Opinion

Ian Bremmer

What MH17 means for Russia-Ukraine

Ian Bremmer
Jul 18, 2014 20:52 UTC

Armed pro-Russian separatist stands on part of the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane after it crashed near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

MH17 is an alarming escalation of the Ukraine conflict.

In the wake of a surface-to-air missile taking down a Malaysian airliner over Eastern Ukraine, everyone is pointing fingers. Kiev blames the pro-Russian “terrorists,” with Moscow responsible for providing them with intelligence and weapons. The separatists deny involvement and accuse Kiev of planning the attack, citing the Ukrainian military’s accidental shooting of a Siberian Airlines flight in 2001. Moscow blames the Ukrainian government for pushing the rebels into this violent situation — even if Russian President Vladimir Putin stopped short of pinning the airliner attack on Kiev. Despite the confusion, it’s clear what MH17 means: dramatic escalation and an even more combustible conflict.

Some analysts and pundits are viewing the downed flight as an opportunity to force Putin into tempering his support for the separatists. While clearer proof of pro-Russian separatist guilt does, in principle, provide the Russians with a reason to do so, it’s highly unlikely that Russia will seize the chance. The underlying fissures have not gone away — in fact, MH17 makes them even more pronounced.

Putin continues to view his country’s influence over Ukraine and the power to keep it from joining NATO as a national security interest of the highest order — the same way Israel wants to deter Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Recent events haven’t shifted Putin’s interests in the slightest. In fact, the three biggest changes coming out of the MH17 crash point to more escalation.

Armed pro-Russian separatist stands at a site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk regionFirst, Putin’s statements blaming the Ukrainians will be exceedingly difficult to back away from. It’s not yet clear whether Russia will accept that separatists shot down the plane or instead deny, obfuscate and even refute the evidence. But either way, Moscow will maintain its claim that the Ukrainian government is responsible for driving the violence and destabilizing the region where the plane crashed. Moscow will leverage its state media to promote this message.

Second, with proof that pro-Russian separatists are to blame, we will see a material ramp-up in sanctions from both Europe and the United States — and on an accelerated schedule. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is out in front of the story, declaring early Friday that “Russia is responsible for what is happening in Ukraine at the moment.” Meanwhile, the United States would forge ahead, broadening financial, energy and possibly other sector sanctions against Russia. These increases will amount to an escalation, rather than a redirection, of the conflict. The sanctions would have a real impact on Russia’s economy and investor sentiment — existing sanctions already do — but it’s highly unlikely that they would shift Putin’s calculus in Ukraine.

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

Ian Bremmer
Mar 28, 2014 00:57 UTC

 

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.

Who loses most in Ukraine?

Ian Bremmer
Mar 13, 2014 21:38 UTC

 

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.

Ukrainian President Yanukovich has bad and worse options

Ian Bremmer
Dec 13, 2013 15:56 UTC

Since the Ukrainian government’s November 21 decision to suspend free trade talks with the European Union, the country has descended into crisis. Hundreds of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets, angry with President Viktor Yanukovich’s choice and its implications. Violent clashes between law enforcement and protestors have stoked tensions even more; most recently, the government’s failed attempt to forcibly clear protestors out of Independence Square — their nexus of operation — has made the chance for compromise even bleaker.

So how did we get here? Ukraine is the perfect case study for what I’ve referred to in the past as a “shadow state”: it cannot free itself from Russia’s overwhelming influence, nor is it beneficial or domestically popular for it to give in and integrate with Russia further. So while Ukraine cannot leave Russia’s orbit, in recent years, Yanukovich’s government has managed to juggle between the competing spheres of influence of Russia and the European Union.

However, this fragile status quo has fallen apart thanks to a worsening economic situation and more pressure from Russia. Ukraine faces a three-prong predicament, starting with a struggling economy that is forcing Yanukovich to look for aid — or risk full-fledged economic crisis or default.  Second, the EU and Russia, the two major powers that could provide this assistance, have serious quid pro quos attached to any economic relief they might offer. Third, the two powers’ demands have become mutually exclusive: the EU won’t accept Ukraine if it gravitates toward Russian President Putin’s geopolitical pet project, the Eurasian Union, while Putin won’t accept Ukraine if it moves toward EU partnership.

What does Obama’s snub mean for U.S.-Russia relations?

Ian Bremmer
Aug 9, 2013 19:55 UTC

Earlier this week, Barack Obama announced that he won’t be meeting with Vladimir Putin in advance of the September G20 summit in St. Petersburg. That was, at least in part, a response to Russia’s decision to grant NSA leaker Edward Snowden temporary asylum, a move that left the White House “extremely disappointed.” So what will the fallout be? Are the media’s Cold War comparisons appropriate?

No. This episode will have limited impact on an already toxic bilateral relationship that matters increasingly less around the world.

Obama made the right decision — and more importantly, he did it at the right time. By snubbing Putin when he did, Obama will allow Secretaries of State and Defense John Kerry and Chuck Hagel and their Russian counterparts to work back up from this low-water mark when they meet this week. If he had waited to snub Putin, it would unwind any progress that might come out of the current meetings. Obama clearly understands there is more room for productivity among senior diplomats than between the heads of state, where the relationship has always been icy, and any shortcomings are higher profile.

The top 10 grudges in the G-20

Ian Bremmer
Mar 7, 2013 20:14 UTC

The G-20 is no happy family. Comprised of 19 countries and the European Union, once the urgency of the financial crisis waned, so too did the level of collaboration among members. Unlike the cozier G-7 — filled with likeminded nations — the G-20 is a better representation of the true global balance of power … and the tensions therein. So where are the deepest fault lines in the G-20? 

