The Christmas and New Year holidays are usually a time when mankind renews its faith in peace on earth and goodwill toward men, but they seem to have had the opposite effect on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin started 2015 by escalating his war against Ukraine in the eastern Donbas. The four hotspots continue to be Mariupol, the Donetsk airport, the Debaltseve area and Shchastiya.
Adding to the thousands of innocent lives lost he already bears responsibility for, Putin contributed 12 more victims when Kremlin-backed separatists fired a Grad missile and struck a civilian passenger minibus loaded mainly with pensioners. Putin’s proxies are on the offensive once again in the Donbas, taking more territory as they are aided by Russian troops and stocks of Russian weapons moving over the porous border between Ukraine and Russia.
After the Jan. 10 report of German investigative group CORRECT!V, it is increasingly clear that the 298 deaths aboard Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 represent more blood on Russian hands. The group put together a convincing case that Russian troops fired the Buk missile that downed the plane in July.
Yet the Kremlin continues to deny and obfuscate MH17 crimes. In another show of duplicity, it tries to back out of diplomatic commitments to resolve the conflict in east Ukraine made in Minsk in September.
Fortunately, more Western leaders are recognizing Putin for who he is: a rogue, irrational dictator who continues to inflict harm on his own people and destabilize the world to serve his narrow interests.
Even more importantly, Putin is now harvesting the rotten fruit of his corrupt labor. He is being undermined by the economy that the Russian elite have plundered for so long. The sharp drop in oil prices since June – from $115 a barrel to under $50 – is eating away at the fossil fuel fountain that has nourished Putin until now. Western nations must take this opportunity to turn the system on its head and never again become dependent on tyrants like Putin. Governments should add to their stockpiles of strategic reserves, tax oil and gas more heavily and invest in alternative energy and emergy conservation, instead of frittering away the bonanza on more consumer spending.
It is heartening that Germany’s Angela Merkel has taken on the challenge of keeping the European Union in line, upholding sanctions against Putin until he leaves Ukraine alone and fully implements the Minsk peace accords. In doing so, she is reining in the frequently naive European friends of Putin, who continue to try to shove Ukraine – and Putin’s brazen crimes – off the agenda in the fear their economies will suffer too. The EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, was the latest to come up with a rationale for normalizing relations with Russia: that the West needs his cooperation on Syria, North Korea and Iran. Baloney. Putin is on the wrong side and supporting the wrong actors in all of those countries and conflicts.
Then there are those misguided politicians who worry that destablizing Putin will make him more dangerous and that the West should try to keep the Kremlin autocrat in power because his successor might be worse.
Nonsense. The world, including Russia, will be a better place once Putin leaves the stage. His ability to kill and destablize is being constrained only by his current economic weakness, which the West should encourage. Throughout history, it’s been only economic and political blows that have made Kremlin leaders more civilized and open to cooperating with the outside world – from Peter the Great’s overtures to the West, to Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika in response to the collapsing Soviet Union, to Boris Yeltsin’s cooperative stance in world affairs when post-Soviet Russia was at its lowest economic ebb.
Of course, it is up to the Russian people to determine why, when the nation gets a measure of economic strength, its leaders in the Kremlin squander it by going to war with the democratic world, killing people, enriching a coterie of insiders and crushing human rights at home.
But there is no mistaking that the state of democracy in most of the former Soviet Union, including Russia, is weaker than in most nations of the world. In South Asia, India and even Pakistan routinely change leaders when their people are given the chance at the ballot box. A recent change in power in Sri Lanka underscores the absence of any checks and balances in Russia. The increasingly autocratic and corrupt Sri Lankan leader of 10 years, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was so confident of his re-election to another six-year term that he called for elections two years early. He was promptly voted out of office on Jan. 8 with election commissions, police and other government institutions ensuring that the people’s will prevailed.
While Russians may puzzle the reasons for their unhappy fate and their inability to vote out Putin, events in recent weeks have shown more clearly that the West is absolutely on the right track by increasing the pressure – especially economic pressure – on Putin to constrain him from inflicting more damage on Ukraine and stirring up more global trouble.
Ukraine can still snatch defeat out of this coming victory. To prevail, Ukraine will have to speed up a genuine anti-corruption drive with daily successes for the world to see. It will continue to have to court Western democracies counted on to fill a $15 billion financing gap. It needs to prove to these leaders that Ukraine deserves financial and lethal military assistance.