Monday, March 10, 2014

The rolling blunder of Vladimir Putin

MAYBE THE Sochi medal count went to Vladimir Putin’s head. It’s been a busybusy week for the Russian president and his army. Since seizing control of the Crimean Peninsula on March 1, Russian armed forces have steamrolled (without insignia) through the region, securing the airport and major buildings, attempting to reinforce Putin’s claim to part of a sovereign nation.

On Sunday, acting Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced he would fly to the White House this week for talks on “resolution of the situation in Ukraine,” Interfax reported. Last week, European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton condemned Russia's “unwarranted escalation of tensions.” On March 1, Secretary of State John Kerry condemned "the Russian Federation's invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territory.”

The regional parliament in Crimea set a March 16 referendum on leaving Ukraine to join Russia. And the Kiev Post reported on Saturday that a bill that would ease the process of annexing Crimea to Russia could have its first reading in the Duma, the Russian parliament, on March 21.

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As the rest of the world hammers out the proper reaction, President Putin has briefly realized the element of surprise. But as this crisis of his own creation evolves, there’s abundant gathering evidence that the Russian president has engaged in a grand blunder, regardless of the Kremlin’s short-term swagger. By undertaking the invasion in the first place, Russia has ignored the very international agreement it signed recognizing Ukraine’s sovereignty.

By doubling down on the use of military might to achieve an objective that was imprecise at best, Putin makes use of exactly the wrong weapon in his arsenal, ignoring facts of natural resources and infrastructure that may make keeping Crimea much harder than invading it.

And the use of that armed might, on the flimsiest of pretexts, has caused at least a short-term disaster for Russia’s domestic economy and for its prospects as a world economic power — precisely what Putin has been hoping to avoid.

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THE JUSTIFICATION for Russia’s Crimea invasion — Ukrainian unrest posed an existential threat to the well-being of Russian military personnel, citizens and sympathizers — has hardly been supported by independent observers. Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at Brookings Institute, said on MSNBC: “After the events in Kiev ... there was no evidence that the Ukrainian government planned any threat against the Russian military installations in Crimea.”

Geopolitically the Russian incursion may have long-term repercussions for Russia’s relationship with the world powers whose ranks it hopes to join — in no small part because of Russia’s willingness to blithely violate agreements it signs. One in particular: the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, an agreement signed in December 1994, by U.S. President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister John Major, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, pledging them “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”

Signing the agreement was pro forma for the United States and Britain, which gave Ukraine those “security assurances” in exchange for surrendering over time what was then the world's third largest nuclear weapons stockpile. But Ukraine no doubt signed the agreement with a sharp side-eye on Russia ... for reasons that are, now, all too obvious.

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We’ve been here before. Last week, Peter Baker of The New York Times interviewed James F. Jeffrey, who was President George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser. Jeffrey said that in August 2008, he told Bush that Russian troops were moving into Georgia, responding what the Kremlin then characterized as Georgian aggression against South Ossetia.

Jeffrey, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Times that “Bush confronted Mr. Putin to no avail, then ordered American ships to the region and provided a military transport to return home Georgian troops on duty in Iraq. He sent humanitarian aid on a military aircraft, assuming that Russia would be loath to attack the capital of Tbilisi with American military personnel present. Mr. Bush also suspended a pending civilian nuclear agreement, and NATO suspended military contacts.”

“We did a lot but in the end there was not that much that you could do,” Jeffrey recalled.

Jeffrey, Baker reports, said “Mr. Obama should now respond assertively by suggesting that NATO deploy forces to the Polish-Ukrainian border to draw a line. ‘“There’s nothing we can do to save Ukraine at this point,’” he said. ‘ “All we can do is save the alliance.”’

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LEFT UNSAID, however, is the possibility that Ukraine could save itself. The conflict that Putin has immediately characterized as a military one may come down to finances more than fighting. The New York Times reports that Yatsenyuk, the acting prime minister, “had said that the government’s first responsibility was to begin negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and start to put in place the economic reforms and painful austerity measures that the fund requested in exchange for help.”

We’ve all heard the good advice of not bringing a knife to a gunfight; with his Crimea adventure, Putin may have brought a gun to an economics fight — trying to impose a military solution on a problem that’s more monetary than anything else.

Hoping to strategically ride to the rescue of Ukraine after ousted Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovich reneged on a pledge to sign a trade agreement with the European Union — ushering in the unrest in Kiev — Putin offered Ukraine an €11 billion ($15 billion) loan package ... in exchange for rejecting economic entreaties from the West.

