Vladimir Putin's Dicey Dilemma: Russia Stands at a Fateful Fork in the Road

Despite the Obama administration's narrative of a Russia that is not a player in global affairs—Moscow matters. Yet, major challenges remain if the Ukraine crisis remains unresolved. 

What about Obama's argument that Russia is now only a "regional power"? Governing an expanse that stretches from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, Russia shares borders with Poland to its west and China and the Pacific on its east. For over a millennium, the people who inhabited this land played a leading role in preventing the Mongols’ conquests in Western Europe and defeating Napoleon’s France and Nazi Germany. Last fall, when the United States found itself stalemated in responding to Assad's chemical-weapons attack on innocent civilians, Russia provided an escape hatch. Over the past year, it has proved an indispensable partner in the successful destruction of all of Assad's declared chemical arsenal. In current negotiations to stop Iran short of a nuclear bomb, after the United States and Iran, no nation matters more than Russia.

To recognize that for all its faults and failures, which are mammoth, Russia still matters more than many would like to acknowledge is not to defend or excuse Putin's crimes at home or abroad. But if President Obama's objective is to persuade Putin that his current course is unacceptable, he should focus on that country's real vulnerabilities—particularly those about which Putin is most neuralgic.

At the top of this list is a combination of economics, finance and oil. Even after the great financial crisis of 2008, Putin still believes that Americans are the masters of finance and economics. He has often expressed his deep conviction that the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century" was the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He has reflected on the analysis by former Russian prime minister Yegor Gaidar that identifies the squeeze on Soviet finances caused by the sharp drop in oil prices in the mid-1980s as the primary proximate cause of that event.

In the past year, Putin has seen oil prices drop by over 25 percent and the value of the ruble plummet by more than one-third. In his DNA, this former KGB officer believes that this is, as Russians say, “no accident." Behind such dire developments, he suspects the hidden hand of the CIA. His worst nightmare would be for Russia to unravel on his watch.

This is the moment for Obama to help Putin understand that he now stands at a fateful fork in the road. If he moves swiftly to end the conflict with Ukraine by offering terms acceptable to Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, he can restore economic relations with the West, gain access to advanced technologies required to increase future production of Russian oil and gas and modernize other sectors of the Russian economy, and thus ensure Russia's chance for a stable, prosperous future. The alternative is to persist on a path that presents growing risks of what he fears most.

Graham Allison is director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Image: Kremlin website