Below is a ranking* of the 10 worst bilateral relationships in the G20. Russia is in four of the worst, while China is in three (although Russia and China’s relationship is fine). Several countries are also in two of the worst relationships: the United States (with the two belligerents mentioned above), Japan, the UK and the EU. 

1.   China–Japan

China and Japan have a historically troubled relationship, which has reached its most contentious point in decades as their dispute over territorial claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands has escalated, leading to renewed geopolitical tensions and possible confrontation. When the world’s second- and third-largest economies are butting heads, it carries huge global ramifications.

A Davos winter talk on Russian Spring with Ian Bremmer, Susan Glasser and Gideon Rose

Ian Bremmer
Jan 27, 2012 16:19 UTC

A Russian Spring grows as the prospects of Vladimir Putin returning to the presidency loom. Ian Bremmer, Susan Glasser and Gideon Rose talk with Thomson Reuters Digital Editor Chrystia Freeland about the prospects of an uprising in Russia similar to what we’ve seen in the Arab world.

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Prokhorov’s presidential chances are not the point

Ian Bremmer
Dec 13, 2011 14:15 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

After a week full of anti-government and pro-government protests, Russians woke up on Monday to big news. Mikhail Prokhorov, a political novice with billions of dollars—and the New Jersey Nets— to his name, announced his Presidential bid.  Alexei Kudrin, a longtime bureaucratic infighter, also declared his plans to re-enter the political arena. These developments were even more significant considering both were ousted in rather public quarrels with the powers that be just months ago. Kudrin said he would support and aid a pro-reform liberal party that would stand as a counterweight to the incumbent United Russia. Prokhorov intends to challenge Putin for the presidency in March 2012 on a platform that would appeal to Russia’s “disenchanted middle class.”

No matter what Kudrin and Prokhorov say in public, they both represent the same thing to Russia and the world: Vladimir Putin’s iron grip on power. As I’ve written before, Putin is the most powerful individual on the planet. To think that either man would risk his freedom or his fortune to oppose Putin’s Kremlin, no matter what their stated reasons are, is just wrong. That said, there are reasons to watch this “race” as it will give some insight into Putin’s inevitable third term as president.

Putin has had to deal with a growing sense of dissatisfaction in Russia as of late.  Growth and living standards are stagnating, while economic inequality persists. It is unclear whose pockets are being lined with the wealth generated by Russia’s massive natural resources. The lack of freedom of the press, centralized control over economic opportunity, and pervasive corruption that makes a mockery of the justice and security systems and other institutions, are Putin’s levers of power– and also the focal points for protesters. The protestors’ complaints crystallized last week over United Russia, Putin’s party, winning a smaller but still strong majority in the parliamentary elections. Accusations of election fraud were widespread and tens of thousands took to the streets in protest over the course of last week. Putin has not been in a position to crack down on these protests — they’re too visible and too widespread — but be sure that the oligarchs and ruling classes in Russia are on Putin’s side. While his tactics for retaining power have had to change, the outcome is the same.

The Kremlin has castled and Putin is still king

Ian Bremmer
Sep 28, 2011 19:54 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

Long live the king? You can’t hold it against the Russian people for wondering just how long Vladimir Putin intends to remain in power with the recent announcement that he plans to return himself to the presidency and swap his partner Dmitri Medvedev into the prime minister slot. The electoral game Putin is playing is being compared to “castling” in chess– a rook and a king swapping places, in order to shore up the defense.

There might be defense at the heart of the strategy, but Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, despite some recent murmurings, is still the only game in Moscow. Which is to say that Vladimir Putin is by all reckoning the most powerful man in the world. What other leader, leaving aside third-world strongmen, has so completely consolidated his rule over a country, as Putin has? His success is all the more venerable when one considers that Putin is leader of a country of nearly 150 million people — and at the helm of the one of the world’s most important economies. Attention must be paid to him. Sure, other leaders around the world may have more people or even larger economies, but they don’t have as full a grip on the reins of power as Putin. (And few have ever been reverently photographed riding horseback shirtless, petting a tiger, or playing piano in tux and tails.)

Even with this switcheroo, little will change about Russia’s, which is to say Putin’s, stance on foreign or domestic affairs. Despite years of inspired reformist speechifying from President Medvedev, little has changed in the ossified Russian bureaucracy. That speaks to his true, limited, authority. The civil service system he declaims remain inefficient and antiquated, and presents ample opportunity for the kind of low-level corruption that greases the wheels of local politics across the world. Medvedev has been a friendly face for the Western world, someone who says the right things on its grand stages; but he has had little influence, as president, over the country’s true direction. As the prime minister in waiting, look for that trend to continue.

Putin’s puppet show

Ian Bremmer
Jun 22, 2011 20:09 UTC

People talk about the Russian presidential election like it really matters. But it doesn’t. The supposedly big news and debate right now is whether or not Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will run for president again in 2012.

The real news that no one is talking about is not the presidential election parlor game being played in Moscow right now, but is about an authoritarian government feeling the need to try to paint a veneer of democracy. Besides, the fall parlor game will matter much more than this spring one.

Western media can keep making it out to be as big a deal as they want to, but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Medvedev stays on as president or if Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin returns to the post. While Medvedev looks like he is trying to distance himself from Putin — he has taken a different stance on Libya and is pro-US and Europe and pro-private sector — Medvedev, as much as he may be interested in running again, is not going to run against Putin if Putin puts himself in the race.

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