The American Interest
Russia Diary
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Published on May 8, 2014
Flipping the Chessboard Don’t Be Fooled: The Kremlin Isn’t Backpedaling

What to make of Putin’s call for the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine to postpone their referendum? Nothing, except perhaps that it represents a shift in tactics.

Yesterday Vladimir Putin called on the Ukrainian separatists in Donetsk to postpone their referendum on independence from Ukraine. Putin also called for dialogue between the Ukrainian authorities and pro-Russian forces, and offered support for Merkel’s idea for a Ukrainian “roundtable.” What are we to make of this?

There are a few things we can say about this gesture. First, it could represent Putin’s understanding that a referendum under the barrel of a gun wasn’t going to receive much in the way of global recognition. Second, it would have increased the threat of more painful sanctions. Third, we could interpret it as a change of tactics by the Kremlin: Putin is now pursuing the Kremlin agenda in Ukraine by presenting Russia as a neutral Arbitrator between the two sides of the conflict. Moreover, Putin hopes to strike a deal with the West that would guarantee the principle that external forces (and Russia first of all, of course) have a right to influence the internal political process in Ukraine.

One thing we can safely say is that the Kremlin hasn’t given up on other means of meddling. But  what to make of the fact that the Councils of the Donetsk and Lugansk “People’s Republics” have rejected Putin’s call? Does this mean that the pro-Russian separatists in the Ukrainian East have cut the leash? Or is it the beginning of the new Kremlin intrigue: “See? We aren’t controlling them!” It remains to be seen.

But while we wait for the next development in the crisis, we need to start thinking about what this situation means for global security, the world order, and our understanding of key political principles and norms. Let’s look at the major implications of the Ukraine crisis.

1. The Kremlin is attempting to reassess the outcomes of the Cold War, which it views as unjust. This reassessment is about far more than just redrawing borders: It is about re-examining the conventional views of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the Cold War’s winners and losers. Rectifying “historical wrongs” in Crimea is but the first step on this mission. Considering Putin’s perception of Russia and Ukraine as a “single nation”, and his dismissal of the current Ukrainian leadership as a “junta”, we ought to expect him to take additional steps toward “righting historical wrongs” in Ukraine. The Russian president has probably decided to enter the textbooks as a visionary who changed the course of history. In this case, once Putin has started to restore justice, he hardly would stop in Ukraine. Putin’s conciliatory tone on May 7 and his support of the Ukrainian “dialogue” should be interpreted not as a change of his Doctrine but a change of tactics.

2. Some mistakenly believe that the Kremlin is returning to the 1945 Yalta Accords, which established spheres of influence for each of the victors of the war. Much of the world evidently hoped that placing Crimea more firmly within the Russian sphere of influence would satisfy the Kremlin. What naiveté! The Kremlin’s agenda is much more ambitious: It wants global actors to endorse Russia’s right to create and protect the “Russian World”, including ethnic Russians in other states. Essentially, this is an attempt to repeat the 1938 Munich Agreement. However, I suspect that this notion of the “Russian World” is only a pretext to pursue other goals—the actions of a leader who has begun to feel omnipotent, who has lost (or perhaps never had) an adequate understanding of dangers, threats, and limits. Putin certainly has never expressed any concern for the discrimination faced by Russians in Turkmenistan, or the safety of Russians in Chechnya. No, the “defense of the Russian-speaking population” looks more like an ideal way to turn Russia into “A Nation at War.” Tomorrow could just as easily bring a different pretext for keeping the country in this mode.

3. Many fear that Moscow craves another land grab, that its aim is territorial expansion. To be sure, Putin seems to have a healthy respect for the time-honored uses of holding onto land and flexing military muscle. But I am confident that territory is only playing a secondary role here in Putin’s calculus. The idea of “justice” is more important to the Kremlin, and justice in this case does not necessarily have to mean holding on to territory. One can only imagine what would become of the world order if it were regulated by this notion of justice.

4. Putin has laid waste to a host of international agreements. It’s not that he rejects the need for them; he just wants others to recognize that the Kremlin has the right to its own interpretation of international agreements and principles.

