Putin’s already paying dearly for Ukraine – and looks willing to sacrifice much more

By William E. Pomeranz
August 12, 2014

Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin has adopted a “go it alone” approach throughout the Ukraine crisis and regularly describes his country as “independent” and nonaligned. But Moscow is not as isolated as Putin makes out. The fact that he cannot see this reality — or chooses to ignore it — has produced a series of decisions that has seriously undermined Russia’s global role.

For the past two decades, Moscow has viewed its foray into global institutions as a major success. It has increasingly integrated into the global economy.  Those achievements, however, now present Putin with a major dilemma.

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia signed multiple treaties and joined numerous international organizations, including the Council of Europe, the G7 (which became the G8) and the World Trade Organization.

G8 countries leaders attend a working session at the Lough Erne golf resort where the G8 summit is taking place in EnniskillenWhether Russia understood the underlying obligations that accompanied its memberships is unclear. The ink was not yet dry on Russia’s accession to the WTO, for example, when Putin demanded that member countries be allowed to introduce protectionist measures during times of global insecurity.

Yet the consensus in Russia was that membership bought Russia a vital seat at the table and increased its influence in world affairs. In addition, the United States and the European Union generally believed that it was better to have Russia inside — as opposed to outside — the international system of global governance even if Russia did not meet all the prerequisites for full membership.

The Ukrainian crisis has exposed the flaws of this thinking — especially for the West. For Putin, however, events in Ukraine have raised a larger question: Should Russia remain a part of the global system?

Russia’s ambivalent attitude toward global institutions reflects its history — a single autocratic leader has dominated the country’s public institutions for centuries. Indeed, since returning to power in 2012, Putin’s agenda has focused on reining in all other Russian political and civic institutions — the legislature, the judiciary, the media, higher education, nongovernmental organizations — and has faced little real opposition in the process. So it is not surprising that Putin entered the Ukrainian crisis with the firm belief that international institutions would not get in his way.

Russia's Prime Minister Putin speaks at the Opening Plenary of the World Economic Forum in DavosPutin’s fundamental misunderstanding of how the post-imperial, post-World War Two international system works has already created serious economic consequences in Russia. Under the recent European Union and U.S. economic sanctions, state-owned Russian banks and Russian companies now have limited access to the international banking system. Moscow is also barred from receiving new loans from the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a loss of several billions of dollars annually.

Meanwhile, Gazprom, the state-controlled natural gas company, still awaits the verdict of the European Commission’s investigation of possible antimonopoly violations. Significant fines usually accompany such inquiries — as Google and Microsoft can attest. The Yukos expropriation bill, which covers Putin’s 2004 confiscation of Russia’s then largest privately held oil company, also finally came due in July. The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague and the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the Russian state to the tune of $50 billion and $2.6 billion, respectively.

Meanwhile, Russia’s new sanctions on agricultural imports and its consistent abuse of inspections to block fruit, vegetable and meat imports from the European Union, United States, Moldova and Ukraine seem to be ideal fodder for a claim to the WTO Dispute Settlement Body. Poland has already announced its intention to file a WTO complaint, and other countries appear likely to follow.

Russia’s ultimate bill for its Ukrainian adventure should not only be measured in money lost but also in terms of opportunities missed. Russia’s suspension from the G8 occurred on the eve of its presidency — just as Putin planned to lead the fight against tax evasion and offshore banking. Problems he battles against in Moscow.

A shop assistant prepares cases containing T-shirts which are printed with images of Russia's President Putin, for sale at GUM department store in central MoscowRussia would have found a receptive audience among its fellow G8 members, whose nations also suffer from significant capital flight. Now Russia has to address the problem alone at a time when Russian capital flight, for the first six months of 2014 ($75 billion) exceeded the entire amount of 2013.

Russia may not think that it is bound by any alliances. But it turns out that institutions do matter — and Russia cannot easily retreat from the global economy.  Indeed, virtually every retaliatory move proposed by Putin has backfired on Russia and left it in a far weaker financial position.

Putin, for example, proposed crippling deposit restrictions on MasterCard and Visa before he had an alternative Russian payment system in place. He thereby threatened the ability of Russians to accept — and make — credit card payments. Rumors also have circulated that Russia intends to ban European air carriers from flying over Siberia on Asia routes. These reports immediately sent Aeroflot shares tumbling since it receives upward of $300 million from the fees paid by foreign airlines.

The toll for the recently announced food bans remains uncertain. But there will likely be serious costs as well because Russia will lose both high-end food products from Europe and low-end agricultural products from Ukraine and Moldova. Some Russian commentators insist that alternative suppliers exist and that all logistical obstacles can be easily overcome.  They also claim that the sanctions will benefit Russia’s domestic food producers and farm-equipment manufacturers. Though for certain products — particularly beef, fish, fruit and vegetables — Russian retailers need to quickly find new foreign partners to fill the gap.

Putin’s decree implementing these sanctions conspicuously included a clause calling on the Russian government to take appropriate measures to prevent a sudden increase in food prices. So Putin clearly anticipates some economic costs to these sanctions.

By consistently dismissing the role of institutions — both domestic and international — Putin has backed himself into a corner. His remaining options are either compromise on eastern Ukraine — and suffer the domestic political consequences — or doubling down and intervening directly in Donetsk and Luhansk.  The former will rely on international bodies to smooth the process, while the latter will be in open defiance to a large part of the world community.

Putin seems to be leaning toward the second option. Yet that also means that he believes that Russian sovereignty can best be protected by its growing isolation.

stalin -- betterSoviet dictator Joseph Stalin tried a similar approach in the 1930s, for he also pursued a policy that isolated the Soviet Union from the world economy. Before the Ukraine crisis, Putin at least seemed to acknowledge the role of globalization. His recent actions suggest a lack of sophistication about global markets and the extent to which Russia has been integrated into the post-World War Two global architecture. The price tag for this miscalculation will be considerable.

Putin is more popular according to Russian public opinion polls than he has ever been during his 14 years in office. He has achieved this success, however, by undermining the very institutions, both domestic and international, that facilitated his consolidation of power. He is more powerful — yet more exposed — than at any time during his presidency.


PHOTO (TOP): Russia’s President Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, July 30, 2014. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

PHOTO (INSERT 1): G8 countries leaders (from top C, clockwise) British Prime Minister David Cameron, President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a working session at the G8 summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, June 18, 2013. REUTERS/Yves Herman

PHOTO (INSERT ): A shop assistant prepares cases containing T-shirts printed with images of Russian President Vladimir Putin, for sale at GUM department store in central Moscow, August 11, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Joseph Stalin at the Tehran Conference in 1943. WIKIPEDIA/Commons



We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

It would be nice if there was some connection between Reuters headline for this article and the actual story made up of wishful thinking and few supportive facts. The facts are Putin has snookered the US and Europe. He is a dictator and ignoring that fact is like ignoring Stalin after World War II.

Posted by ctmusc | Report as abusive

Putin has been huffing and puffing.
He has been both incompetent and foolish
intoxicated with his own sense of importance
and Lilliputin to the core.

Posted by ThomasOne | Report as abusive

I more like joint photo of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. the Yalta (crimea) conference. 1945.
And Obama couldn’t be in their company. And Putin? perhaps

Posted by tatania | Report as abusive

The author ignores the sanctions by the west against Russia that gave rise to Russia’s counter-sanctions on agricultural products. If Poland and others can file a complaint with the WTO, then so can Russia because of the original sanctions which were imposed without first proving their legal basis.

He is just accepting the western leaders’ self-appointed role as judge of what is right and wrong.

Posted by Brnd | Report as abusive

Why would WTO approve sanctions against Russia but not those by Russia?

Posted by certyuyi | Report as abusive

Does the author really think that Putin and his staffs didn’t think through what they are doing?

‘Putin’s fundamental misunderstanding of ….’ this just makes me laugh. What a style the author has in expressing his opinion.

Posted by wanderbird | Report as abusive

I totally Agree with this article. Putin in my mind has been around too long for Russia’s good. Its so typical of a long unchallenged leader to think of his place in History rather than the good of his people. Its a well trodden path. That’s how dictators are born, they think they are untouchable.

Posted by malcy700 | Report as abusive

This article suggests Putin is like Stalin (nothing like fear porn to rally support for your cause) in that “he also pursued a policy that isolated the Soviet Union from the world economy”. Maybe Putin reads the writing on the wall and sees the imminent collapse of the world market. Maybe he’s an intelligent leader and wants to shield Russia from this devastation.

Posted by Try2Banangel | Report as abusive

Not a bad article BUT “just as Putin planned to lead the fight against tax evasion and offshore banking. Problems he battles against in Moscow.” This line is ridiculous considering the offshore shenanigans Putin and his cronies are involved with.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

“Russia’s ambivalent attitude toward global institutions reflects its history”

How do you explain the US’s ambivalent attitude toward global institutions?

The Iraq War was illegal under the UN. It wasn’t that long ago. Of course there are numerous other examples. Most countries ignore international institutions when those institutions don’t suite their national interests.

As for Russia’s isolation… they’re only more isolated if you ignore most of the world.

The West has weakened ties with Russia, but Russia used this crisis as an opportunity to strengthen ties with the rest of the world. China, especially, but in the last few months they’ve signed new major trade and finance agreements with China, Brazil, India, South Africa, Iran, and more. There is only isolation if your worldview is tragically eurocentric.

Posted by MrFailSauce | Report as abusive

This is the mindset of U.S. foreign policy !???

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

good tips. i liked your sites.

Posted by rthrmax | Report as abusive

Reuters and its reporters like the BBC ETC seem to believe that if we ignore the facts and print untruths for long enough people will believe what ever we say. This whole situation has been brought about by US and EU expansion into the east which Russia cannot allow.Putin (regardless of my personal opinion of him) has been forced into the actions he has taken. The death toll mounts all over the world due to US interference with cultures and country’s that they have no understanding off. But just want to manipulate for there own ends. This is all going to come back and haunt Europe. Russia will not forget this regardless of who is in charge, America will eventually look to its real future threat i.e. China and abandon Europe.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

[…] komentarze na temat sytuacji w Rosji. William Pomeranz pisze dla Reutersa o strategii prezydenta Putina wobec Ukrainy i świata zachodniego oraz jej skutkach […]

The best in article is comments. It is time to change the editor.

Posted by alexpz | Report as abusive