in today’s Europe. For him it is the opposite: Russia’s loss of Ukraine will be far more damaging than any measures the EU (or even the United States) is now prepared to take. Without action, Western outrage means nothing. The American President and German Foreign Minister still assume that Putin seeks Western approval. He does not. The premise of his entire policy is that “Russia is not the west”—it is a proud, apprehensive and ambitious power.
There are two flaws with Putin’s design. The first is the belief that you can, as the old Russian saying states, “force people into friendship.” By threatening security reprisals, he persuaded Armenia’s president, Serzh Sargsyan, to join the Eurasian Customs Union last September. As a result, a friendly political elite became less friendly. Twice in the past ten years, the Kremlin has fundamentally misjudged the character of Ukraine’s people, but it continues to create zero-sum conflicts where there were none before. Compared to ten years ago, the number of people in the West prepared to blame the United States, let alone the EU, for Russia’s moods, methods and excesses is rapidly diminishing.
Putin is also not a master strategist—today’s approach is weakened by its reliance on short-term strengths. He succeeds in unbalancing opponents only because he plays by rules they don’t understand. Russia’s comparative strengths are also waning—the government’s few long-term projects, such as the South Stream pipeline which aims to transport gas via the Black Sea, are straining the Russian economy and provoking the EU into doing the unthinkable: developing an assertive energy policy. Crucially, Putin has given no thought to how Crimea’s population—only 41 per cent of whom favour joining Russia according to a survey carried out in February—will react to prolonged occupation or how the influx of armed “tourists” will affect Russia’s standing in eastern and southern Ukraine (over 70 per cent of whose inhabitants regard Ukraine as their home).
Set against this backdrop, the EU’s failure to impose meaningful sanctions is less disheartening than it appears. Market uncertainty, the collapse of investor confidence and the fall of the rouble are all damaging consequences, which will impact upon the power structures of Russia’s neo-feudal system. What is needed is a strategy that matches the west’s strengths against Russia’s weaknesses. The EU financial package for Ukraine will be a key part of this, as will a revival of the military and security cooperation that Yanukovich curtailed. The return of the United States’ diplomatic focus to Europe and the West’s to Ukraine will matter most of all. But it will be for nothing if our leaders prefer the comfort of shabby compromises to the clarity of policy and purpose.