30 May 2014

Putin backs down

The conflict in eastern Ukraine isn't over yet, but we already know who one of the victors is:  President Obama.

As Thomas Friedman observed this week in a widely-cited column, Putin has backed down.  He has withdrawn Russian forces from the Ukrainian border and back to their bases.  He declared last week that he would recognize the outcome of Ukraine's election on Sunday, though even then it was expected that the nationalist Poroshenko would win (and he did).  Even as the Ukrainian government brought the full weight of its military into action to smash the "pro-Russian separatists" (actually Russian agents), killing dozens of them in the battle to recapture Donetsk airport alone, and Poroshenko declared that there will be no negotiation with "bandits", Putin has done nothing.  He may manage to hold Crimea, but his effort to subvert and seize the rich industrial regions of eastern Ukraine seems to have been abandoned.

The only plausible explanation for this dramatic change in policy is the effectiveness of the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and its allies.  Powerful Russian oligarchs have felt serious threats to their personal wealth, while the Russian stock market and the value of the ruble have been battered. Beyond that, Europe has taken steps to reduce its dependence on Russian fossil fuels, undermining not only Putin's main economic counter-weapon against the West, but also a formerly-reliable source of revenue.  Much publicity has attended Russia's recent gas deal with China, a substitute market -- but the prices agreed will mean a distinctly sub-par profit.  Putin was wise to conclude that pursuing the seizure of eastern Ukraine was not worth the economic costs the West had shown itself able to exact.

It can't be coincidence, either, that just this week Obama delivered a much-commented speech at West Point declaring that, while the US must continue to lead the world and defend human rights and Western values, military force will play a smaller role in that leadership than it has done in the past, with "soft power" coming to the fore.  The speech drew the expected attacks from Republicans who believe any American response to an international challenge is a failure unless it involves bombing the crap out of something -- but if American and European economic pressure can make a nation as mighty as Russia abandon military aggression, then the day of "soft power" has truly arrived.


Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

"The conflict in eastern Ukraine isn't over yet, but we already know who one of the victors is: President Obama."

But...but Obama is weak and doesn't have steel cojones like Putin has!

Every conservative blog that made fun of President Obama's policy on the Ukraine will ignore this.

30 May, 2014 15:16  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

BTW, I'd like to repost this at P.E. with, of course, attribution. Do I have your permission?

30 May, 2014 15:16  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Shaw: We know from ***BENGHAZIII*** how they deal with things like this. When all else fails, they'll just make things up.

BTW, I'd like to repost this at P.E. with, of course, attribution. Do I have your permission?

Fine with me -- thanks for your interest.

30 May, 2014 16:01  
Blogger Unknown said...

I think I disagree. I think this was always and only about Crimea. The other stuff just showed that Putin knows how to negotiate. If you say, "I only want Crimea," you end up getting half of Crimea. This has gone exactly as the Georgian conflict went. Basically, this was about carving up the Ukraine: Russia's part is Crimea.

I think overall it is an excellent example of how international politics work. I think both Obama and Putin look good. And the Republicans look like fools who are always looking for a reason to go to war.

30 May, 2014 16:02  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Frank: The problem with that interpretation is that the Russian efforts at subversion in eastern Ukraine were so extensive that they can only be taken as a genuine effort to destroy Ukrainian state authority in the region and ultimately bring it under Russian control -- an effort which has now been defeated. Putin would not sacrifice the lives of dozens (perhaps hundreds, by the time this is over) of agents in a mere diversionary tactic. His intent to take over eastern Ukraine was real.

Besides, it's not yet a foregone conclusion that Putin will even keep Crimea. His annexation of it is not internationally recognized, and at least some sanctions are likely to remain in effect as long as he keeps control of it.

30 May, 2014 16:10  
Blogger Unknown said...

@Infidel753 - That's interesting. I think it's unimaginable that Russia won't keep Crimea, but I have to admit that I've kind of tuned out recently. If he doesn't keep Crimea, that's going to be a very big deal. When I say he "won," I'm not talking about on the world stage. I'm talking about in Russia. If he loses Crimea, I would think his political career would be over. He's popular because the people see him and smart and powerful. This would be devastating.

I don't like Putin, but I'm a tad sympathetic on Ukraine. From his perspective, Ukraine was part of his sphere of influence and the US and Europe went in there and messed things up. His reaction was understand and (not to put too fine a point on it) a lot more justified than some of the things the US has done recently.

I feel about Obama the way I do about Thomas Piketty swatting down Chris Giles. That's what I don't understand about the Republican reaction. When you are the biggest badass in the neighborhood, you don't need to go beating people up, because you are The Man. The Republicans show a real insecurity.

But just to be clear: I think it would be great if Ukraine managed to get Crimea back.

31 May, 2014 09:50  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Putin's popularity has actually been wilting for some time due to Russia's economic slowdown and to the staggering corruption and waste of money in the Sochi Olympics. It had occurred to me that one of his motives for attacking Ukraine might be to stimulate the kind of rally-round-the-leader effect one often sees in countries during conflict.

Restoring Crimea to Ukraine would be difficult, perhaps impossible. But I think even the failure to capture the Donets Basin could hurt Putin, especially when the Russian people realize how many pointless casualties his blundering has caused, and the escalation of anti-Russian feeling in Ukraine.

Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire for centuries, but it hasn't been part of any Russian "sphere of influence" for a generation. I don't know why so many people have that impression. It's been a completely independent country since 1991. Whatever feelings of commonality exist with Russia based on the common language and culture will have been badly eroded by Putin's aggression.

Make no mistake. Putin has suffered a defeat here, maybe a catastrophic one. The whole world knows it, he knows it, and the Russian people will know it soon, if they haven't figured it out already.

31 May, 2014 11:59  

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