Confronting the Challenge from Russia
This past February, Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Vladimir Putin, and Petro Poroshenko assembled hurriedly in Minsk, Belarus, to try to negotiate yet another Ukrainian ceasefire. The previous agreement, negotiated only five months before, had become obsolete after Russian separatists occupied a large swath of Eastern Ukraine. The prospects of succeeding in Minsk were exceedingly slim, but Europe’s leaders, deeply committed to the view that only diplomacy can bring peace, were determined to do everything possible to negotiate a solution to the Ukraine crisis. Their valiant efforts culminated in an all-night session which, to everyone’s relief, produced a comprehensive ceasefire agreement. The agreement was signed; immediately afterward fighting in Ukraine intensified. Russian separatists began assaulting Debaltseve, capturing the city only ten days after the ceasefire went into effect.
The utter failure of the Minsk Agreement, not to mention the ineffectiveness of economic sanctions and the impotence of diplomatic measures to influence Russian behavior, have reopened questions about the relationship between peace and power, questions which Western leaders have wanted to avoid. Soft power so far has proved singularly ineffective in stopping Russian aggression. That unpleasant truth raises the possibility that soft power alone may not be enough to secure peace in Europe. The question of peace in Europe has again become a question about how to handle Russia. To do so, one must also understand it, and, unfortunately, that is not an easy task. The country’s intentions are opaquely intertwined with the machinations of its mafioso kingpin leader, Vladimir Putin, whose own motivations appear largely personal. Western analysts are thus left to guess what Russia is up to. Their interpretations conflict, but in fact every interpretation points unwittingly to the return of a smaller, but still quite dangerous Cold War, and hence the need to employ hard power in defense of peace.
One common explanation of Russia’s renewed belligerence would see the invasion of Ukraine as a pent-up response to a series of Western provocations. The most blatant of these was NATO expansion. Russia was invaded twice in the past two centuries (first by Napoleon, then by Hitler), and inevitably perceived NATO’s growth as threatening. Russia sees much of Eastern Europe, especially the Baltic states, but also Poland and Romania (not to mention Serbia and Bulgaria), as belonging naturally to its sphere of influence, as Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin agreed at Yalta. Thus it is Western encroachments on Russia’s historic entitlements that have elicited a forceful response.
On this view, the cause of the Ukrainian crisis is located in Russia’s delayed response to the collapse of the Cold War order. Since that response was provoked by Western arrogance, this account of Russian behavior also excuses it. And yet if the apology be correct, Russia’s foreign policy is aiming to reestablish the defunct political order of Yalta. Such an ambition is deeply hostile to the peoples of Europe. A return to Yalta would mean dismantling the European Union and relinquishing twenty-five years’ worth of gains in democratic integration. Insofar as Russia seeks to dismantle the current European political order, it must be resisted and deterred by credible threats of commensurate Western response to acts of Russian aggression.
Yet the “return to Yalta” thesis, if containing elements of truth, fails fully to convince, because Russia’s interests have become linked to Europe’s over the past twenty-five years. The Russian economy is closely tied to the European Union. Presumably Russia’s leaders would want to protect, rather than jeopardize, their country’s new, post-Yalta interests. A strategy to regain Russia’s lost dominions seems unlikely to succeed over the long run, but quite likely to provoke confrontation with the West. The path Russia has set upon thus appears both risky and reckless and contrary to her long-term genuine interests.
The reckless quality to Russia’s recent belligerence has led others to look for the sources of the Ukraine crisis in Russia’s growing domestic troubles and Putin’s increasingly brittle hold on power. Putin has transformed Russia into a kleptocratic mafia state with the worst wealth inequality in the world. Thirty-five percent of the country’s wealth is held by 110 billionaires, oligarchs bound to Putin through an extensive web of corruption (Taylor 2013). Massive Russian corruption is a drag on Russia’s economy (a problem now exacerbated by falling oil prices and Western sanctions), and the masses, growing poorer (a recent study suggests 83 percent of Russians hold less than $10,000 in wealth), are becoming dissatisfied with Putin’s leadership (Breslow 2015). Putin, however, can never relinquish power because, like every mafia boss, he is thoroughly implicated in a network of crime. Not only has he benefited from financial corruption (no one knows the extent of his wealth), but also he has certainly had a hand in the numerous assassinations of his critics and enemies. Many suspect that Putin may also have had a hand in the 1999 Russian apartment bombings, blamed at the time on Chechen terrorists, which help bring Putin to power. If even half of these suspicions about what Putin has done are true, he cannot relinquish power without placing himself at personal risk. Putin’s political successor, with access to both the state’s secrets and its powers, might turn against him. On this second view, therefore, the crisis in Ukraine has been orchestrated by Putin to distract from Russia’s domestic problems. The strategy is only as reckless as Putin’s hold on power is desperate.
