By Pierre Briançon
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
MOSCOW – What a difference a plunging ruble makes. A few short days ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin was a strategic genius, outplaying Western leaders everywhere – in the Middle East, in China, and especially in Ukraine. Today, he’s the destroyer of his country and his political life could be in jeopardy.
The West has been unable to develop a coherent strategic policy toward Russia. There is little agreement on what Russia is and how to deal with it, too much speculation about what President Vladimir Putin will or will not do.
The year ahead could see the outbreak of the third Chechen war, which, in turn, could be the death knell of the Russian Federation in its current borders.
The “day of silence” observed this week by the Ukrainian army and its pro-Russian rebel opponents was an event of enormous economic importance for global economics as well as geopolitics.
The 40 percent plunge in oil prices since July, when Brent crude peaked at $115 a barrel, is almost certainly good news for the world economy; but it is surely a crippling blow for oil producers. Oil prices below $70 certainly spell trouble for U.S. and Canadian shale and tar-sand producers and also for oil-exporting countries such as Venezuela, Nigeria, Mexico and Russia that depend on inflated oil revenues to finance government spending or pay foreign debts. On the other hand, the implications of lower oil prices for the biggest U.S. and European oil companies are more ambiguous and could even be positive.
Vladimir Putin lives in a scary world, where enemies plot tirelessly to undermine, trick, and destroy Russia. Containment wasn’t just a Cold War policy but a practice of Russia’s rivals for centuries. Even without a conflict in Ukraine, the United States and European Union would have come up with another pretext for imposing economic sanctions; they were an inevitable response to a rising Russia.
As Russia moved into Crimea in March, annexed it and then began to create, promote and support separatist movements in eastern Ukraine, commentators and citizens alike worried about a “new Cold War.” Others compared Russian President Vladimir Putin’s land grab to Nazi Germany’s 1938 annexation of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland.
The official Kremlin narrative on the war in eastern Ukraine is clear and simple: after seizing power in February, a Western-backed “junta” in Kiev sent neo-Nazi gangs – then tanks and warplanes – to stamp out peaceful protests by the Russian-speaking community. The locals who took up arms are freedom fighters, and the only help they get from Russia is humanitarian aid. For the past six months, Russian state television has carpet-bombed its viewers with this message, day in and day out.
It was a familiar scenario this week. First the government in Kiev said that Russia was sending convoys of men and weapons to support pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine. Then U.S. General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top commander in Europe, confirmed those claims, saying “there is no question anymore about Russia’s direct military involvement in Ukraine.” His remarks were summarily denied by the Russian Defense Ministry, which said it had stopped paying attention to his “unfounded proclamations.”