Putin and the Ukraine: The quintessential Russian chess master

Using the political turmoil in Ukraine and perceptions of Western weakness to his advantage, Putin hatched a plan designed to keep hold of Russia’s strategic interests in the Crimea by sending in his soldiers, capturing or surrounding airfields and other important military infrastructure, without a shot being fired. Under the cover of military manoeuvres along the Ukrainian-Russian border, 25,000 soldiers wearing no insignia were given strict orders not to provoke a clash with Ukrainian forces, but to move into the Ukrainian autonomous province of Crimea in what can only be interpreted as ‘occupation by stealth’. However, in doing so, President Putin broke a tenet of law that bound together the post-Soviet periphery around Russia (that Russia would respect the territorial sovereignties of post-Soviet states). This now is void. Perhaps now the 1997 agreement between Moscow and Kiev that allowed Russia to use Crimea till 2042 as the base for its Black Sea Fleet – the only ice-free naval port Russia has, and one that allows Russia to exert power into the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond, is void too. So was it therefore necessary to take the area by force? Well, that would certainly depend on one’s perspective. The ousting of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was considered by some interests in Moscow a ‘game changer’. Bereft of a natural ally in Kiev, Putin and his inner circle may very well have thought that ownership of Crimea is nine-tenths of the law. No one could make a play to push Russia’s naval presence out of Crimea if Russian troops were there in numbers. Indeed. But the risks associated with this move may have some unforeseen consequences. One of the most pressing issues confronting Russia is the prospect of economic harm. Since Friday February 28 to the time of writing, March 4, foreign investors, no longer convinced that Russia is a ‘good bet’, are selling Russian assets. The value of the rouble, as well as Russian stocks and bonds, have tanked. Russia’s MICEX stock index fell by $60 billion. According to the ING Bank, Russia spent 2 percent of its gold and foreign exchange reserves to prevent the rouble from free fall. But Russia is not the Soviet Union and trade is a two-way street. Russia still controls the flow of significant oil and gas supplies to Western Europe. Russia is a premier nuclear weapons state. And Russia is an exporter of key commodities to the international market. So the question then becomes, how much Western economic pressure can be applied to a state that is essential to a large segment of the international community? Can today’s Russia be economically isolated and treated like North Korea or Iran? Possibly not. Furthermore, there is the potential to amplify Russian nationalism. For the US and Western Europe to throw Russia into the economic deep-end would in all likelihood create a ‘laager’ mentality where Russian memories of international isolation during Soviet times catalyse into a more virulent form of nationalism to that practiced by Putin. Then there is the very real dilemma of hurting the former Soviet states dependent on a relatively healthy Russian economy. If the West punishes Russia too severely over its push into Crimea, Central Asian countries, not in anyone’s firing line, might be crippled and destabilised. This obviously would have very real implications on the spread of jihadist sentiment throughout this fragile region. There is a lot at stake and none of it easy to deal with.

Returning to the domestic situation in Russia, should the oligarchs currently favouring Putin’s hardline against Ukraine be asked to sacrifice too much of their profitability for ‘Mother Russia’, what may come back to haunt the Russian president is then their reliability as partners in modern Russia’s experiment with ‘authoritarian-capitalism’. Having suffered their first negative run on the markets and money being king in today’s neo-Liberal international order, it may be that the oligarchs’ tolerance for playing the nationalist card with Putin over Crimea could quickly fade, and may lead Kremlin power-brokers to replace the Putin-Medvedev political duopoly that has ruled Russia since 2000. But then again, Russian political culture favours a strong leader and Putin is extremely clever in playing to the sum of all Russian fears of Western post-Cold War triumphalism. If Crimea is kept in Russia’s orbit without enduring too much more economic punishment, perhaps Putin and his supporters will be vindicated. Crimea from a strategic perspective may very well be worth the price of a temporary lull in economic activity. If on the other hand Ukraine provokes a Russian use of force which escalates into something less controllable, the only real option President Putin will have is to use massive, decisive conventional force to deal Ukraine and by extension, the West, a sharp, irreversible shock. Cooler heads may prevail, but looking at how Russia has emerged as a real challenger to American international power without being as strong as the US or as rich as the US, Washington might have to act to halt the perception of its own decline. Putin has been given much room to manoeuvre. Providing sanctuary to former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden has not been forgiven. Russia’s involvement as protector of the Syrian regime and as a silent partner and protector of Iran has not been forgiven. A potential USD2 billion arms deal to Egypt in February, even though welcomed by the Egyptians, (old American geostrategic turf), has not been forgiven. Washington will be working on a check on Putin’s ambitions and Russia’s re-emergence as a significant power. Cashed-up, angry and vengeful the US may well use the Crimean crisis as Putin’s tipping point. But against a skilled player like Putin, President Obama will need a nimble and highly targeted strategy. Wielding a hammer to kill a fly will net no gain and may well work against the Americans as others become collateral damage to American blind fury.

Image credit: en.wikipedia.org

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