Tuesday, October 25, 2016

So How Does Putin Feel?

I don't think sanctions are the critical element of Russia's financial problems, given that Venezuela has managed to screw up their country with socialism and low oil prices but without sanctions. But if Russia believes American-led sanctions are the real problem, Putin could do something really stupid.

Russia views sanctions as being key in their financial difficulties. And Putin is acting defiant about sanctions, when his future may depend on how Russia weathers this crisis:

Sanctions won’t make the Russian President behave in a more democratic way. He has crossed so many red lines by now that he cannot go back—at this point, Russia either becomes more authoritarian and dangerous, or Putin steps down. But what sanctions might do is lead to a change of direction for the whole of Russia down the road…

But Venezuela, which is not under sanctions, demonstrates how a screwed up socialist economy coupled with low oil prices that no longer mask the shortcomings of a screwed up economy can in fact screw up your finances.

I don't really believe our sanctions are decisive compared to the effects of Russia's corrupt crony capitalism that lower oil prices are shaking. Sure, sanctions add to the pain that would be there anyway. But they aren't decisive.

But Putin might believe our sanctions are decisive.

And if he does, he could see sanctions that he views as decisive as warfare by other means, which means he could respond with methods of warfare of his choosing.

Which means we could see Putin go down a different road to hold on to power by initiating a war despite his weak hand in the belief that America is unable to respond effectively. Perhaps Putin thinks our president is too weak. Perhaps Putin believes that an election campaign that is part of a transfer of power creates an opportunity that nullifies our ability to respond before he achieves his objectives.

Does peace really rely on Putin's grasp of reality and restraint?

UPDATE: Putin has a weak hand to play:

Russia is an enormously weak country that Putin is working desperately to make appear far more powerful than it is. He is doing extremely well at creating that illusion. There is a saying that perception is reality. That saying is rubbish. If it were true, reality would never have caught up with the perceptions surrounding the subprime crisis. Germany would have won the Battle of Britain, and – for that matter – the Soviet Union would still exist. Perception can buy time and time can, sometimes, change reality. But sometimes all that perception puts off is the inevitable, and in my view that is the case with Russia.

And chest beating does bolster Putin at home. Do read it all.

If you've read this blog you surely know that I agree with that point. America alone is far more powerful than Russia, and adding even our relatively weak NATO allies adds to the imbalance.

But Russia does have superiority over weaker neighbors. And nukes to deter counter-attacks after Russia exploits the time they have to beat on a weaker neighbor before America can deploy significant combat power to roll back the Russian gains.

And all that talk of Russia standing up to the West could push Putin to war with a superior West if his supporters believe that the West is a threat and believe that Putin has rebuilt Russia enough to defeat that threat.

After painting such a threat and picture of a revived Russia, how could Putin refuse to defeat that threat without losing the backing of the people?

Like Japan in 1941 (or Iraq in 1980, for that matter or Argentina in 1982), Russia could start a war believing they have no choice, while telling themselves that early gains can be locked in before their enemy can work up the nerve and resources to fight back.

And while the reality of our power superiority would in the end lead us to victory over the perception that Russia is shaping, we'd have to fight a war to make reality defeat perception. That is hardly ideal.

UPDATE: The dangers of playing with fear.