As Vladimir Putin considers his next steps toward returning the Russian Empire to its highpoint of a half century ago, it is good that he understands his strengths and weaknesses and the interests of his primary antagonist - Angela Merkel's Germany.
- Having been invaded by Napoleon and Hitler, it is important for Russia to maintain a buffer between itself and the West. Before the Soviet Union fell apart under Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev it included both states directly taken over by Moscow - the Baltics (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia), Belorussia, Ukraine, and Georgia, as well as the further-west buffer of the Warsaw Pact (including Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary). Today only Belorussia remains in the Russian orbit, with most of central Europe having joined to 28-member European union. Most is irretrievably lost.
- Neither representative democracy nor pluralistic capitalism took root after the Soviet Union's collapse. Russia's economy suffers from an extreme dependence on oil and gas, concentration of wealth in the hands of relatively few billionaires who scooped up the state institutions under Gorbachov, and the residual enui of Soviet socialism. Russia's Gross Domestic Product is relatively small - $2 trillion dollars, compared to $16 trillion for the US, $8 trillion for China, or $3.4 trillion for Germany. What's more, growth is stagnant, population is shrinking slightly, and the rich are good at getting their capital out of the country. Aside from energy, Putin does not have many economic cards to play.
- But he does hold the energy card, and for Europe it is a high trump. Russia provides about 30% of Europe's natural gas with a majority of that piped through Ukraine. Politics of the Russia-Ukraine gas relationship have long been stormy, with discounts in good times, shut-offs in bad times, and Ukrainian diversion of gas bound for other countries. A direct line to Germany was opened in 2011 and a third link, bypassing Ukraine under the Black Sea, is under development. Were the timing of this crisis under Putin's control, it would have occured in the Fall rather than the Spring. More to the point for potential Western financial assistance, billions of financial aid poured into Ukraine would quickly wind up in the coffers of Gazprom one way or another.
Putin has taken the measure of Barack Obama and understands the latitude that he has - Edward Snowden; Syria; Crimea. Despite John McCain's predictable sabre-rattling there is little strategic American interest in Ukraine - certainly not in proportion to Russia's strategic interest. April 8 Department of Defense testimony to a Senate panel confirmed that we are going forward with FY2015 plans to significantly reduce the number of deployed ICBMs, nuclear missile submarines, and strategic bombers without even a token delay. We did send CIA Director Brennan to Kiev, perhaps as a statement that we couldn't match the Russians' 40,000 massed troops, but we could rally the opposition in the event of a Russian invasion.
In his years in power Putin has been easy to understand, if we have tried. When Foreign Minister Lavrov calls for a loosely federated, non-aligned Ukraine - similar to Finland - he should be taken seriously. Crimea is different, a home for the Black Sea Fleet which is central to Russia's long quest for a warm water port. The rest of Ukraine? It is probably enough that they not be part of NATO or the European Union - and that they pay their gas bill.
The broader picture will become the focus in the coming weeks. If Ukraine, why not the Baltic states, Slovakia, or Poland? There is a two part answer - neither of which is spelled O-B-A-M-A. First, they are members of NATO and the alliance is starting to demonstrate that it would honor its commitment to defend any member that is attacked. Second - and related - is that Angela Merkel, born in communist East Germany, understands post-Soviet Europe as well as Putin, cares a whole lot more than Obama does, and is not to be trifled with.
bill bowen - 4/18/14