Good Putin, Bad Putin

Soldiers in Ukraine
Image courtesy of NBC News

Good Putin, Bad Putin
| Published Tuesday, March 11, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

One of the roles incumbent upon any nation that willingly accepts the title “the world’s policeman” is that of referee in neighborhood disputes and domestic disturbances. When the call comes, the cop can intervene, sometimes with appropriate violence, or he can ignore the call, concluding that it is in someone else’s jurisdiction.

The U.S. has played that role often since the collapse of communism and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and American presidents from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama have all sought to minimize the inevitable historical linkage: this could become another Vietnam. In fact, Afghanistan did become another Vietnam—only worse—and Iraq is slowly devolving into chaos and fragmentation despite billions spent and thousands of lives lost.

Irony and bad timing (often combined) frequently play roles in the global cop’s schedule. Vladimir Putin put on his best face, let down his hair, and even smiled a little while his country served as host to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The world watched as the opening ceremonies drew close; millions braced for what seemed the inevitability of an act of terror by separatists or jihadists. But other than a lack of snow and a few electronic failures, the games went off without major incident.

Meanwhile, the Ukraine rapidly descended into the abyss of political turmoil, then, violent upheaval. Even before the Olympics ended, it was apparent that the stress fractures in Kiev had the dark potential to overshadow other world events. Then, less than a week after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced significant cuts to U.S. military spending beginning this year, the inevitable result of post-war budget adjustments as the last troops begin their careful withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Ukraine became the new international flashpoint, suddenly displacing all our worst fears (North Korea, Iran, Syria) with a shocking reminder that some strands of post-Cold War DNA remain embedded, dangerously, in the international fabric.

It’s never the cartoonish bad guys who pose the genuine threat. Indeed, for how many decades has a belligerent and incorrigible North Korea threatened the stability of the Asian neighborhood? Syria’s descent into a humanitarian abyss is now in its fourth year; if we were going to enter that fight, the time has long since passed.  And the Iranian mullahs have been stoically going about the business of hating the west, inciting the burning of lumpy American presidential effigies, and threatening the existence of Israel since the day after the Shah flew out of the country, nearly 35 years ago.

But Putin, the ex-KGB officer and former Cold War apparatchik, is no frothing, unhinged madman. He is instead a coldly calculating, savvy politician with a very old and very bloody axe to grind, which makes him far more dangerous than the serial cranks in North Korea or the latest bearded and bespectacled supreme leader in Iran. For Putin, this is no roll of the dice: Russia’s recent takeover of the Crimea and his icy disregard for Ukrainian sovereignty reflect his belief that the U.S. will sit this one out. Like his former Soviet comrades from the Old Days, he can turn his back to diplomatic leverage and harsh language, and he may be accurately judging that the threat of economic sanctions by the U.S. and some of its allies will be offset by a general reluctance on the part of oil-dependent European Union member states to engage in a dustup with a major supplier of oil and gas.

This is not where the Obama administration wanted to be, and the Ukrainian crisis is a stark reminder that foreign policy challenges often arrive as a surprise. Almost overnight, the Ukrainian narrative turned from that of an odorous, self-aggrandizing strongman, ousted by the sheer force of democracy, non-lethal fireworks and social media, into a full-scale invasion by Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers, and against the specter of what looks to be a dismal, grey replay of the Hungarian Uprising or the Czech Revolt of past generations.

A brief geography lesson: the Ukraine is much larger and much more broad-shouldered than many people realize. In fact, it is immense. At 233,000 square miles (603,000 kilometers) it is the largest European nation, if one does not count the European half of Russia. To its northeast and its west, it shares over 800 miles of border with Russia. To its northwest and west are Belarus, Poland and Slovakia, and along its southwest borders are Hungary, Romania and Moldova. Then, along its southern shores is the Black Sea, where the aforementioned Crimea—an autonomous region—sits surrounded almost entirely by water.

Winding its way more-or-less through the country’s middle axis is the Dnieper River, slicing the nation in half through the capital city of Kiev before emptying into the Black Sea. There, on the sunny, mild waters sits Sevastopol, home of much of the Russian fleet, and a port leased from the Ukraine by the Russians. For Putin, this is the jewel in the military crown. Ukrainians on the eastern side of this divide share a kinship with, for the most part, their former paternal masters in Russia. Ukrainians on the west side of the Dnieper are, by and large, inclined toward European values, the European Union, and the United States and its economic model. The Ukrainians west of the Dnieper are also more agreeable to an alliance with NATO, whereas those on the eastern shore feel a closer connection to the Warsaw Pact nations and Moscow’s guidance.

This cultural and political schizophrenia has rumbled just beneath the surface of Ukrainian politics ever since its creation upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The give-and-take nature of the electoral processes have been a seesaw for Ukrainians, as Viktor Yanukovych, then, his rival Victor Yushchenko, traded roles as the nation’s leader. Yanukovych first won the presidency in an election that most observers say was rigged, Soviet-style. Yushchenko challenged that outcome, and the political nastiness has continued to this day. (Imagine if George W. Bush and Al Gore had traded power, back and forth, between 2001 and 2008, each contesting the other’s legitimacy).

