March 5, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Putin’s Russia, The West, Self Interest, and Alliances

• Discussion has centered on isolation of Russia if it does not reverse its course in Ukraine
• There are a number of geopolitical and economic realities, however, that make isolating Russia unlikely and unfeasible
• Russia’s deep level of involvement in a host of global issues has rendered the country’s active participation in the international community essential and unshakeable.

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It is worth parsing what Secretary of State Kerry was quoted on March 4 as saying about the crisis in Ukraine: “But if Russia does not choose to de-escalate … then our partners will have absolutely no choice but to join us to expand on steps to isolate Russia politically and economically.”

The Secretary is right about it being a matter of choice for Russia. There is no acceptable way the international community—or any one part of it—could compel President Putin to take action to deescalate the crisis. Russia will make that choice alone, based on how it sees itself and how it assesses the strengths and weaknesses of its critics.

Coming off the back of a successful and incident-free Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, which stoked Russian nationalism and boosted the country's self-confidence, President Putin may be in a particularly bullish mood. His disdain for the reforms that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and his determination to restore Russia’s influence have been key features of his political career since the early 1990s. He is not the sort of leader to stand by while Russia suffers any further loss of hegemony over its neighbors, however inconsequential, and he will take whatever opportunities arise to increase and restore it, as the 2008 war with Georgia and de facto appropriation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have already shown.

The West may have regarded a closer alliance between Ukraine and the European Union as more of an economic issue than a political one, but for President Putin's Russia, a reorientation of this nature would have been deeply humiliating, even were it to have no immediate strategic consequences. The history of Russia and Ukraine, and in particular of Russia and the Crimea, is both long and rich—with Russia always the dominant partner. It is hardly surprising therefore that Russia was not prepared to stand on the sidelines and wait to see what the longer term consequences of the overthrow of President Yanukovych might be. So far as de-escalation is concerned, Russia will not choose to retreat.

Nor will it feel any pressure to do so. Russia's calculation is that the Ukrainians themselves are currently too weak and too disjointed to put up any effective resistance to the “occupation,” at least in those parts of Eastern Ukraine where ethnic Russians make up the majority. In the longer term, this may not be the case. Not all Russians in Ukraine want to be ruled from Moscow, and there are significant numbers of people in Eastern Ukraine who are not ethnic Russians, even in the Crimea. But for now, there is no concerted opposition to Russia's de facto annexation either inside or outside the country, and the choice to stay is an easy one to make.

As to whether Western allies will support punitive measures towards Russia, US influence is not what it was during the heady days of Obama's first election victory—particularly in Germany where the Snowden revelations of spying hit a raw nerve. America’s allies will certainly join the verbal condemnation of Russia, as France and the UK have already done in the UN Security Council. But words are more readily available than good policy options. It is unlikely that the major European powers will jeopardize their economic and trading links with Russia, particularly at a time when recovery in Europe is still slow and energy supplies through Ukraine are an important factor in keeping the wheels of industry turning and the central heating on.

The early decision by the G7 to pull out of the G8 meeting planned for June in Sochi is a minimal gesture that will not mean all that much in the near term to Russia economically, and even less in the long term, politically. The G8 is already somewhat overshadowed by the G20 and the association of the BRICS countries, of which Russia will remain a part. So it seems that not only do concerned nations have a choice after all, but may exercise it in prevarication and disagreement over what to do.

And this brings us to the last bit of the quotation from Secretary Kerry about expanding on steps to isolate Russia politically and economically. It is increasingly difficult for Western powers to exclude Russia from the key international issues of today such as Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, climate change, and terrorism. The world is too inexorably inter-dependent to be able to ignore such a large chunk of it. In fact, over the last three years, Russia has made something of an international comeback, helped by the crisis in Syria and the need to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran.

On the economic front, the West has few levers to pull. Allies may be able to exclude some Russian financial institutions and firms from the international banking system by imposing unilateral sanctions, but the trend in the use of sanctions has for some years been away from the blunderbuss and towards the sniper's rifle, and it may be hard for them to argue that wide-ranging sanctions would be appropriate in this case.

Finally, Russia has a big advantage when it comes to playing a role on the international stage. It can practice its realpolitik without any concern for the political consequences at home. Putin is popular domestically, and even if he were not, there is no local constituency strong enough to challenge his policies. For the West, every stern rebuke aimed at Moscow that is not backed by action, or offer of support to the new Ukrainian government that falls short of what is needed—as inevitably it must—is as much an expression of weakness as of strength, and it is not just Russia that will point this out.

It was perhaps inevitable that Secretary Kerry should go to Kiev to make a very public statement of support for an independent Ukraine—but a trip to Moscow should be in order. Sober discussion would speak to Russia's vulnerabilities and tease out its bottom lines. For now, it appears to have none.


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