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.
To believe, therefore, that the remedy is a question of better intelligence or information about the decision-making dynamic in the Kremlin is to focus on symptoms rather than causes. It is also to assume that Putin, or even Russia, are exceptions to an otherwise coalescing global environment — when they are more likely canaries in the coal mine of a fundamentally fragmenting geopolitical landscape.
The West consistently misjudged Putin’s economic pain threshold because we assume a global convergence to its political norm threshold. The Russian leader, and many other leaders around the world, have neither the personal motivation nor the domestic constituency to sustain such a choice.
A real — as opposed to idealized — map of the new geopolitical world would shine the light on capitals as diverse as Tokyo, Brasilia, Riyadh, Delhi, Beijing, Ankara and Bangkok and reveal an emerging archipelago of diverging politics, economics and ideals of governance. With such a map — however unwelcome and unfamiliar it may appear — decisions driven by historic grievances, nationalist rivalries, unrequited respect, elite interests and a deep desire to chart a course independent of the dominant Western narrative will seem rather less surprising.
Davos was set alight earlier this year by the offhand comparison offered by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe between the origins of World War One and today’s tensions between his country and China. What should have garnered as much attention was Abe’s absolute, and almost casual, defense of his visit to the Yasukuni shrine — which honors Japanese sacrifices in World War Two and serves as a searing reminder to the Chinese of Japan’s reluctance to acknowledge its record of aggression and atrocities in those years. A Western audience obsessed with its own centenary memorials had little to suggest by way of a 21st dialogue between Asia’s two giants marching to an increasingly nationalist drum.
Turkey’s once-heralded example of democratic politics in a modernizing, economically successful Muslim country straddling the borders between Europe and Asia is coming undone in a struggle at once personal and structural.
At one level, what might be considered a case of severe Putinism seems to have struck Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who, despite winning successive elections, appears determined to destroy his own legitimacy through a series of power-grabs. On another level, however — and one that may, again, surprise the West — there are indications that Erdogan’s AK Party may well snatch victory from the jaws of defeat because it is convincing more and more Turks that the only thing worse than its own overreach is a takeover by the state by the shadowy Gulenist movement.
Throughout the Middle East, a counter-revolution to the Arab Spring, led by the region’s monarchies and military governments, is taking hold, from the Gulf to Egypt. Beneath the surface of a struggle for democracy among the region’s youth, a more fundamental decision has been taken by the West’s allies to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood at all costs.
To these leaders, the Brotherhood poses the true existential challenge to their future hold on power — far more than Iran, or Israel, or even the Sunni-Shi’ite divisions. Western voices warning about the danger of extinguishing a place for legitimate politics in these societies — and the risk of creating a monster of extremism far greater through unrelenting repression — is falling on deaf ears.
Further east, India’s impending elections are likely to bring to power a leader in Narendra Modi whose core appeal — whatever protestations to Western visitors — is a nationalist and often chauvinist Hindu interpretation of his country’s identity at home and purpose abroad. In Brazil, meanwhile, an increasingly embattled government led by Dilma Rousseff had to resort in September to cancelling a state visit to the United States — after revelations that the National Security Agency had monitored her personal communications — in pursuit of domestic support rooted in resentments of U.S. overreach.
What all these seemingly disparate developments have in common is a simple, but significant, characteristic: governments both allied and adversarial toward the West are increasingly making strategic choices in direct opposition to its values and interests.
In his 1909 work The Great Illusion, Norman Angell argued that in an age of economic interdependence, war’s futility made it unlikely, if not impossible. A century later, the great illusion has been that a contested, deeply divergent geopolitics couldn’t co-exist with the interdependence of global capitalism and modern technology.
What we now have to recognize is that those tools of 21st globalization are acting as the very enablers of an archipelago world of fracturing power and identity.
Last summer — nine months before Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the subsequent sanction of persons and entities explicitly identified as associated with the Russian president — a senior Russian diplomat told me that Moscow would always retain strict control over the country’s high-tech industry. Why? Because they had to be ready for the day when they would be sanctioned by the West.
The Kremlin is not alone among non-Western governments in planning for a contest of power and security defined far more by global divergence than convergence. It’s time the West started doing the same — and then avoid finding itself quite so often in the role of a startled bystander to global events.
PHOTO (TOP): Russian President Vladimir Putin (front R) meets with newly appointed high-ranking military officers during a ceremony in Moscow’s Kremlin, March 28, 2014. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin
PHOTO (INSERT): Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) and Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan chat following a news conference in Istanbul, December 3, 2012. REUTERS/Murad Sezer