07 August 2014

A dictator at bay

Vladimir Putin's epic blundering has painted him, and Russia, into a very dark and uncomfortable corner.  And he may be on the verge of making an even more disastrous mistake.

Michael McFaul, US ambassador to Russia until this year, evaluates Putin's record against the standard of the man's own goals.  He has had a couple of successes -- turning Russian public opinion against the US, and positioning Russia internationally as a conservative, pro-religion, authoritarian, anti-gay, anti-individualist alternative to the liberal model represented by the US.  Aside from that, his inept and impulsive actions have been disastrous.

His annexation of Crimea and clumsy subversion of eastern Ukraine have irrevocably alienated the Ukrainian people and ruined any chance that they might be coaxed willingly into Russia's orbit.  He has even made countries already in Russia's zone of influence, such as Kazakhstan, nervous about what he might do to them in the future.  Some neighbors, such as Georgia and Moldova, are rushing to tighten their ties with the EU to help keep Russia at arms length.  The bumbling Ukrainian separatists he supports shot down a civilian airliner, a public-relations disaster.  The Western sanctions he provoked have badly damaged Russia's economy and development prospects, much to the consternation of Russian business interests.

It's true that the intervention in Ukraine has boosted Putin's popularity at home -- but as McFaul points out, the Iraq invasion initially gave Bush sky-high ratings here, and look how that turned out.

British business commentator Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has a lot more detail about the harm the sanctions are doing to Russia's economy, and how Putin's alienation of the West is driving Russia into the arms of China, a country actually far more threatening to Russian interests than the West is.  But as he also points out, Putin has massed 20,000 troops and a lot of heavy equipment on the Ukrainian border.  It could be a bluff -- 20,000 sounds like a rather small force to invade a country of 47 million or even a significant chunk of it -- or it could be that he has so taken leave of his senses that he would rather invade Ukraine than accept humiliating defeat by watching his separatist proxies there be annihilated by the Ukrainian military, as is now happening.

If so, one can only hope that others are trying to talk sense into him.  A Russian invasion of Ukraine would not drag NATO or the US into war -- Ukraine is not a NATO member and we have no legal obligation to defend it, and a direct conflict between the two nuclear superpowers would be too dangerous to risk.  But the West would certainly give military aid to Ukraine, as it did to the Afghans during the Soviet invasion.  Sanctions would escalate to crushing, devastating levels, with the explicit goal of smashing Russia's economy and bringing down the regime.  Countries near Russia would stampede to make the best deals they could with the West, for the sake of their own security.

The frightening thing is that Putin's track record shows him to be unpredictable, impulsive, and capable of making stupid mistakes.  The saving grace is that we aren't the only people who are worried about that.  Russian businessmen and oligarchs (and the dividing line between those two groups is a tad fuzzy) have already seen their interests hurt by Putin's adventurism, and they surely know what would happen if he launched an invasion.  The Russian military probably doesn't want to enter a prolonged war with a NATO-backed enemy.

If Putin does intend to invade and can't be talked out of it, those interests will need to decide what to do.  Removing a dictator who is, for the moment, popular with the public would be a daunting prospect.  But Putin himself has chosen to create an order where sheer force and propaganda sweep aside legality and deference to popular will.  Removing him from power to save Russia from his incompetence would just be playing by his own rules.

Update:  In further self-pwnage, Putin has "retaliated" for the sanctions by banning a wide range of food imports from Western and Western-linked countries.  But with a few local exceptions, the ban will have little impact on the West, while it will crimp the lifestyle to which Russians, especially those of the middle and upper-middle class, have grown accustomed since the fall of the USSR opened up the country to the world.  Yet another likely source of discontentment with the regime.

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