That $15 billion bailout Russia had pledged when Yanukovich was in control was suspended by Ukraine’s upheaval, and certainly won’t be restored any time soon. That $15 billion was one of only a few persuasive arguments Putin could have made for Ukraine remaining in the Russian orbit.

Now that Putin’s abandoned the economic carrot and gone all in on using the military stick, he’s abandoned any pretense of negotiating with his neighbor to the west. The hell with good arguments, now it’s all about force. Knowing that, as the Ukrainian people certainly do, what’s the incentive for Ukraine ending its opposition to persuasion from Moscow? They can get the carrots somewhere else.

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Getting gas to heat the Ukrainian home may be another matter entirely. That’s the other, non-military leverage that Putin commands. “Ukraine highly depends on Russian energy,” reports GrĂ©gory Raymond of HuffPost France. “Rising gas prices decided by Moscow could lead, at any moment, to the country’s collapse.”

The timing of Putin’s move was almost certainly no accident: Raymond reports that “as of March 1, Russian gas giant Gazprom will have the possibility to renegotiate its contract with Ukraine’s state oil and gas company, Naftogaz.

“Given the agreement on Russian gas supplies to Ukraine, the two companies are bound to sign a new contract each quarter. When diplomatic relations between Ukraine and Russia are good, so are prices.”

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BUT MARY MYCIO, writing in, explained last week how other natural resources work to Ukraine’s advantage, and may accelerate Putin’s comeuppance:

“Most of the Crimea is basically a desert, with less annual rainfall than Los Angeles. It is impossible to sustain its 2 million people — including agriculture and the substantial tourist industry — without Ukrainian water. Current supplies aren’t even enough. In Sevastopol, home of the Black Sea Fleet, households get water only on certain days. In fact, on Feb. 19, when snipers were shooting protesters on the streets of Kiev, Sevastopol applied for $34 million in Western aid (note the irony) to improve its water and sewer systems.

“Crimea’s dependence on Ukraine for nearly all of its electricity makes it equally vulnerable to nonviolent retaliation. One suggestion making the rounds of the Ukrainian Internet is that the mainland, with warning, shut off the power for 15 minutes. It may not normalize the situation, but it could give Moscow pause. Of course, Russia could retaliate by cutting off Ukrainian gas supplies, but that would mean cutting off much of Europe as well.”

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Fred Kaplan, also writing at, points to recklessness as basic to “a huge strategic blunder” by Putin. “Had he simply stood by and waited for the elections — had he used Ukrainian proxies to clamp down on the more militant protesters rather than send black-masked storm troopers to occupy the Crimean peninsula (which is under de facto Russian control and populated largely by Russian loyalists) — he probably would have won in the end. The Western nations, assured of the allegiances to democratic forms, would have backed away. Ukraine would still need Russian aid and trade to survive. Even with some movement by Ukraine toward the EU, Moscow would retain its dominance.”

“But now the West is exercised, and likely to keep watch on Ukraine for longer than usual. Many of Russia’s supporters in Ukraine now view their protector with suspicion and fear; the other members in Putin’s great dream of a “Eurasian Economic Union” — including Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan (the central members of the former Soviet Union) — might also be leery of what a more formal alliance with Moscow might bring.”

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ANOTHER PUTIN miscalculation is a misappreciation of Ukraine’s own demographics. Russia’s land grab of Crimea — made with the almost certain intention of expanding into wider Ukraine later on — was justified as an attempt to preserve the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, and to build a solidarity among those Russian speakers (one that, in Putin’s calculus, relies more on Russian identity than Ukrainian identity).

But Putin is likely to be frustrated by the numbers. Ukraine is a nation of about 45 million people, 14 percent of whom are under the age of 15, 26 percent of whom are under 25, and 34 percent of whom are under the age of 30 — barely alive (or not alive at all) to remember Ukraine under Moscow’s rule, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union — or the dawn of Ukrainian independence in August 1991.

For them, there’s no wellspring of emotional connection with “Mother Russia,” no fond reverie for Ukraine as integral to the Russian experience. They haven’t lived that experience; their nation is Ukraine. One of Putin’s implicit assumptions — that the Ukrainian people, or even the people of the Crimea, will run headlong into the arms of their Russian liberators — is as likely to be wrong as right. Putin may be relying on nativist instincts that don’t exist for millions of Ukrainians, for all the inarguable reasons.

