How to write about Vladimir Putin

Unlike some people who shall remain nameless, Anne Applebaum manages to write about the soft power options that Putin still has in Ukraine without making it sound like everything to this point has gone exactly according to Putin’s impossibly ingenious master plan:

Of course economic tools can help wreck that government, too. Two Russian banks have already declared that they will no longer do business in Ukraine, and others may follow. Selective boycotts of particularly vulnerable industries might follow: Ukrainian chocolate exports were blocked last year. The gas supply is harder to play around with—Russian gas goes through Ukraine to other markets in Europe—but the gas price is vulnerable.

Russia might also simply decide to wait it out. Ukraine is careening rapidly toward a default: After years of mismanagement, the country’s finances are unsustainable. If Russia simply waits, Ukraine could well go bankrupt and plunge into real economic chaos. The West could lose patience. The Ukrainians who so bravely stood up for independence in the past few months could grow disillusioned with leaders who will be unable to deliver rapid change. That’s what happened after the Orange Revolution in 2005—and in this part of the world, history does repeat itself.

There are longer-term tactics available to Putin as well. Russia’s corrupt business elite, together with Ukraine’s corrupt business elite, will certainly try to draw Ukraine’s new leaders into the same web that caught Yanukovych as well as his “pro-Western” predecessors, Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko. There is a lot of money available to Ukrainian politicians of all sorts who don’t mind being on the Russian payroll, and it’s a lot more money than anybody will get from a State Department “democracy” grant.

Putin has considerable leverage that he can wield against his smaller neighbor (particularly since that neighbor’s economy is a complete mess), although he may be following a more direct approach. It is possible to acknowledge this without pretending that this is how Putin wanted everything to go all along.


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