Putin's Long Game

March 21, 2014 Topic: Great PowersSecurity Region: RussiaUkraine

Putin's Long Game

He has one. The West doesn't.

Anyone with good knowledge of the post-Soviet neighborhood and time to think things through should have guessed that Russia would have acted to prevent the interim government of Ukraine from decisively anchoring their country to the West. The separation of Crimea could be just the Kremlin’s first move in what Vladimir Putin rightly sees as a long game.

Disastrous Lack of Foresight

It goes without saying that leaders both in Kiev and Western capitals must have displayed an astounding lack of foresight if they thought that Ukraine’s interim government could steer the country toward the West and Vladimir Putin would do little in response, other than impose sanctions and rattle his sabre.

It was also short-sighted on the part of the interim government in Kiev to hope that of the Russian-speaking population of eastern and southeastern Ukraine would happily accept an outcome, in which a victorious coalition excludes their representatives, but includes ultranationalists; fires their governors, and passes a bill to cancel the status of their mother tongue.

The leaders of the interim government also failed to anticipate that Moscow would respond to ramblings in the south and east in ways that they would not be able to neutralize with or without support from Ukraine’s Western partners.

Russian diplomats have been lately criticized for restoring the Soviet habit of “whataboutism,” but I too cannot help wondering what would have been the reaction of Western governments if protesters had built barricades in downtown Brussels or Berlin or Washington and stayed there for months, battling police, throwing Molotov cocktails and shooting. Would Western leaders have recognized an outcome in which a legitimately elected president of a West European country is ousted by what some describe as “rebels-protesters” rather than voted out or impeached? I guess these are all rhetorical questions.

I was also surprised how quickly some of the Western governments embraced the interim government after the deal that they themselves brokered between Viktor Yanukovych and opposition on February 21 collapsed, forcing the Ukrainian president (who, by the way, came to power in 2010 elections that observers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe found to be transparent and honest) to flee out of fear for his life.

I am not saying Yanukovych didn't discredit and incriminate himself through massive corruption, abuses and, use of deadly force against the protesters. And precisely because of these abuses he would have probably lost internationally observed early elections stipulated by the February 21 agreement and faced prosecution. As a result, the moderate opposition could have come to power peacefully in a democratic process that not only Western governments, but also Russia could live with. As I warned hours after the deal was sealed, it should be honored because the alternative could be ensuing chaos that would lead to disintegration of Ukraine.

But as much as the Western support encouraged Yanukovych's opponents, it is the latter that are ultimately responsible for prompting Russia’s leadership to spring into action. Vladimir Putin had remained observant as long as the most likely scenario was that there would be an early election in which Viktor Yanukovych would compete against Yulia Tymoshenko. But once that scenario became improbable—after Yanukovych was forced out by a coalition, which excluded representatives of pro-Russian regions, but included anti-Russian ultranationalists—Putin felt compelled to act.

And the interim government’s very first steps gave him an excuse, if not a plausible reason, to intervene. These steps did a lot to stoke worries of the Russian-speaking population of the eastern and southern provinces and nothing to alleviate Moscow's worries that Ukraine might first integrate first into West's economic structures, and then eventually enter into a political-military alliance with the West.

Military Intervention Can Not Be Justified and Will Not Be Without Cost for Russia

Of course, only a few expected that Russia would respond to developments in Kiev with a covert military intervention in Crimea that allowed the pro-Russian majority in Crimea to vote on secession from Ukraine. I did acknowledge such a possibility, but I didn't quite expect it to happen. I also thought then and continue to think now that a military intervention cannot be justified in absence of flagrant and massive violation of human rights.

I have no doubts that Crimea’s ethnic Russian majority wants to be part of Russia and so do many Russians, given the blood Russian soldiers spilled conquering and defending the peninsula over the course of many centuries. It is no accident that Putin’s popularity has soared in the aftermath of the recent events. But any surge in popularity might prove to be short-lived while longer-term economic and political costs of taking over Crimea could be significant.

If the current stand-off escalates into a Cold War redux between Russia and West, then the latter will still continue to buy Russian resources as it did during the original Cold War. But Western governments can also revive some of the Cold War era restrictions on exports of equipment and technologies Russia needs to modernize and diversify its economy.

Such measures could have a formidable negative impact on the Russian economy, which is already stagnating, and it won’t be easy for Russia to import such technologies from somewhere else. As I have written earlier, if sanctioned economically and isolated politically from the West, Russia might have little choice other than to enter a political-economic partnership with China. And that won't be a partnership of equals, I am afraid.

China has made impressive strides in many technological fields, leading the world in manufacturing of solar cells and wind turbines. But, overall, the Middle Kingdom continues to lag behind the West technologically. Therefore, Beijing won't be able to compensate if West restricts exports of technologies and equipment to Russia. Nor should Russia count for China’s full support in the case of Crimea, given Beijing’s own problems with separatism. Beijing’s ambivalent attitude became clear last weekend when China abstained during a vote at the United Nations Security Council on a resolution introduced by its Western members to declare the referendum in Crimea unlawful.

Crimea’s separation and its integration into Russia must have also impressed Moscow’s own post-Soviet partners and not in a good way, albeit some of them, such as Kazakhstan and Armenia may simply have no other integration options, given Moscow’s enormous leverage vis-à-vis them. (In fact, Armenia’s Serzh Sargsyan may be now congratulating himself privately for displaying foresight. We all now have a better idea of how Russia could have responded if Sargsyan had not decided last fall to suspend negotiating the association and free trade deals with EU and to agree enter Armenia in the Moscow-led Customs Union instead.)

As for post-Soviet republics that have decided to distance themselves from Russia, NATO would now have less qualms about accepting Moldova and Georgia. (Georgia’s membership in the alliance would partially negate whatever advantages Russian strategists see in solidifying control of the naval facilities in Crimea.) And, of course, violation of Russia's own commitments in the 1994 Budapest memorandum on security assurances for Ukraine undermines the supremacy of international law that Russia had been championing for so many years. More importantly, it sets yet another precedent of secession, which Russia may come to face if it weakens, reducing the cost of secession for some of its ethnic republics.

Russia Still Has Aces to Play, Even Against a Crimea-Less Ukraine

Nevertheless, Moscow was bound to respond to developments in Kiev one way or another. And it should not have taken a rocket scientist to calculate that Russia has huge overt and covert leverage of nonmilitary nature vis-a-vis Ukraine, which it wouldn’t hesitate to use it if antagonized.

Leonid Kuchma (who, by the way, was a rocket scientist) had his own serious flaws, but at least he understood the need to balance between Moscow, Brussels, and Washington without committing to any of them, and he did so rather skillfully. Yanukovych at least tried to follow the same policy. He did it less skilfully than his mentor Kuchma (if only because he was blinded by his and his retinue’s greed), but at least he tried. As for the leaders of the opposition that topped Yanukovych, they didn't even try to pursue a balanced policy, antagonizing Moscow. So they should not be that surprised that the Crimea has slipped out of their hands.

And if these leaders think Russia would stop after separation of the Crimea, then they might be wrong. Yes, Putin did pledge in his Tuesday speech that Russia doesn’t plan to further split up Ukraine. But he also vowed to defend Russian speakers in Ukraine’s east, if needed.

And Putin still has some aces, including pro-Russian moods in eastern and southeastern Ukraine and Kiev’s dependence on trade with Russia, that he can play against a Crimea-less Ukraine, if given a reason (or an plausible excuse) to intervene.

For instance, if repeated on a larger scale and with greater violence, the recent clashes between locals and pro-Western activists in the eastern provinces can prompt Russia to intervene there.