5. The West will have to take another look at the security challenges it is facing, particularly as they relate to the nuclear non-proliferation regime. After all, if Ukraine in 1994 had not given up its nuclear arsenal, it wouldn’t be in the spot it is today. Both Iran and North Korea have certainly taken several lessons from the Ukraine saga. The conventional forces regime after Russia’s withdrawal from the CFE treaty is also in shambles, and this allows Russia to mass its troops along any border it wishes. NATO, in response, was forced to break its 1997 pledge not to position its forces in  Eastern and Central Europe. Pandora’s box has been opened…

6. This isn’t the first time the Kremlin has offered to create, with the West, a “collective” governing body (an axis) including the United States, the European Union, and Russia. This has long been a favorite proposal of Sergei Lavrov. Moscow may very well interpret the Geneva agreements of April 17, which contain demands for internal political changes in Ukraine, as a step in this direction. In fact, Moscow was able to force Washington and the European capitals to open a discussion of Ukraine’s constitutional arrangement, which amounts to collective curtailment of the country’s sovereignty. The idea is supported by quite a few Western pragmatists who have lobbied for a “collective help” solution for Ukraine that would, of course, include Russia. The German idea of “roundtable” in Ukraine fits nicely the Kremlin model of “collective leadership”, which would give Russia a role as one of the moderators in the conflict, presenting one of the sides.

7. In the course of looking for solutions for the Ukrainian crisis, leading political figures have lost much of their authority. German Chancellor Angela Merkel could become a prime example of this. After establishing herself as a key European actor during the global financial crisis and the Eurozone crisis, Merkel attempted to assume the role of a peacemaker in the Ukrainian conflict. But the Kremlin interpreted the “Merkel formula”, which was supposed to be a calibrated response that allowed Putin to save face, as a sign of weakness and an invitation to push Germany (and the West) even further. I would bet that the Kremlin believes that Germany’s “moderating” influence would prevent the West from doing anything that would risk making the Kremlin really unhappy and would allow the Kremlin to strike a new Faustian bargain with the West over Ukraine.

8. Europe’s failure to thwart Putin prompted Washington’s return to the European stage. As much as President Obama does not want to get himself entangled in the Ukrainian events, these very events, thanks to their geopolitical and civilizational component, will become a litmus test for determining how successful his foreign policy has been. But the unfortunate truth is that President Obama can’t win in the short to medium term, no matter what he does. “Sectoral sanctions” on Russia’s finance, energy, or defense industries? These all take time, and won’t be able to disrupt Putin’s plan for undermining the Ukrainian elections and “reformatting Ukraine” (although it could modify his means of pursuing his agenda). Readiness to “accommodate” the Kremlin? This would mean a defeat for the United States as a leading Western power, which would have tremendous international and civilizational consequences.

9. Russia has once again taken up the tools and principles of confrontation and “might makes right.” Postmodern Europe, with its emphasis on treaties, soft power, and negotiations, has proven utterly feckless when it comes to bringing the Kremlin to heel. It still isn’t clear whether the United States will be able to return to Europe and reinvent the Transatlantic partnership in order to check Putin’s revanchism. Will the United States be able to turn away from its policy of retrenchment? Will NATO be able to adopt a new mission? We don’t have an answer to these questions yet. One thing is clear, however: Russia’s return to militarism is certain to make the Western powers reconsider their defense budgets. We are in for a new arms race.

10. I can’t help but smile when I hear Putin called a “Russian nationalist.” It’s a sign that the speaker doesn’t really understand the Kremlin’s motives. Just like all of his predecessors, Putin supports the empire. Just like them, he probably believes that Russia can survive only as an empire rather than as a normal nation state. You may ask, “What about his pledge to defend Russian speakers?” The answer is quite simple. In order to advance his imperial agenda, Putin is trying to co-opt the nationalists, who have thus far fallen in the anti-Putin and anti-Kremlin camp. At present, he is succeeding in this task: Both the left-wing and the nationalist segments have supported his crusade, both inside and outside Russia! Who could ever have predicted that after the collapse of the Soviet Communist International, Moscow would succeed in building a Right-Wing International that supports its adventure in Ukraine.

