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.

2014’s top 10 political risks

Ian Bremmer
Jan 7, 2014 19:30 UTC

Since the 2008 financial crisis, the world’s biggest risks have been economic. From a euro zone meltdown, to a Chinese hard landing, to the U.S. debt crisis, analysts have spent the past five years worrying about how to stave off financial implosion.

That’s over. In 2014, big-picture economics are relatively more stable. But geopolitics are very much in play. The impact of the G-Zero world — one that increasingly lacks global leadership and coordination — is on display.

So what are this year’s top 10 political risks? I’ll describe them, in video and text, below.

Putin is winning on Snowden, Syria and Sochi… but so what?

Ian Bremmer
Sep 19, 2013 15:01 UTC

Vladimir Putin’s having a hell of a summer. Before writing the most talked-about New York Times op-ed in months, he embarrassed his chief rival, the United States, by harboring its most high-profile dissident, Edward Snowden. He then came out ahead on negotiations over what to do about Syria’s chemical weapons attack that killed 1,400 people. The general consensus is that Putin and Russia are winning.

But what, exactly, are they winning? Russia’s prize for conquering the summer isn’t power — it’s constriction. In defending Assad, harboring Snowden, and preparing for the Sochi Olympics, Putin is actually just inviting more complications. This has been a summer of shallow wins for Putin as he puts his ego and personal quest for international legitimacy over his country’s best interests.

On Syria, it’s certainly true that Putin has made Barack Obama look bad. Russia has taken the lead on negotiations, minimized America’s military motivation, and undermined Obama’s foreign policy standing. All that’s great if you’re looking at it through the lens of a power ranking of the global elite. After all, I firmly believe that nobody has consolidated more power than Vladimir Putin.

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.

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.

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