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For others in Ukraine, a pushback against Putin has more deep-seated reasons for being. Mycio in Slate: “Crimea has changed since the 1990s. After independence, Ukraine welcomed back the Crimean Tatars. Some 300,000 have returned from exile and their numbers are growing, with continued migration and birth rates higher than either Russians or Ukrainians. They strongly oppose any separatism, and they will not go peacefully into a Russian-controlled, authoritarian ‘Yanukistan’ ...

“Not only are they extremely well organized, they are Muslims with friends. Representatives from Russia’s Tatarstan region are already supporting them. Turkey, which controlled the Crimea for much longer than Russia ever did and has close ties with the Crimean Tatars, is watching. So are Chechen rebels.”

And Putin has invaded a country in deep crisis, a nation hemorrhaging its population, a place with problems he can’t hope to reverse. According to the Population Reference Bureau, Ukraine has the highest migration rate, and one of the highest infant mortality rates, in Eastern Europe. It’s estimated that by 2025, Ukraine’s population will have dropped to 42.4 million — and down to 36.6 million by 2050. That was an estimate made well before the invasion.

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PUTIN FACES more immediate challenges at home. The Crimea invasion led to a fast cratering of the Russian ruble. Within days of the invasion, Russian exchanges lost almost 11 percent of their value as the ruble dropped about 12 percent against the dollar, and risk-averse investors headed for the exits, at least temporarily.

The market cap of the ruble-denominated MICEX stock index fell some $60 billion, Reuters reported on March 3.

Business Insider reported, on March 3, that the Central Bank of Russia had to intervene in the foreign exchange market to stop the ruble from falling any further.

“The market’s collapse is a vote of no confidence in [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” former deputy central banker Sergei Aleksashenko tweeted that day. “Russian business and its population are voting against the authorities’ recklessness.”

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Some analysts have said that Putin apparently didn’t need the go-ahead from the Duma, the upper house of the Russian parliament, to invade Crimea — that he, in fact, could have unilaterally ordered troops in. If true, the fact that he went the parliamentary route — obtaining an operationally meaningless approval before he acted — may well have been for show, a cosmetic attempt to show Putin as a man of patience and procedure who invaded as a last resort.

But a closer look at Putin’s actions reveal a Manichean, zero-sum-game gambit, a tactical misstep that can’t be disguised. “This is not the Soviet Union that invaded Hungary in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968,” said Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, on MSNBC on March 3. “This is not some master plan that Putin has planned out for years and years. This is a reaction from President Putin to the fall of his partner, President Yanukovich, in Kiev.”

The Russian invasion was launched with the apparent presupposition that (among other things) the Russian naval forces of the Black Sea Fleet, stationed at Sevastopol by agreement with Ukraine, would be endangered or under threat of removal by the instability surrounding Ukraine’s drive for democracy.

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RATHER THAN negotiate with the new Ukrainian government over the status of that base, Putin conjured a rationale for invasion, a rationale that included Russia’s need to defend those naval interests from attack.

That might not have been necessary if Putin had just gone through channels. The new government in Kiev might have been willing to continue the terms of the Kharkiv Pact, its naval base agreement with Russia signed in April 2010 — accepting a situation that’s roughly analogous to the arrangement the United States has with Cuba over the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Putin’s invasion last week absolutely takes that option off the table, and escalates a climate of military tension that could have been avoided altogether. By a statesman.

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But that would have required foresight from Putin. And anticipating this whole crisis called on foresight the world didn’t have.

Some people saw it coming. “In the eyes of many Ukrainians, Yanukovych is transforming their nation into a Russian protectorate. This is leading to a groundswell of discontent that will inevitably translate into political and regional instability.”

Ukraine scholar, editor and author Taras Kuzio wrote that in a brilliant, and prescient, research paper for the Jamestown Foundation, in November ... 2010.

Someone else saw it too. In 2012, four years after Georgia was invaded by Russia, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili spoke in a televised address, offering his own prescient observation, saying something the Ukrainian parliament and interim president probably said to themselves on March 1 of this year, and every day after that.

Vladimir Putin should take it to heart.

“No matter how much our invaders and their local stooges may dream about it,” Saakashvili said, “the Soviet Union will not be restored.”

Image credits: Putin: Via MSNBC. Budapest Memorandum signing: Associated Press. Pro-Russian protester: Photomig/EPA via The New York Times. Kerry, Hague and Deshchytsia: State Department (public domain). Slate logo: © 2013 Slate Group LLC.  MICEX Composite Index chart: Financial Times.  

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