Magazine | April 7, 2014, Issue

Putin’s World

In Crimea, a victory for authoritarianism

Following a telephone conversation with President Vladimir Putin about Ukraine and Crimea, German chancellor Angela Merkel is reported to have said that he is living in another world. That sounds like condemnation but it is really a dispassionate statement. In much the same way, the inmates of a lunatic asylum might say that their psychiatrist is living in another world. He is. But his world is the real one; the inmates inhabit a world of illusions. In which worlds are Putin and Merkel respectively living?

Merkel is living in the post–Cold War world that began in 1989 and was entrenched by the failure of the 1991 Soviet counter-coup. It is in its way a very pleasant world — a place of peace dividends, reduced military budgets, arms reduction and nuclear disarmament, alliances between former enemies, free-trade agreements, largely free capital movements, the growth of international organizations and their influence, the spread of international law and regulation, and economic growth. One characteristic fruit of this world was the Budapest Declaration of 1994, under which Ukraine surrendered its nuclear weapons in return for security and territorial guarantees from Russia, the U.S., and Britain.

That world was dependent, however, on Western dominance, U.S. leadership, and the acquiescence of non-Western powers such as Russia and China. It came to an end in 2008 when the financial crisis undermined Western dominance, there was a shift of power from the West to Asia (or at least the perception of such a shift), Russia invaded and occupied parts of the sovereign state of Georgia, and the West acquiesced in this occupation. These developments ushered in the post–post–Cold War world in which President Putin is living. Indeed, he has done more than most to bring it about, having annexed parts of Georgia and now the Ukrainian province of Crimea.

This world is a much more insecure and unstable place. If the Crimean episode of the Ukraine crisis is any guide, it is marked by the violent redrawing of boundaries, contempt for international law, the tearing up of treaties, the incitement of ethnic riots in neighboring countries to justify aggression, the barring of neutral observers from the conflict, the use of national troops under false colors, the whipping up of an atmosphere of aggression, and constant war propaganda attacking the putative enemy.

Comparisons to Hitler in modern debate are usually odious. But parallels between this world and the Central and Eastern Europe of the 1930s are unsettling nonetheless: the forced military “Anschluss” of Austria with the Third Reich on ethnic and historical grounds; Berlin’s encouragement of ethnic separatist demands by German communities of the Czech Sudetenland; the military occupation of the Rhineland in contravention of the Versailles Treaty but justified by the British as like “a man walking into his own garden”; the almost casual violation of the Locarno Treaty, which Germany had signed freely during a period of international optimism very similar to the period 1989–2008; the constant Big Lie propaganda from Berlin against one victim of power after another — the Austrians, the Czechs, the Poles . . . ; and, finally, the leader’s assurance after every coup de main that he had no further territorial demands. All these have their counterparts in the events of the last few months.

We even hear sophisticated Westerners advancing excuses that echo the understanding attitude of the Anglo–French appeasers of the 1930s towards Germany’s violations of Versailles: That treaty (cf. the 1954 handing over of Crimea to Ukraine) was unjust; Germany’s legitimate security interests (cf. Russia’s naval interests in the Black Sea) deserve respect; Germany’s resentments (cf. Russian resentments) were a natural reaction to the French (cf. NATO’s) policy of encirclement; and small countries could not expect great powers to protect their interests at the risk of war (Mourir pour Danzig?).

Of course, the parallels are not exact. There is no Holocaust around the corner; indeed, the forced famine that the Soviet Union inflicted on Ukraine in the 1930s is one factor restraining Putin from going farther into Ukraine. Putin, moreover, is a far cooler customer than the German dictator ever was: If he exploits ethnic hatreds, he does not seem to share them. And he wants to avoid any major breach with the West that would damage the Russian economy, his regime, and his private fortune.

All that said, there is still an ideology driving his policy in addition to geopolitical considerations of security or the slaking of Russian resentments. He wants to make the world safe for authoritarianism. What alarmed and even offended Putin was not only that Ukraine decided to defect to “Europe” from his Eurasian Economic Union but that this decision was achieved by a popular resistance on the Maidan that proved stronger than all the forces an authoritarian government was able to throw at it. “People power” may not always be wise, as developments within and since the Arab Spring have proved; but at a certain point in political evolution it becomes a formidable force. Putin’s Moscow is full of theorists (most of them slightly loopy) who are desperately seeking ways and theories to oppose or divert it.