Perhaps as a direct result of this internal discomfort, the Ukraine has suffered economically despite its remarkable gifts—a robust technology and communications sector, stronger-than-average manufacturing output, and one of the most fertile agricultural tracts in the world (The Ukraine was once known as the breadbasket of Europe). Oil and gas shortages and economic pain came when Russia cut off the Ukraine’s supply lines, as political retribution, in 2006 and again in 2009. In those crises even the Ukraine’s trading partners in Europe suffered. The Great Recession hit Ukraine’s economy hard in 2008 and 2009, and the country saw its economy shrink by over 15%.

Despite this, the majority of Ukrainians fostered an ever-deepening desire to establish stronger economic ties with Europe, and, by extension, the U.S.

Yanukovich, however, did not share this love of all things western, and ignoring a mass movement for the Ukraine to join the European Union, he refused to sign off on any alliance with the EU, vetoed any further discussion, and instead unilaterally tied the country to Russia. Then, beginning months ago and as the world watched, mass protests began in Kiev’s public spaces and central parks. The confrontations were non-violent at first, then, escalated into increasing violence as Yanukovich’s police and military attempted to crack down on the protesters and clear Kiev’s public spaces.  When the protests reached their crescendo, and at the moment when it appeared the Ukraine was descending into bloody civil war, Yanukovich fled Kiev, leaving citizens and tourists to peruse his vast estate and his opulent multimillion dollar villa.

Caught up in the news of daily humanitarian horrors emerging from Syria, entrapped in a complex shell-game with Iran over weapons of mass destruction and economic assistance, and ever-watchful of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, a third-generation Marxist-Leninist tyrant who now commands the Earth’s fourth-largest standing army and presides over a nation ranked as the least-Democratic on the planet, the administration of President Barack Obama seemed unprepared for the rapidly-moving events in the Ukraine, and its startling next chapter as Putin, like his predecessors Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev, rolled in tanks and heavy weapons.

Now, if the political processes continue in Crimea, Ukrainian citizens on the peninsula may be allowed to vote for their independence from the rest the Ukraine as early as Sunday. This would put Crimea squarely and neatly into Putin’s jacket pocket, and perhaps partially legitimize the Russian invasion. It may also embolden Putin to take the additional military action that some analysts suspect is next—a full-scale invasion of southeastern Ukraine. That means a shooting war.

This was clearly not the tense confrontation the president’s strategists were expecting to face in Obama's second term.

Putin, who has shown no hesitancy to use maximum force in the region, is little troubled by U.S. threats of sanctions and diplomatic action. The Russian president perhaps correctly reads the American mood as being a mixed bag of war-weariness and heavy domestic distraction—reductions in military spending, growing concerns about the stability of Afghanistan upon the removal of the last pair of U.S. boots, endless handwringing over the Keystone Pipeline project, another round of budget troubles ahead, and more print and web space devoted to Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, Kanye West and Miley Cyrus than to foreign policy or its direct economic implications.

And rather than mellowing and tenderizing Putin, his $51 billion Olympics may have instead given him cover for taking a more proactive role in the region. Though transparently dishonest, he can nevertheless easily transfer regional fear and paranoia about Chechnya’s terror cells into one of hooliganism, civil unrest and outside agitation—applying all of it to his justification for the invasion. Putin has been openly testy about the possibility of a Ukraine aligned with the European Union, and he seems little troubled by any scenario in which he uses force to reshape the political template in Kiev to his satisfaction.

Still, some are optimistic that economic leverage can bring results—even if that result is a de-escalation of tensions. Russia’s economy has seen four or five years of measurable decline, and almost any form of sanction or market punishment will have a negative multiplier effect on Russia’s future. Russian oil, gas and technology companies have already lost money this year, and sanctions could inhibit those sectors even more. Among Putin’s friends are several oil and gas billionaires whose fortunes could be quickly altered—and decimated—by even modest levels of global market pressure. Want to squander the political friendship of a half dozen billionaires? Try being the guy instrumental in losing half or more of their projected earnings.

This alone may give Putin pause, and may be reason enough for him to stop at the narrow bottleneck frontier between Crimea and the mainland of the Ukraine.

The U.S. and NATO have sent AWACS early warning planes and other aviation hardware into the area, and the surveillance aircraft will begin closely monitoring the airspace of Crimea and southern Ukraine. Some AWACS planes will also begin routine flights along the eastern borders of Poland and Romania. Neither the President nor the Pentagon have indicated whether they plan to use unarmed drones for more extensive, closer surveillance.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk plans to speak to the United Nations general assembly this week, and his remarks will include the official Ukrainian position that the Russian incursion is unwarranted and uninvited. He will also ask for worldwide condemnation of Russia’s invasion.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, while indicating that military action is unlikely, nevertheless suggested that if diplomatic efforts fail, stringent economic leverage will be necessary to punish Putin for the incursion. But not all European leaders want to engage in heavy market sanctions since Russia can easily cut off oil and gas supplies, and such shortages can have immediate and often catastrophic effects.

In the meantime, polls in the U.S. indicate that the majority of Americans are not interested in going to war with Russia. According to Pew Research (and other polls conducted recently) fewer than 29% of Americans want to use force to oust the Russian invaders from the Ukraine. Well over half, however, favor the use of economic sanctions to compel Putin to back down.