Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Putin's Ukrainian 'triumph' may be deceptive


Well, has anything happened while this blog has been on hiatus? Oh. One of the greatest crises to hit Europe since 1945 - right up there with the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1967 - seems to have hit us. You can't even turn off your wi-fi without a revolution breaking out and the threat of war looming over the entire European continent, can you?

The whole thing could be called 'depressing', if that wasn't such a measly word to use. On the surface, what we used to call 'the West' have been outsmarted at every turn. The crisis in the Ukraine (above) has seen the Russian state seize a key strategic asset - Crimea and its naval bases - on the Black Sea. Moscow's quick punches have made Europe and the US seem divided, slow to respond and confused, shouting and stamping their feet about an attack on national sovereignty that they can do absolutely nothing about whatsoever. The Ukraine's new revolutionary masters look, for the moment, isolated in their Kiev stronghold.

President Obama's many detractors have indeed blamed a lack of US 'leadership', of course - a big old reach of a claim that doesn't stand up to that much scrutiny. Had Obama fired off some missiles at Syria last year, they claim, or shouted more at Iran (they seem to have no desire to actually invade either off those countries), then the Russians would be more likely to back off. The Kremlin senses weakness: it's reacting the only way it knows how. With violence.

But just stop and think for a moment. This is a line of argument that thinks nothing of Russia's historic links to the Ukraine, its deep-seated attachment to the idea of parts of that country (particularly the Crimea) as part of the motherland, or the opportunity that the Russians were faced with - a low-hanging bit of fruit that proved so tempting that the use of marines and special forces seemed to become an unbearingly alluring piece of no-brain opportunism.

President Obama's domestic critics - and those who fret more generally about the growing might of a resurgent and assertive Russian Federation - really shouldn't get too hot under the collar for now. Far from representing some far-sighted, wolf-like mastermind thwarting their every move, Mr Putin has shown himself yet again to be a better tactician than a strategist. He's lost most of the Ukraine. He'd already lost most of his friends in east-central Europe. His lack of support in Soviet successor states stands exposed, for no vast demonstrations in favour of rule from Moscow have yet rocked the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine. President Putin's domestic economy is too dependent on oil and gas, and vulnerable to seismic diplomatic shocks such as the crisis in the Ukraine - which sent the Russian currency and stock market into an unpredictable tailspin until cooler heads started to prevaill. And for what? The Crimea? A chunk of a crisis-ridden state mired deep in political division and corruption that he could have de facto mastered without going to alll this trouble. Russia is lucky that the Americans don't just say 'okay, have it all, see where it gets you'.

'Public Policy and the Past' doesn't comment all that much on foreign policy. It's not our field of expertise. But here's a thing, as obvious as the nose on your face: Moscow has dropped a brick. President Putin probably doesn't read blogs. If he did, he should get one message loud and clear: it's easy to get into a military face-off. It's difficult to get out of the quagmire later. American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to go quite well to start off with - as did the original Soviet invasion of that latter country way back in 1979. The result? Years of toil. Unpopularity. Having to govern people who didn't want you there. Having to pick winners in their domestic politics - struggles that Washington and Moscow hardly understood, let alone mastered. And in the end? Partial failure at best, and disaster at worst. It turns out that it's easy to start shooting, but hard to stop. Who knew, eh?

In his heart, the strongman in the Kremlin knows this very well, which explains his evasive, scattergun and self-contradictory zig-zagging on every single relevant question. The last couple of days have seen some signs that he might want to step back from an all-in strategy that might even involve a full-scale invasion... as well he might, for he has looked over the brink.

President Putin, you should start to talk, negotiate and make new friends now, before you make the corner you've painted yourself into look very small and very cramped indeed.

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