Why my money is on Putin

If I were a member of the government in Kiev right now, I would be worried not only by the threat posed by Putin to the east, but by the intentions of my “friends” in the West.

When the crisis unfolded in the Ukraine, the White House and Western media initially sought to attack Russia for its hand in the unrest in eastern Ukraine and Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea in ad hominem terms. Putin was either scared, fulfilling some deranged desire to replay the Cold War or had seriously miscalculated Russia’s national interest.

But if Putin is either scared, crazy or stupid, it must only add to the embarrassment of Western leaders who have been unable to outmaneuver him to resolve the crisis with Ukraine’s territorial integrity intact. A tally of where each side stands at the moment makes clear that the Russians are ahead in a game largely of their making.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin on the hunt for the Amur tiger.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin on the hunt for the Amur tiger.

When the Maidan uprising occurred, Russia lost its puppet Viktor Yanukovych who it had spent years propping up through various means including economic warfare and covert operations. This faced Putin with the prospect of the largest country on his western border and in control of the bases of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet seeking EU membership.

After its attempts to control Ukraine through softer means clearly failed, Russia took over the Crimea under the flimsy cover of respecting the wishes of the region’s Russian population.

However, while it solved this immediate problem by securing the ports needed for its Black Sea fleet, Russia’s annexation of the Crimea created a new problem.

As pointed out by Columbia University political scientist Timothy Frye in the Washington Post, removing Crimea’s overwhelmingly pro-Russian population from the Ukraine means that the Europe-leaning western Ukraine will have a sizable electoral majority in the largest country on Russia’s western border. Putin addressed this problem by fomenting and supporting unrest in the eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region, while maintaining troops on high alert and ready to make a move on the other side of Ukraine’s borders. However, Russia’s army is not just threatening to annex the Donbass region but is also poised to incorporate Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region into Russia.

Some lazy observers have erred by comparing Putin’s recent moves to the preceding annexation of Crimea. In fact, Russia’s recent actions evince a much higher level of strategic planning than the immediate move into Crimea following the Maidan uprising.

Putin has placed the Kiev government on the horns of a dilemma. If the Ukrainian government moves too forcefully to crush the unrest in the Donbass, Russia may respond by invading not just the already pro-Russian Donetsk but the southern portion of the Ukraine linking the Crimea to Odessa and the Russian enclave of Transnistria. If the Ukraine lets Donetsk go it will either be annexed by Russia or become a Russian puppet state. However, if the Ukraine takes the most face-saving and least costly move of shifting to a more decentralized, federal system of governance to give the residents of the eastern Ukraine a greater degree of autonomy, Russia will have successfully found a way to re-establish its foothold in Ukrainian domestic politics even with a reduced pro-Russian electorate. Moreover, the residents of the eastern Ukraine may benefit from such a scenario if it leads to greater largesse from a Ukrainian government focused on discouraging separatist tendencies in the region (similar to how Canada has addressed Quebecois nationalism).

Russia has the Ukraine in a bear’s embrace, whichever way the latter country moves it will only result in it getting squeezed further.

In contrast, what has the West accomplished? It has implemented sanctions against a few relatively minor companies and mid-level officials involved with the Russian takeover in the Crimea. How does that help the Ukraine or the West achieve the goal of preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity? It does nothing except hint at possible tougher sanctions if Russia does not back down – tougher sanctions that would still do little to re-establish Ukrainian control within its national borders.

Generally speaking, when in history has sanctions ever succeeded in altering another country’s policies within a reasonable time frame? But when facing countries like Russia, the logic of sanctions is particularly flawed. Particularly at the level of domestic Russian politics, tighter sanctions are not suited to forcing a change in Putin’s policy.

Sanctions might create some domestic political pressure for change if one of the two factors apply: The elite in the country, like that in the U.S. is more concerned with making money then acquiring power. The other possibility is that there is a prosperous and politically engaged middle or working class population that feels its well-being is seriously undermined by economic sanctions. Russia has neither of these conditions.

In contrast to Western elites, Russia”s leading politicians and businessmen care more about maintaining power or currying favor with those who wield it than making money. The oligarchs did not grow fabulously wealthy to then exert political clout, just ask Mikhail Khodorkovsky or the ghost of Boris Berezovsky still wandering in his London exile. Instead, the oligarchs used political clout to make and treble their fortunes. Those who did dare to challenge the throne suffered financially as a result.

Moreover, the middle class beneficiaries of Russia’s economic growth since the 1998 financial crisis and from increased trade ties to the West, the ones that would be hurt by sanctions, are a rather thin and concentrated slice of Russian society. Altogether they form less than 15 percent of the total population, with close to half living Moscow and St. Petersburg. Moreover, they have rather limited avenues for democratic dissent. Russia can hardly be called a thriving multi-party democracy when Putin’s United Russia controls 238 out of the 450 seats in the State Duma, its largest rival is the Community Party which has just 92 seats, and major media outlets are in state hands.

If most Russian citizens have not benefited from trade ties with the West before sanctions, why does the West believe they will turn against Putin when those ties are strained or severed.

U.S. President Barack Obama practising his putting in the Oval Office.
U.S. President Barack Obama practising his putting in the Oval Office.

In short, the West is playing a bad hand and Putin appears to know it. Putin’s ability to outsmart American leaders may bother readers from the U.S., but it should not surprise them. One only needs to glimpse at the background and hobbies of the respective leaders to understand the different calibers.

Putin was a KGB operative who studied another culture and spent time as an intelligence agent in another country. He rose to the top by muscling out many of the oligarchs in Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle. He is a well-known practitioner of judo, a martial art based on among other things the principle of using your opponent’s momentum against them.

Obama was a community organizer turned legal academic, who never resided outside the U.S. in his teenage years or adulthood. His favorite hobbies appear to be basketball, a team sport, and the Washington perennial, golf. The latter is a sport where you have a lackey, called a caddy, do all the heavy lifting while you swing for the cameras. It is no coincidence that when he recently threatened to implement harsher measures against Russia, Obama used a golf metaphor by saying new sanctions were all “teed up.”

There has been some speculation in Israeli and foreign media why Israel has not come out in support of the Ukraine during the recent crisis. Perhaps it is because, say what you will about him, but Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman can read the tea leaves and is not about to back a losing horse.

About the Author
Ronen is a journalist as well as an experienced Hebrew-English translator. He has also written for JTA, JNS, Haaretz, The Forward and The Jerusalem Post.