11. The West understood how to deal with the Soviet Union, but dealing with Russia will be far more complex. Today, Russia and the West (especially Europe) are tightly interconnected. The Russian elite is plugged into the Western economy and its financial system. That is why the West is helpless when it comes to containing Russia. So far, the Western governments haven’t shown any willingness to inflict financial or other kind of pain on themselves.

12. The crisis in Ukraine has raised the issue of “fifth columns” within Russia, and elsewhere as well. By fifth columnists, I mean minorities whose interests differ from those of the state where they live. Russia’s liberal minority suffered a devastating defeat when Russia returned to its traditional matrix; this minority will also be the first victim of the Kremlin’s next crackdown.

But what will happen to the “fifth column” of Russia supporters in the West? These are the business leaders, the lawyers, the politicians, and the media personalities who serve the interests of Russia’s corrupt Western laundry machine. These figures are obviously worried; they have an interest in proving that the crisis was caused by the West, which doesn’t understand Russia. They have urged the West to give Ukraine to Moscow, to guarantee that it will never become a member of NATO or the EU. Chances are that the voices of this “fifth column” will be heard, since pragmatic Western politicians who do not cater to Russia’s corrupt elite hold similar views. They don’t want to get involved in this conflict, so they have drawn up the Western sanctions regime so as not to compromise Western business interests in Russia and not to anger Putin and close off a chance to cooperate with him. It makes sense; if the West backs down it will need to know who is dictating the rules of the game.

There are plenty more implications of the Ukrainian crisis besides these. Some are just beginning to make themselves known, and besides, the Law of Unintended Consequences is working its magic as well. Putin has unleashed a tide and nobody knows what it will bring for Russia and its leader. I’ll talk about some of these possibilities in future updates.

  • Pete

    What concerns Americans is not what you think the future might hold for Putin and Russia but what the future is for the U.S. given the inordinate lust among many of the political elite and talking-heads gasbags to gets us involved in situations like Syria, the Ukraine, etc. where there is not direct linkage to our national security.

    As Pat Buchanan wisely noted, much of the world expects America to fight their wars for them. Those days are over.

    • adk

      Both WWI and WWII were at first “other countries’ wars” right until they became America’s, and in those times the US was less dependent on, or directly threatened by, the rest of the world. Now we have the Baltic states who are NATO members with significant ethnic Russian populations, and whom we are obligated to protect. Unlike other Obama’s “red lines”, this one would impossible to ignore.

      • Pete

        WWI was never America’s war until Wilson and the Anglo=-establishment made it so. What a mistake.

        And rest easy. The U.S. will not go to war against a nuclear powerhouse like Russia for the sake of the Baltic states no matter what some piece of paper says.

        • adk

          So what you are saying is that NATO is just a worthless piece of paper. I very much doubt that, even with the current crop of Western “leaders”. If Putin presses his luck further in Ukraine, the West will resist, however clumsily. Despite all Putin’s posturing, Russia is fundamentally weak, and a prolonged conflict with the West will make it weaker still. I also doubt that Putin’s domestic popularity will remain as high as it is now — nationalistic fervor is an extremely volatile substance.

          • Pete

            Of course you’re correct that Russia could not stand a prolong conflict with the West.

            But NATO is worse than worthless. It is against American national interest. It is an absurd thought that the US would go to war with a nuclear power like Russia for a handful of pipsqueak nations that nobody here outside of the blovating foreign affair ‘experts’ care about.

          • caap02

            You may disagree with the US being in NATO, but it is a member. And until it formally leaves NATO, it has the same obligations as all the other member states do. And that includes coming to the defence of any member state that is militarily attacked.

          • Pete

            And if the US was attacked, all those useless members — France, etc. — would come running to our aid in a meaningful way, right?

          • adk

            Channelling Mr.Chamberlain?

