Op-ed by Paul Roderick Gregory
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the Valdai discussion club on October 24, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
The Western world has yet to figure out what to do with Vladimir Putin.
He has taken parts of Georgia, Moldova, and most notably, Ukraine, by force. He ignores treaties and diplomatic conventions. Angela Merkel of Germany claims he lives in an alternate universe in which white is black and blue is green. How should Europe and the United States respond to Putin’s aggression? That is the question.
According to the “cornered rat” theory, Vladimir Putin is more dangerous with his back to the wall. This theory says he is far from finished, despite sanctions, a collapsing economy, and international isolation. We know for a fact that Putin does not back down when faced with adversity. He doubled down on repression against the mass demonstrations of December 2011.He expanded his hybrid war into east Ukraine despite world outrage over Crimean annexation. Weapon and troop deliveries were not ramped down after MH17. Putin invaded Ukraine with regular troops in August as his proxy forces faced defeat in the Donbass. He has not given an inch at the bargaining tables of Geneva and Minsk, despite crippling sanctions.
The “cornered rat” model has even been used in some Realpolitik circles to argue, that we should lighten up on Putin. We should make life easier for the rat in the corner before it bites. That is dead wrong: The correct approach is to take away the rat’s teeth.
A better analogy of how to deal with Putin is the “rat in a box” model. The box is flimsy, and a strong rat can escape to bite his captors. But the captors control the rat’s food and oxygen supply, which, if cut back properly, produce a feeble rat incapable of harming anyone.
Putin’s Ukraine venture has indeed put him in such a box. The flimsiness of the box is the lack of resolve by Putin’s European and American adversaries, who hesitate to deploy the instruments at their disposal to defang the rat. The leaders of the Western world likely do not even understand that they hold the fate of Putin’s regime in their own hands.
We must first recognize that Putin is in the box because of mistakes that belie his reputation as a master tactician:
First, Putin believed that southeastern Ukraine would share his outrage over the “New Ukraine” created by the Euro-Maidan revolution. Putin found anti-Ukraine sentiments only in the Donbass and for that he required Russian special forces and ample supplies of walking-around dollars.
Second, Putin lied outright to Western leaders, the most important being Germany’s Angela Merkel, who now clearly understand his intentions and recognize that deals cannot be made with inveterate liars. (Nevertheless they continue to mouth support for a “diplomatic solution” that will not happen.)
Third, Putin gambled that he could push around Europe and the United States with no consequences – until they imposed biting sanctions following the MH17 disaster and his invasion of Ukraine with regular troops in August.
Fourth, Putin promised the Russian people that the “Russian World” could be reconstituted with no economic costs and loss of Russian lives. The Russian people, thanks to his propaganda, have not yet fully understood this is a lie. When they do, his regime will be at risk.
Fifth, Putin rattled the gas weapon in Europe’s face with the unintended consequence of finally convincing Europe to wean itself from Russian natural gas. He brandished the nuclear threat and thereby broadened the east Ukraine conflict beyond Ukraine. Europe and the U.S. may not care that much about Ukraine, but they do become attentive when a nuclear power threatens nuclear war.
Sixth, Putin lacks the most elementary understanding of economic constraints and budget limitations and has been caught off guard by declining budget revenues, ruble crisis, double digit inflation, and recession.
Seventh, Putin’s adventures have put at risk his social compact with the Russian people: “You tolerate my kleptocratic government and repression and I’ll give you rising standards of living and stability.” Putin’s regime is founded on this social compact, which his Ukrainian adventures have jeopardized. Not so smart, if you ask me.
Having Putin in the box of an expensive military venture in a region that does not welcome him and which he cannot afford to support as his own economy collapses gives the Western world enormous leverage to turn Putin, the small muscular rat, into an emaciated version of his former self.
Europe and the United States, have yet to deploy the array of levers that can emasculate Putin’s Russia, but one weapon alone — international sanctions — has taken a deep bite. They must be preserved, and apparently, the European Union principle of unanimity will make them difficult to remove.
The sanctions, in effect, deprive highly indebted Russian banks and energy companies of access to Western credit markets. Because of Putin’s rule-of-lawlessness, debts are short term and a large portion must be refinanced each year. The only remaining sources of dollar liquidity are central bank reserves and rainy-day funds, which will be depleted rapidly as long as the sanctions persist. As the Russian government, banks, and companies frantically search for dollars, the ruble collapse will continue, inflation will accelerate, and living standards will fall further.
Will the Russian people blame the “evil West” that Putin lambastes, or will they blame him? That is a key question that remains to be answered.
The economic crisis is also depriving Putin of the financial wherewithal to wage war and acquire more territory in Novorossiya. The incorporation of Crimea has already put the Russian pension fund under severe stress. Russia cannot afford to support its client “people’s republics” in the Donbass, which face a humanitarian crisis. Putin has had to drop his favorite infrastructure projects, such as the SouthStream pipeline, and who knows where the money will come from for the pipelines to China.
What are the Western world’s most potent levers that have not been mobilized?
First, the West can supply lethal weapons to Ukraine to give it the capability to inflict real harm on Russia’s regular and irregular forces as the fighting heats up again as the various “ceasefires” fall apart. There have been some minor flows of weapons from Poland, the Baltic States, and Canada, but only the U.S. can supply the advanced radar, anti-tank weapons, and missile-evasion technology.
