Putin is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles, and I don’t think it’s even close. They’ve been running circles around us.
This kind of knee-jerk reaction is unsurprising, but it’s also nuts. Has Rogers even been following events in Ukraine lately? The reason Putin has sent troops into Crimea is because everything he’s done over the past year has blown up in his face. This was a last-ditch effort to avoid a fool’s mate, not some deeply-calculated bit of geopolitical stategery.
At some point I hope this country gets over the idea that Putin is Hannibal Lector minus the goalie mask. That assessment didn’t make sense before he invaded and it certainly doesn’t make any sense now. People who are seeing some kind of master plan behind what Russia is doing right now need to explain why Putin’s “master plan” looks a heck of a lot like “careening from one disaster to the next in a series of wild overreactions.”
What has all of Putin’s supposed Machiavellian genius actually accomplished? His client has been unceremoniously dumped from office in Ukraine, and despite all the talk of his substantial support in Ukraine’s eastern provinces, I don’t notice anybody crawling over glass to see Viktor Yanukovych resume his office. The Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Ukraine are fearful that the new government in Kiev might disenfranchise them, and you know? They kind of have a point. It’s a little troubling that, of all the immediate problems the new government in Kiev has to tackle, one of the first things they did was to repeal a 2012 law allowing regional governments to elevate languages other than Ukrainian to official status as needed. Finally, Ukraine’s long national nightmare of polyglot governance is over, to the joy of…well, I’m sure it made somebody happy. (UPDATE: Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov is apparently going to veto the repeal bill.)
So Ukraine’s Russians, afraid that Kiev’s decision to downgrade their language might be the first step to something worse, have turned to Russia to protect them, which provided Putin an opening to do…something. But what he’s decided to do has painted Russia into a box from which there’s no easy exit. Putin didn’t have to invade; he could have pulled any Russian economic support to Ukraine and let the interim government flounder trying to fix Ukraine’s broken economy. He could have poked at Kiev by magnanimously offering Russian passports to any Ukrainian who felt alienated by the new government, which would have conveniently given him an excuse for a later invasion, as a similar program did in Georgia in 2008. He could have let the toxic ultra-right elements of the Euromaidan movement tear the new government apart and had the international community hailing him as a savior for stepping in to save Ukraine’s minorities from the risk of resurgent fascism. He could have done all of these things and then counted on May’s presidential election being won by Yulia Tymoshenko, whose attempt to portray herself as Ukraine’s Aung San Suu Kyi belies the fact that the last time she held office she got up to her eyeballs in corruption and was a “comfortable” partner for Putin.
But Putin couldn’t help himself, couldn’t exhibit the kind of self-control you might expect out of an evil mastermind. Yanukovych’s ouster had made him look weak, so he had to show off his “strength.” He sent his private paramilitaries, including a motorcycle gang of all things, into Crimea to secure the airports and major roadways, then got approval from his parliament to deploy troops into Ukraine “until the sociopolitical situation is normalized,” a goal that the Russian troop deployment actually makes unreachable. Now what? Putin can’t hope for a favorable (or even “least bad”) outcome in May’s election, since, for one thing, there’s really no way that Ukraine can even conduct an election with foreign troops on its soil, and, for another, his actions have now made identification with him or with Russia electoral poison for anyone running for national political office in Ukraine. Does Putin annex Crimea? He better be prepared to build Crimea an entirely new electrical and water infrastructure after Kiev cuts the peninsula off from both. Can Putin cut off the flow of natural gas to Ukraine in retaliation? Not if he wants to be able to sell his gas to Europe, since Russia’s European exports have to pass through Ukraine. Of course some of these problems (Crimea’s precarious infrastructure, Russia’s dependence on its pipelines through Ukraine) can be solved with some massive infrastructure spending projects, but Russia’s economy is in fairly lousy shape as well, and this little Ukrainian chest-thumping adventure is causing the already weak ruble to crater. At this rate he’s not even going to be able to come up with the couple-hundred billion rubles he’ll need to buy off the protests that are sure to greet his re-“election” in 2018, let alone go building new gas pipelines and electrical infrastructure for anybody.
What about military risks? Does Putin attempt to invade the Ukrainian mainland and carve eastern Ukraine off into a separate client state? That probably invites war, and unlike Georgia in 2008 he won’t even be able to implausibly claim that the other side shot first. The Ukrainian military probably can’t stand toe-to-toe with Russia’s, but it may not be as lopsided a fight as Putin would expect , and that’s without factoring in a very Russo-phobic Tatar population that will undoubtedly make trouble for him even in Crimea, where his ability to project power is the strongest. Are we really concerned about Russian military resurgence? Because this isn’t the Cold War, and Russia isn’t pre-WWII Germany, either. Russia spends about one-seventh what the United States alone spends on its military, and since the Russia’s economy is less than one-eighth the size of America’s, that actually represents a slightly higher percentage of its GDP than we spend. This is not the stuff of a world power reborn, and it’s not as though Putin’s actions are going to help him cultivate important strategic alliances in the future.
The consensus seems to be that there is little the West can do to punish Russia enough to get Putin to pull back, and that’s likely true. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be a price to pay for Russia. NATO and the EU may push for closer relations with Russia’s two most recent punching bags, Ukraine and Georgia, and any Russian hopes of rebuilding its soft power influence in Eastern Europe have been dashed to pieces. Putin can make life difficult for NATO by shutting down supply routes into Afghanistan, but at the rate we’re going NATO isn’t going to be in Afghanistan very much longer. Yes, Russia’s actions can undermine efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian massacre and to Iran’s nuclear program, and that does give Putin some leverage. But the fact is that he’s already doing everything he can to prevent a diplomatic solution in Syria, and Russia analysts argue that Russia really doesn’t want to see a nuclear-armed Iran, so they still have an incentive to work toward a deal there. In the long run, Putin has sacrificed Russian influence around the world, and maybe the Russian economy, for temporary control over a peninsula that he probably can’t keep.
It seems to me that Putin is now stuck; he can’t go forward without inviting the potential for very significant harm to Russia, but he can’t go back because there’s no мужественность (manliness) in doing that. I won’t predict what Putin will do, because it’s a mistake to try to guess what the insane and/or stupid will do next, but if I were suddenly made
Tsar President of All the Russia s in his place, here’s what I would do: I’d demand that Kiev commit to increased Crimean autonomy, with firm committments by Kiev, including the presence of international observers, to ensure that minority rights throughout Ukraine are protected. I’d demand a 100 year extension on the lease at Sevastopol. I’d extract a written pledge that Ukraine will not seek EU or NATO membership for some considerable period of time. Then I’d bug out of there and claim a great victory for the Russian peoples and the Russian nation, crowing all the while about my great respect for national sovereignty (an example that some other Great Powers ought to follow, amirite?). But I’m not the greatest evil genius of this or any other time, so what do I know?