Opinion

The Great Debate

from Compass:

Putin’s action is no surprise

Surprise is the least forgivable sin of statecraft. Yet nothing has so characterized the Ukraine crisis as the West's continuing surprise at Russia's behavior.

The past 30 days have provided almost daily reminders of the deep disconnect between Western expectations of what statecraft would -- and ought to -- look like in the 21st century, and the reality of how the Kremlin seeks to assert its interests in the world.

From the outset of this crisis, the West consistently underestimated the strategic significance of Ukraine, and Crimea, to Russia. The West also assumed that the threat, and subsequent reality, of economic sanctions would alter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic calculus. One month later, Russia has irreversibly annexed a region of Ukraine and left the West divided and floundering in its response.

That Putin may have won a short-term victory at the cost of a long-term defeat by setting every European country on a path to energy independence from Russia should be small comfort to the United States and European leaders meeting in Brussels this week.

If this were merely a matter of misreading the moves and motivations of a declining great power whose economic vulnerabilities are as severe as they are structural, the annexation of Crimea could be considered a mere geopolitical nuisance. At its root, however, this failure is rooted in a dangerous vanity about the West’s inevitable dominance -- and an illusion about a global acceptance of its norms and forms of economic and political governance.

from Anatole Kaletsky:

Forget the drama: A solution for Crimea

President Vladimir Putin has disastrously miscalculated and Russia now faces deeper isolation, tougher sanctions and greater economic hardship than at any time since the Cold War. So declared President Obama after the NATO summit in Brussels.

European leaders have sounded even tougher than Obama, though less specific. Some whose countries lie far from Russia -- for example, British Prime Minister David Cameron -- have whipped themselves into a fury reminiscent of King Lear: “I will do such things -- what they are, yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.”

For more specificity we must turn to pundits. Geopolitical experts have predicted global anarchy because of the violation of postwar borders; economists have warned of crippling trade wars as European financial sanctions collide with Russian energy counter-measures, and eminent financial analysts have argued that investors and businesses are dangerously under-pricing enormous geopolitical risks.

from Ian Bremmer:

The G7 and the limits of Russia’s ‘political isolation’

 

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama delivered the major address of his weeklong trip to Europe, focusing on the Russian incursions into Ukraine and the coordinated Western retaliation. “Together, we have isolated Russia politically, suspending it from the G8 nations,” Obama said. For annexing Crimea, Russia was punished with temporary exile from this coalition of advanced industrial democracies, a group of Western countries that collectively act on their shared values.

There is just one problem: Russia never shared these values, and the G7 has neither represented global interests nor driven the international agenda for quite some time.

There are a few reasons why that’s the case. Even among countries with similar values and political systems, it can be difficult to align interests, as we’ve seen with the varied Western response to Crimea. Second, as new players have emerged in recent decades, the global power balance has shifted, leaving the G7 representative of a smaller piece of the pie. Any organization that does not include China, for example, is not truly global.

Putin’s new ‘values pact’

Now that Russia President Vladimir Putin has swallowed Crimea, the question becomes: What if the peninsula doesn’t satisfy his appetite for new Russian territory? What if the only thing that will satiate his hunger for power is the goulash known as eastern Ukraine? Or does he then move on to Moldova, and then on and on?

Indeed, while the world watched the protests in Kiev and the Sochi Olympics last month, the Moldovan territory of Gagauzia quietly held a referendum about whether or not to join Russia if the rest of the country opts for stronger ties to the European Union. Its citizens, just like those in Crimea, have argued that they would be economically better off on Putin’s planet, rather than as meager satellites in the Western solar system.

The prospect of joining Russia, of course, sounds far better on paper than in reality. The promise of benefits is likely to evaporate when robust Western sanctions throw Russia’s economy into a steeper downturn. The ruble has already lost almost 9 percent of its value this year against the dollar. Many have argued (myself included) that very soon Putin won’t be able to survive the international blowback.

Reaching for a deal on Crimea

There is a disturbing air of inevitability in Western capitals surrounding Russia’s annexation of Crimea. A growing consensus views this scenario as a rough analogy to  Moscow’s recognition of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the 2008 war — perhaps more severe, but still manageable.

Such complacency is misplaced, however. The consequences of the annexation of Crimea are not manageable. The moral high ground we currently occupy isn’t worth it.

Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s triumphalist speech on Tuesday, the United States and the European Union should not assume that Crimea is lost. Instead they should be working overtime to prevent annexation.

