Putin’s action is no surprise

March 28, 2014

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





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(ras)Putin has a plan to invade Ukraine completely. Crimea was just the toe in the water before the full invasion – coming soon. And Ukrainians will have no one to help them because Obama is controlled by US corporate interest not US strategic interest. The question comes down to the will of the Ukrainian people to fight a guerrilla war against Russian troops.
Only Ukrainian partisans on occupied Ukrainian land can defeat (ras)Putin. The only good that has come of this is that finally the Ukrainians can see who their real enemy is, and finally the fire of Ukrainian nationalism has been started. In Ukraine the saying is Glory to the Heros, Death to the Occupiers. I believe (ras)Putin will get his war, and his defeat.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

@UScitizentoo. I was working with Russians and former east block europeans who were once under soviet rule during the invasion of Georgia. The former east block europeans were shaking in their boots while the Russians were laughing and joking about what was going on. If you think that the Ukrainians have the stamina to stand up to Russia then how was it that Crimea was so quickly taken over? I doubt seriously that these so called Ukrainian nationalists will be able to stand up to Russia. I have also had the opportunity to discuss western style capitalism versus eastern style economic management and you maybe surprised to learn that many non-Russians saw many good points to their former managed economies. I would suggest that you look beyond the rhetoric of the few and you might be surprised what you learn. Our western style system is not for everyone. By the way, I support western style too but have come to understand that it may not work as well for others.

Posted by AnLaN | Report as abusive

I think talk of a guerrilla war in the Ukraine is fantasy. This article is an important contribution to our understanding of the current world situation. Convergence of economic and political systems is not happening as we in the West had hoped. However, the article is very weak on suggesting any course of action. Is it just advocating less naivete from us?

It seems to me that the old Cold War alignments have been slowly reestablished in the world. Putin is a product of the former Soviet Union and his behavior is very similar to former Soviet leaders. In a very real way, one could say the Soviet Union has been given 20 years time to modernize itself, rearm and return to the world stage as bellicose as it ever was during the Cold War. The Chinese Communists have done the same thing. Of course, communism is no longer the rallying ideology of these regimes. Good old-fashioned nationalism and military adventurism are instead being used to distract their populations from the fact they are slaves to the new nomenklaturas in their countries.

Less naivete on the part of the West would require a return to a strong military and giving up our fantasies about a converging world. A return to a Cold War-like stand-off for a few decades is unavoidable. If we are lucky, the economic and political contradictions that led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire will once again arise. We must make Russian and Chinese militarist adventurism as costly as possible. Obama and his likely successor Clinton must “channel” their Ronald Reagan and stop channeling Jimmy Carter. It’s time for Obama to reset the reset and for us to regain our “inordinate fear” of Soviet-style imperialism.

Posted by prietenul | Report as abusive

Most frightening of all: the moral decadence and complacency of the West, “post Cold War”. Our oligarchies and monopolies no longer pretend to maintain a fair balance of economic or political power with the working poor and “middle classes”, because we no longer need to demonstrate the irrelevancy of Communism to the “third world”! So we in the West neither maintain internal fair trade, nor external fair trade with the rest of the world: instead, we allow power to be concentrated into the hands of “national champions”, pretending they are independent of the State when in reality, it’s impossible for our international partners to compete fairly and meaningfully with them because our secret services are conducting espionage in the field of trade negotiations etc.! It’s also difficult for other nations to compete fairly with our strategic industries, because our governments are secretly paying them many millions of USDs “to compensate for the financial burdens of secret compliance with the NSA/GCHQ/FISC court rulings” etc. (In reality, I suspect that these secret payments are intended to influence the marketplace, and give the secret services a say in corporate strategy — Microsoft’s takeover of Skype comes to mind as one possible result of such influence.)

Also terrifying: looking at history, we tend to get another BIG conflict every time the generation dies out that fought the last one, who knew first-hand its horrors!

Are there nations that want to do us harm? Are there nations that are spying on us, stealing our intellectual property, turning a blind eye to outright theft of Western hard work and cultural product? Are there nations that would send their armies to subjugate us if only they could muster the forces? Absolutely. We shouldn’t make any mistake about that. Human nature has not fundamentally changed! Political hubris exists on both sides! The NSA/GCHQ/etc. exist for a good reason!

Still, unless we change something FAST, and demonstrate real humility; I fear these inequities can only lead to the politics and economics of international conflict!

We urgently need to strengthen our international friendships, mend fences, and caring more sincerely about the welfare of our partners in whose fortunes our own will find their destiny!

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

As Mousavizadeh suggests, even our regulatory (WIPO, WTO, DoJ etc.) functions have mostly been subverted to merely serve national corporate interests; rather than “justice” per se. American companies like Microsoft find it hard to get justice in Europe (defending themselves from total nonsense like the requirement to produce a version of Windows without Media Player), and European companies like BP find it hard to get justice in America (defending the interests of their British pensioner shareholders; from being marauded by spurious and inflated claims for damages — which are constantly being jacked up by the US DoJ.) I have no doubt there are many legitimate cases against BP, which the lawyers will fight tooth and nail to frustrate (at the expense of ordinary hard-working people, for whom they know that real justice is often inaccessible). But as a “Westerner” it pains and embarrasses me to observe the partisan subversion of “justice”!

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

(Ras)Putin will lose a Ukrainian guerrilla war. Send the Ukrainians the weapons they need to defend themselves. I’m going to send money to support the effort.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

What we are witnessing is the slow steady demise of Western power. Our societies are too old, with too many aging people, saddled with too much debt.

The West’s time is over……..

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

Russia is weak and losing ground. Most of the old sattelite countries are now in NATO. We are the ones advancing on them. Ukraine has always sided with Russia until now. So, they are not innocents. What will bring about the downfall of western society is not any external threat, but rather the injustice from within which makes what we say we stand for a lie. Liberty and justice for all is a hoax that the facists want you to continue to believe. It’s just not true, and many know it already.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive