Commentary Magazine


Putin and Pyrrhic Victories

Of the attempts to take a more optimistic view of Vladimir Putin’s shoplifting spree on Ukrainian territory, two stand out. One is the idea that Putin is, as President Obama said, acting “out of weakness,” not strength. The other is that Russia’s annexation of Crimea will be something of a Pyrrhic victory by slow bleed–that Putin has taken on an economic albatross.

To the first, the general response is: Who cares? Either international laws and norms must be followed, or they don’t. Psychoanalysis is far more useful to those seeking to predict future behavior, because putting Putin on the couch will not give Ukraine back its territory. The second one has a corollary, voiced today by Owen Matthews in the Spectator–that just as gaining Crimea will weigh down Russia’s budget, losing Crimea will unburden Ukrainian domestic politics. Here’s the crux of his argument:

With Crimea gone, Ukrainian politics will no longer be a tug of war between the Ukrainian west and the Russian east: the balance of power tips irrevocably west.

Thanks to Putin’s rash decision to occupy Crimea, not just the EU but its most powerful members — notably Germany, the UK, France and Poland — realise that supporting Ukraine is no longer about handouts but principle. Countries that strive towards European values — and suffer for it — should be rewarded and protected. Angela Merkel, the European leader who knows Putin best and is usually the most conciliatory towards Russia, told the Bundestag last week that he was ‘on a different planet’. Brussels has hurried to offer an amended Association Agreement; the US has backed a generous bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

That’s what Ukraine and the West stand to gain. Here’s what Russia stands to lose:

Doubtless Putin will pour money into his acquisition, as he has done into Chechnya, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But making Crimea a viable part of the Russian Federation will be cripplingly expensive. ‘Today, our Crimea looks no better than Palestine’ — not the words of a EuroMaidan enthusiast in Kiev but of Russia’s regional development minister, Igor Slyunayev, speaking to the Russian business daily Kommersant just before Putin’s Anschluss. …

But Putin’s biggest problem is not that annexing Crimea will be expensive for the treasury — it is that it will be expensive for Russia’s elite. On the face of it, US and EU sanctions amount to a mere pinprick. But the cost to Russia’s business class will be deep, and come in subtler ways — higher borrowing costs, evaporated international enthusiasm for their share offerings, a sliding stock market, a weak ruble, bad credit ratings. With energy prices sliding too, and Europe pushing hard to find alternatives to Gazprom, Putin is strangling the goose that laid golden eggs in pursuit of an incoherent imperial vision. Russia’s moneyed class will not forgive him.

Perhaps, but one is tempted to once again respond, at least to that last point: Who cares? Is Putin in need of the forgiveness of “Russia’s moneyed class?” When Putin instituted his so-called national champions policy of raiding the private sector and bringing important economic industries under Moscow’s thumb, he did a great many things that were both antidemocratic and bad for business. When Boris Berezovsky fled and Mikhail Khodorkovsky was thrown in prison, Russia’s “moneyed class” did not demand an apology from Putin.

His past displays of raw power have had economic downsides–and quite predictable ones at that. They have not been followed by Putin begging for forgiveness; in fact, they often boost his approval with the Russian public. Long term, of course, this might not be the case. There is a very strong argument that what Putin is doing is ultimately unsustainable, that eventually the bottom will fall out. The crucial question for the West will be to figure out what this means until then.

So if Matthews is right that Putin is accelerating a downward spiral, and Obama is right that Putin orders the invasions of other sovereign states out of weakness, doesn’t that suggest that the West ought to be prepared for more Russian adventurism? That, as the Wall Street Journal reports, appears to be the case: “Russian troops massing near Ukraine are actively concealing their positions and establishing supply lines that could be used in a prolonged deployment, ratcheting up concerns that Moscow is preparing for another major incursion and not conducting exercises as it claims, U.S. officials said.”

The incursion could be done “without warning” because the pieces are in place. It’s easy, from a certain distance, to say that Putin is foolishly bringing about the decline of his own power structure. And it may even be true. But the complacency with which Putin’s repeated invasions are being treated in the West suggests a lack of both resolve and urgency where more of both are needed.

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