Putin’s imperial hangover

President Vladimir Putin’s impulsive incursion into Ukrainian territory has left Russia more isolated than at any time since the Cold War. Predictably, the European Union and the United States have loudly objected. More to the point, however, no country has rallied to Russia’s defense.

Such deafening silence reflects the degree to which Putin’s thinking is out of step with the modern world. With this action, Putin has revealed himself to be an imperial thinker in a post-colonial world.

Putin grew up at a time when Russia was the unquestioned center of a communist empire that had managed to suppress national challenges for decades. So while the rest of the world was dismantling their empires and transforming colonies into nations, the Soviet Union retained its empire until 1991. Putin — as the leading representative of the last Soviet generation — acquired the mindset of Russia’s natural hegemony and never accepted the post-Soviet republic’s place in the expanding community of nations.

To punish Putin, help Ukraine

Sunday’s referendum in Crimea and provocative Russian troop maneuvers have raised the Ukraine crisis to new heights.

Congress has expressed strong support for Ukraine and condemned Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Unfortunately, some on Capitol Hill are pushing ideas that would do little to punish Moscow while undercutting U.S. and NATO security interests. Congress needs to be smart in how it seeks to help Ukraine and punish Russia.

A whirlwind has engulfed Ukraine since former President Viktor Yanukovich fled Kiev on February 21 and the Russian military occupied Crimea one week later. In response, Democrats and Republicans have backed Ukraine, called for Moscow’s international isolation, and supported steps to assure NATO allies in Central Europe.

Confederation: An off-ramp for the Ukrainian crisis

The United States has no good options with regard to Crimea.

The best outcome would be for Crimea to remain an integral part of Ukraine. This will not happen. The next best outcome would be to give Crimea even more autonomy within Ukraine than it now has, federalism on steroids. This is highly unlikely.

The next best outcome would be a confederal arrangement in which Crimea remains formally a part of Ukraine, but would have autonomy over elements of both its foreign and domestic affairs. This is possible but will require adroit diplomacy — not just threats and sanctions from the United States and the West.

The worst outcome would be for Crimea to be incorporated into Russia. On the current track, this may be where we end up.

from Ian Bremmer:

Who loses most in Ukraine?

 

As we march toward Sunday’s Crimean referendum, the result is predetermined. Crimea will vote Russia, and tensions will only escalate. At this juncture, it’s important to take a step back and ask who “lost” here. What could the United States have done differently? What about Russia? Was the outbreak of violence and explosive geopolitical confrontation inevitable? Where does it go from here?

If the United States’ primary goal has been to keep violence in Ukraine and tensions between outside powers to a minimum, it has made a series of significant missteps. The United States failed to offer real economic support to the Ukrainian government before events reached a crescendo. Former President Viktor Yanukovich didn't want to just work with the Russians; he was looking to strike a balance between Russia and the EU while skirting economic collapse. Europe pushed too hard, and the IMF wasn't going to step in in time. The lack of support from the West helped push Yanukovich far enough towards Russia that protests in Kiev reached a point of no return.

On February 21st, key Ukrainian opposition figures and President Yanukovich signed a deal along with a group of European foreign ministers, only for it to soon break down and Yanukovich to flee. The United States eagerly jumped ship with the new pro-West Kiev government. This was a mistake. Washington could have expressed its reservations and urged that the signed deal at least be respected as a factor in determining political processes moving forward. Showing public support for that position would have been an important acknowledgment to Russia that the United States respects Russia’s interests. In Syria six months ago, the United States was perfectly happy to pretend (as were the Russians) that the chemical weapons deal was a breakthrough that would address the underlying conflict, even though it was just a smokescreen for relieving Obama of his obligation to intervene militarily. The Americans could have offered the Russians a similar face-saving gesture here, but they chose not to.

Putin projects Russia’s unreal reality

In the summer of 1787, Catherine the Great of Russia set out to inspect the recent additions to her far-flung czardom, including the Crimean peninsula, annexed from the Ottoman Empire four years earlier.

Catherine’s lover, Prince Grigory Potemkin, the governor-general of these new southern provinces, knew shabby landscapes wouldn’t satisfy the German-born empress, who set high standards for order. So he lined her route with wooden boards painted with cheerful housing façades, to hide the squalor of the serfs’ lives. On her return to St. Petersburg, Catherine announced she was pleased with her new territory’s bucolic riches.

Thus the Potemkin village was born, giving definition to most of Russia’s actions. In today’s Crimean tug of war between Ukraine and Russia, Catherine’s level of delusion about her surroundings helps explain Russian President Vladimir Putin’s view of the world he lives in. In trying to create his own reality on the ground, Putin imagines life not as it is, but as he wants it to be.

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