Reinforcing Ukraine’s defensive capabilities places Putin under severe pressure. Russian deaths on the Ukrainian field of battle already number in the thousands – a fact the Putin regime has tried to conceal. Societies of Mothers of Russian Soldiers are mobilizing against the war in Ukraine, and Putin can scarcely jail their leaders as he does dissidents. The Russian people are emphatically against sending their sons to fight in Ukraine. A muscular Ukraine would impose such losses on Russia that would threaten the existence of the Putin regime.
Congress has passed and President Barack Obama has signed the Ukraine Freedom Act, which gives the president discretion to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine. Obama will likely choose not to send weapons for fear of angering Russia.
This is wrong. A muscular Ukrainian military assures a narrowing of the conflict. More weapons mean less danger from Russia for Europe, NATO, and the United States. Obama must also understand that the U.S. and NATO will remain enemy number one in Putin’s propaganda war whether or not he authorizes weapons. Putin already asserts that the CIA is running the show in Ukraine. Anti-tank weapons and radar will not make any difference in Putin’s narrative.
Second, Europe and the United States must pitch in financially and with reform know-how to make Ukraine’s turn to the west a success. Ukraine’s people revolted because they were tired of corruption and the lack of a rule of law. Ukraine wanted to be a part of Europe not of Russia. Ukraine has since held legitimate presidential and parliamentary elections and has a young reformist government in place in which foreigners hold major cabinet positions. But remember that Ukraine is fighting long odds. Ukraine has lost some 20 percent of its territory in a hot war and must rebuild its military. Its intelligence agency is infiltrated by Russian spies. Without a Ukrainian Marshall Plan, that takes into consideration these special conditions, the Ukraine experiment is likely to fail, and Putin will have won without lifting a finger.
Putin’s propaganda machine continues to describe Ukraine as an “illegitimate neo-Nazi extremist regime” dancing to the tune of the CIA and NATO. Instead of recognizing the new Ukrainian government, Putin has grudgingly promised to “hold it in esteem.” That Ukraine’s government is so deeply flawed has been Putin’s standard explanation for Russian intervention. A successful, reform Ukraine would lay to waste this rationale.
Third, Europe must wean itself from the Russian natural gas teat. Its stress tests show that it can do so by liberalizing the free flow of gas among European countries. Most importantly, its anti-monopoly commission must declare the obvious this spring – that Gazprom is a monopoly that must be broken up. Without the natural gas weapon, the Putin rat shrinks to an insignificant irritant.
Fourth, the West must begin to counter Putin’s “alternative world propaganda” that has captured most of his Russian audience and exerts an inordinate influence on European public opinion. Putin employs a vast army of undercover journalists, sympathizers, and paid hacks to sell the Putin story throughout the Western world, which sits back and absorbs the blows. Apparently, Europe is considering a Russian language broadcast and the U.S. must upgrade Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. These efforts will not be counter-propaganda but simply truth telling news. They are vitally needed in the new era of hybrid warfare in which propaganda plays an outsized role.
An underlying weakness in devising Russian policy is that we do not understand what makes Putin and his inner circle tick. We live in the “civilized world” of norms and accepted behavior, which we assume others share. We cannot comprehend that an entire nation can be run as a criminal enterprise, by kleptocrats whose only concern is power and wealth and preserving both.
Understand that Putin and his kleptocrats do not really care about Mother Russia
Understand that Putin and his kleptocrats do not really care about Mother Russia. They use Russian nationalism and territorial expansion for their personal interests, not out of patriotism. U.S. businessmen have learned the bitter lesson—after their investments have been confiscated by oligarchs—that the ruling elite really cares only about power and wealth. They must do what Putin wants, not what is best for Russia.
We accept the convenient image that Putin presents to the outside world — a true Russian nationalist bereaved by the loss of an empire that was stolen by the West and remains encircled by NATO enemies planning a sneak attack. Any number of Western apologists argue he has no choice but to strike back as a matter of national preservation.
Those who do not understand Putin believe we must feed the rat in the box to give him the strength to break its bonds. Once he has done so, he’ll be tame and we can live in peace. That is not the case. Feeding the rat will only increase his appetite.
Russian kleptocrats, Putin chief among them, worry that they have constructed a society that has no rule of law, other than the whim of the ruling circle. They know political fortunes can change quickly. They understand their lack of legitimacy, and they live in fear of that one spark that can bring millions to the streets. Their nightmare, indeed, is a Euro-Maidan demonstration on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square. They tremble at the prospect of a rule-of-law prosperous Ukraine on their borders. How long would it be before their people learn from the Ukrainian experience and rise up to overthrow them?
Some worry that Putin is winning. Putin has a sky-high popularity rating. Support for the sanctions may slip. Ukraine has its own problems and cannot stand up to the Russian military. Until recently, I might have agreed, but I believe the tide has turned, especially after the onset of Russia’s economic crisis. We cannot predict the future because it depends, in my view, on whether the West uses its levers to tame Putin. If it does, the outcome is not in doubt. The biggest question of all is whether Europe and the United States are willing to deploy the vast array of instruments at their disposal to defang Putin and his regime.