#page#Unless Putin (with or without their help) can find a way to discredit and defeat people power in Ukraine, it may well spread to Russia. That explains the extraordinarily virulent attacks on the new Ukrainian government as fascists and terrorists, the attempts to foment the Russian–Ukrainian ethnic violence and disorder that have not occurred spontaneously in eastern Ukraine, and the determination to prevent neutral observers, especially ones from international bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, from seeing how the Crimean referendum was conducted. The small number of Western journalists there report, for instance, the arrest of Ukrainian community leaders and their disappearance into prison beforehand. The landslide was the result of such intimidation — together with the fact that the ballot paper offered voters no choice to stay with Ukraine.

What makes the threat of people power more dangerous to Putin is that he may be losing his ability to buy it off. He depends on high tax revenues from Russian energy sales to the West to keep the transfer payments running. He therefore wants to avoid anything in the short or long run that is likely to reduce or disrupt that revenue.

Western politicians and businessmen who worry about the energy weapon have it the wrong way round. For producers the energy weapon is a suicide bomb. Threatening energy cut-offs makes existing and potential buyers look for those producers who have no likely interest in blackmailing them with threats to cut off supplies. Except in those few cases when one customer-country can be isolated — in the past Ukraine has experienced this — it’s a weapon that can’t be used without driving away customers. Unlike the Saudis, the Russians can’t afford to do that.

It will happen spontaneously, however. Following this crisis, Western European customers will gradually diversify their purchases without further prompting, probably by enabling fracking within their countries and importing liquified natural gas from U.S. producers who are way ahead of them in developing such technologies. Far from adding another incentive to this drift of events, Putin will try to retard it. His speech to both houses of the Russian parliament reflected this consideration. It alternated tough nationalist rhetoric with reassurances to Ukraine that he would stop at annexing Crimea and pleas to Washington and America’s European allies not to start another Cold War. He wants a long pause between rounds.

But Putin, by changing the spirit of the age through his handling of this crisis, has compelled the West to live in his post–post–Cold War world too. Russia might have gained many of its objectives through diplomacy. It already enjoyed full naval rights in the Black Sea ports. It might have gotten a unity government in Kiev from the start.

Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski reported that the Russian representative at the negotiations between the EU ministers and the leaders of the Maidan protest had played a helpful role. But the back office in Moscow then rejected the agreed document. Would the Maidan demonstrators have surged ahead and beyond the agreement if it had carried a guarantee of Russian support for a compromise? Maybe. Yanukovych’s power had simply collapsed and it was hard for the demonstrators not to seize power over his discredited political corpse. On the other hand, the Ukrainian government since those first few days has behaved with restraint and moderation. A peaceful outcome might have happened; but seemingly Putin didn’t want that.

Contrary to Russian and other analyses, the West did want that. Sikorski appealed strongly to the Maidan leaders not to reject the initial compromise. Indeed, only two European Union leaders — Sikorski and the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt — were strong supporters of the people-power movement in Kiev. Other EU and Western European leaders were quite happy to lose to Putin and to let the problems of Ukraine pass from them. It was the Ukrainian protesters who prevented that outcome.

All that has now changed. President Obama and other NATO leaders might have been willing to see a bundle of different compromises that gave Russia more power — almost sovereign power in Crimea and strong influence in Ukraine — provided that this had been achieved by diplomacy and agreement. What they cannot accept is that such matters as international borders and population movements should be decided by a single power employing brute force, ignoring its own signature on treaties, and defending itself with lies. They may not be able to agree on tough sanctions to punish or deter such behavior for the moment, but they can’t accept the fait accompli either. So it won’t be a fait accompli. And since Putin has nailed his skull-and-crossbones to the mast, there will be a long-running crisis in Russo–Western relations in which the Western aim will be to weaken Russia economically and Putin’s aim will be to make the West cry “Dyadya.”

Western leaders live in Putin’s world now, and they will have to play by his rules if they are to prevail or even to score a draw. As aids to understanding international relations for the next few years, therefore, government statements and diplomatic proposals will be much less useful than the spy thrillers of Eric Ambler (written and placed in the 1930s), of Alan Furst (written today and placed in the 1930s), and of Daniel Silva (written and placed in the world of today). These works explore the world of border incidents, coups d’état, stolen documents, energy-exploration contracts, corporate conspiracies, and intelligence wars. Mars, meet Mars.

It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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