And polls show Putin’s strategy has enjoyed success. His approval rating since annexing Crimea has soared as high as 84 percent. (Washington Post, September 9, 2014). But the polls also suggest that the success of the strategy may be tenuous and could prove short-lived. Most Russians are unaware that Russian troops are in Ukraine, and a sizable percentage of the population opposes direct involvement by the Russian military (Levada Center 2015). Moreover, support for the annexation of Crimea does not appear to have altered overall perceptions concerning Russia’s domestic problems (Snegovaya 2015). Should falling oil prices and Western sanctions continue to debilitate Russia’s economy, one suspects the “Crimea effect” may wear off and Putin will need to look for new distractions to help him retain power.
The second interpretation of the situation in Russia, more plausible than the first, is significantly more troubling. It suggests a country led by a tyrant who has painted himself into a corner and therefore is becoming reckless. A tyrant preoccupied with survival necessarily thinks short term; he cannot focus on his country’s long-range interests. Indeed, since his personal reign is largely incompatible with his country’s long-term interests, he cannot focus on those. According to this view, therefore, Putin’s recklessness is likely to increase as Russia’s domestic crisis grows more severe. Even if in the long run Putin cannot succeed in his aims (as eminently reasonable Western leaders seem to believe), that won’t matter much if in the short run Putin inflicts all the damage he can on Europe. Putin can exacerbate the EU’s internal problems by lending financial support to upsurging right-wing parties within it. He can provoke crises in the countries along Russia’s borders, particularly the Baltic states, whose security directly implicates NATO’s credibility. He has already demonstrated disregard for international borders and his readiness to go to war in Europe. And he has at his disposal a nuclear arsenal, a fact about which he has recently taken to boasting.
The dangers and challenges for Western leaders confronting a tyrant with nuclear weapons in Europe are certainly very great. One thing, however, should be clear; you cannot stop a flailing tyrant by ignoring his recklessness. To do that would be to create the illusion of success, which in turn would encourage greater recklessness as Russia’s domestic troubles deepen. If unchecked, Putin’s recklessness could eventually precipitate a violent confrontation with Europe, one more damaging than anything experienced on the continent for more than half a century.
The best strategy for protecting peace in Europe today may be a return to some form of containment. Putin’s reckless impulses must be contained, both through the imposition of real costs on his violations of the peace and by communicating clear and credible limits on Western tolerance for aggression. Establishing credible limits presupposes a willingness to match Russian escalations with commensurate countermeasures. Should Putin come to believe the costs of his foreign excursions are too great (and so far the costs he has incurred have been relatively low), he will look to retain power with cheaper domestic maneuvers. A policy of containment, once credibly in place, will allow the West to wait Putin out in a cold war of attrition. He will not last as long as the Soviet Union; events will escape his control and he will fall, perhaps through a coup or popular uprising. Until that time, however, in this second Cold War, the goal of Western policy should be to contain the debris from Putin’s impending explosion, so as to preserve the democratic gains in Europe of the last quarter century.
H. David Baer is Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Texas Lutheran University.
Breslow, Jason M. “Inequality and the Putin Economy: Inside the Numbers.” Frontline January 13, 2015. www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/foreign-affairs-defense/putins-way/inequality-and-the-putin-economy-inside-the-numbers.
Greene, Sam and Graeme Robertson. “Explaining Putin’s popularity: Rallying round the Russian Flag.” The Washington Post, September 9, 2014. www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/09/09/explaining-putins-popularity-rallying-round-the-russian-flag.
Snegovaya, Maria. “Domestic Costs Are Rising for Mr. Putin.” The American Interest, February 19, 2015. www.the-american-interest.com/2015/02/19/domestic-costs-are-rising-for-mr-putin.
Taylor, Adam. “Putting Russia’s Unparalleled Wealth Disparity in Perspective.” Business Insider, October 10, 2013. www.businessinsider.com/putting-russias-unparalleled-wealth-disparity-in-perspective-2013-10.
Levada Center. “The Ukraine Crisis.” March 11, 2015. http://www.levada.ru/eng/ukraine-crisis.