Thursday, December 18, 2014

Do We Understand What Russia Is and Is Not?

Stratfor has an interesting discussion of Russia's view of the Ukraine crisis.

Friedman points out that Russia is flat and considers it a necessity to push their western border as far from Moscow and the Russian heartland as possible. Not that this excuses Russia's actions, but that it is a basic reason why they are pushing west now that they can.

Which should also tell you that they will push more when their military is in better shape relative to their targets.

He also notes that he thinks Russia can endure Western sanctions without public opinion turning on Putin to compel him to reverse his Ukraine policies.

I think he is right, but it does not speak to whether the sanctions could compel other members of the ruling class to turn on Putin to change policies in order to protect their own interests.

Indeed, I am also worried that sanctions effective enough to compel change--regardless of who in Russia is affected--could be indistinguishable from an act of war to Putin and his people around him.

Further, these issues show that they simply think differently than we do. We have to be careful about assuming we know how the Russians will react to what we do--or don't do.

I do find it amusing (in worried sort of way) that the Russians use Quebec's status in Canada as an excuse for the Donbas having more autonomy.

Forgive me if I missed it, but did France invade Canada to achieve that Quebec autonomy?

Perhaps the Russians are still mad at Canada for this helpful map aid to the Ukraine Crisis:

Even more important for those who do wish to excuse Russia's actions against Ukraine as just something Russia naturally must do to protect themselves is Friedman's description of our own interests in Europe:

The United States has spent the past century pursuing a single objective: avoiding the rise of any single hegemon that might be able to exploit Western European technology and capital and Russian resources and manpower. The United States intervened in World War I in 1917 to block German hegemony, and again in World War II. In the Cold War the goal was to prevent Russian hegemony. U.S. strategic policy has been consistent for a century.

I've mentioned this many times--usually as I express bewilderment that we still officially support the creation of a powerful European Union central government--but rarely do I see this mentioned by others.

Sanctions and the collapse of energy prices are surely seen from Moscow as evidence of our plots against them.

And Russia is hurting, have no doubt. But is this really how Putin's choice is framed in Russia:

The Putin government has come to a fork in the road—and both of its choices look unpleasant. It can accept that the oil price collapse is forcing it to change paths in foreign policy and give up (at least for now) on its dreams of geopolitical revenge for the defeat in the Cold War—or it can double down on the fight against the West and the world system.

The first course is obviously the smartest from the standpoint of Russian national interest, but the second may make more sense in terms of the personal fortunes of one Vladimir Putin—and unless something changes in Russia, Putin is firmly in charge.

I don't think that most Russians even remotely think changing paths is obviously in their national interest.

We surely risk war by resisting Russia. But the problem is Russian aggression and not our reaction to it.

We also risk a bigger war later by a more powerful Russia if we ignore or downplay Putin's aggression and hope that he simply stops having territorial ambitions at our expense.

Isn't it smarter to make sure that Putin knows that we have--and will enforce--red lines in Europe that it is not safe for him to cross?

But will Putin believe we have--and will enforce--such red lines when the declarations are made by this administration?

Have a super sparkly day.

UPDATE: A political opponent thinks that Putin could be forced to step down, since he will not be able to win a free election should he fail to cope with economic problems:

A prominent opponent has warned Vladimir Putin his days in power are numbered, as Russia awaits the president's response to the dramatic decline of the rouble.

Well, free elections are a big "if" to bank on, eh? I imagine Putin will only be forced out if his allies decide they'd be better off without Putin in the front office.