            “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing. ”
            – Neville Chamberlain, 1938

        • Dave Ralph

          I don’t think anyone’s going to “rest easy” hearing your claims that NATO is a non-existent, phantom alliance…

  • Andrew Allison

    The Phew poll referenced elsewhere suggests that if, as I suspect, Putin want to reestablish Novorossyia there’s very little to prevent it. The issue for the West is what to do if his ambitions are greater than that. History tells us the answer, namely don’t vacillate.

  • Lev Havryliv

    What irony?
    While Russians celebrate the victory over Nazism, the gascist Putin regime is waging war against Ukraine.

  • Dave Ralph

    Lilia Shevtsova is actually writing pro-Kremlin propaganda is disguise, by massively over-estimating the power of Russia in today’s global economy. Anders Aslund recently wrote, and i assume he is approximately if not precisely correct, that the US and the Eurozone have a combined economy that is 16 times larger than Russia’s. This means that US and EU sanctions can have a massive impact on Russia even while suffering very little on their own side. To claim that sanctions can’t be effective, as Shevtsova does here, is pure defeatism. Such defeatism is often characteristic of the liberal movement in Russia. Russian liberals should not be trying to equate their own weakness with weakness in Western policy-making toward Moscow.

    • Rol_Texas

      I didn’t read her as saying sanctions can’t be effective; indeed she says they’ll work, but they’ll take time. Just don’t expect results in the short-to-medium term. There’s another problem she highlights w/ respect to sanctions: Though the West has the capability to bear the economic pain better, it hasn’t shown that it is willing to. And don’t underestimate the power of the financial lobby in the West when it comes to making sure that sanctions won’t bite them: You may recall the incident a few weeks back in which British govt. officials coming out of No. 10 accidentally revealed documents indicating that the City’s financial interests should *not* be threatened under any circumstance. I don’t think pointing out any of these things is “defeatist.” It’s more an indicator of where the West needs to get its own house in order, and a recognition that the situation we find ourselves in with respect to Russia will take a long time to control, if not reverse.

  • Julie Leighton

    Can the Ukrainian Crisis be Compared to Munich 1938?

    Situational and perceived motivational similarities have inspired many analysts to compare Hitler’s actions in 1938 to Putin’s current interference in Ukraine. Is this an accurate comparison?

    In 1938 Czechoslovakia was highly developed, had advanced weaponry and a large standing army, a fortified border, and allegiances with two of the strongest powers: France and the Soviet Union.

    In 2013/14 Ukraine is considered a “developing country”, it does not have advanced weaponry or a large standing army, it’s lacking a fortified border, and it does not have strong international allies.

    Germany in the 1930s was a state completely dependent on the war industry. It had spent astronomical sums to build up its military; large portions of the population were employed to work in this sector; and it was isolated diplomatically.

    Putin’s Russia has multiple economic outlets; it is a strong regional ties; and the president and his foreign minister have been lauded as peace brokers for their diplomatic finesse.

    Hitler justified his actions as 1) preventing the spread of Bolshevism; 2) a humanitarian measure designed to rescue the ethnic Germans living in the Sudetenland from “Czech oppression”; 3) the Czechs were preventing his eastern expansion itinerary.

    Putin so far has justified his actions by arguing that he was protecting ethnic Russians from the disorder and perceived fascist tendencies of the new government. He would like Ukraine to remain linked with Russia, rather than the EU, but this is not driven by conceptions of racial superiority or the need for lebensraum. He isn’t looking to absorb states, he’s more interested in requiring his neighbors to kowtow to him.

    These are not parallel situations. Putin is not Hitler. Ukraine is not 1938 Czechoslovakia. The West is not Chamberlain. We are not witnessing a repeat of history; we are seeing a shadow of past events.

    While those historically loaded associations may not be accurate, what is true is that the West embodies particular principles that conflict with those embedded in Putin’s regime.

    Going forward, the West’s ability to maintain the sanctity of these values while negotiating with authoritarian powers will play a formative role in determining the new world order.

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