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08 March 2014

Russia Blows Past Obama’s “Off Ramp”

Political Cartoons by Glenn Foden

Yet another western plan for Ukraine ended in failure today. Will this hurt Obama’s standing in the Middle East?*

By Walter Russell Mead

Yet another western plan for Ukraine went down in flames today as the Russians blew past the ‘off-ramp’ Washington and its allies had prepared as a way to defuse the crisis. It’s the third western plan to flame out since November. 

First came plan A: Get Yanukovych, a leader based in the east, to sign an EU trade agreement that would set a united Ukraine on a westward path. Putin disrupted that plan by getting Yanukovych to switch and go east.

Then came Plan B: When unrest swept Kiev and Yanukovych’s government reacted with blind and brutal thuggishness, western diplomats decided to help the protestors replace the Yanukovych regime with a new government that could unite the country and bring it toward the West. That plan failed when Russia took advantage of the chaos in Ukraine to occupy Crimea and demonstrate its ability to threaten the east.
Plan C, which Putin shot down in the last 24 hours, was apparently based on the hope among some policy makers that a confused and misguided President Putin had made a dreadful blunder in Crimea. The plan was to offer the poor, trapped Russians a graceful way out of their predicament that would ultimately restore Ukrainian unity as the country moved West. The plan collapsed when Lavrov blew off the West and refused to even meet with Ukraine’s foreign minister and now the Russians are kicking the fragments to bits as the Crimean regional authorities announce plans for a referendum on annexation by Russia.

Far from thinking that its incursion was a foolish blunder, Russia appears to be acting in the belief that it has inflicted a humiliation on the West and made solid gains on the ground in Ukraine. It is doubling down on the policy, and as far as one can read the mixed signals from the Kremlin, appears to be saying that the West must swallow the annexation of Crimea or watch as Russia further destabilizes eastern Ukraine.

Putin cares much less than many westerners seem to think about any sanctions that the West is likely to impose. Russia isn’t part of the West and things work differently there. Western commentators pointed breathlessly to large declines in Russian stock markets after the invasion, for example, to show how Putin must be feeling the errors of his ways.

Not really; Putin does not worry nearly as much about the Russian stock market as western leaders worry about financial markets in their own countries. Putin broke the oligarchs as a political force years ago; in Russia, corporations exist to serve the state and not the other way round. He is not worried that business leaders will lose confidence in him; in Putin’s Russia, it is business leaders who worry about losing the trust of the country’s political master.

As for banking crackdowns and visa limits, it will help Putin, not hurt him, if powerful Russians are unable to leave the country or move their money around in the West. One of his worries is that various oligarchs and power brokers can put enough money in the west to be able to get out from under his thumb. He would like all of his backers to be dependent on him for continued enjoyment of wealth and property. If the West wants to fence his backers in, so be it. (If the west goes after Putin’s own golden horde of ill-gotten simoleons, estimated by many to be north of $50 billion, the calculation might change.)

As for the value of the ruble, Putin probably thinks of this as a problem for the technocrats to solve. In any case, global political instability, in which there is a bull market these days, tends to drive up the price of Russia’s gas and oil exports, and this is the bottom line the Russian president probably watches most closely. Trouble in Europe and trouble in the Middle East brings more money into Russia’s coffers, not less.

Putin cares about the economy, and Russia’s economic weakness is one of the permanent disadvantages that hobbles Russia at every turn—but the effect of any of the likely western sanctions on Russia is probably less serious than many of his opponents would wish.

As for other trade sanctions, the disunity and economic selfishness of the western response has made the West look ridiculous. France will deliver warships, Germany will buy gas, and Britain’s banks are open for Russian business. Putin must be quaking in his boots at this awesome display of resolve.

Far from agreeing with the line that he’s fallen into a clever western trap, Putin probably thinks that he’s still got a shaky US administration pretty much where he wants it. Wrecking three western plans for Ukraine in a row has left him with what he probably sees as a stronger position than he had three months ago. He’s blocked his worst case outcome—a united Ukraine moving to the West with the eastern political leadership backing the move. The West is largely stuck with the financial support for Ukraine (meaning that US and EU taxpayers will be paying Ukraine’s back bills to Gazprom and other Russian entities), and now that he has Crimea in hand, the divisions between east and west can be exploited by Russia down the road.

Looking at the bigger picture, Putin probably also thinks the United States needs him more than he needs us at the moment. The Obama administration, he likely believes, is desperate to avoid further trouble in the Middle East. In Syria, in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and in the Iranian negotiations, it is out on a limb, engaged in very high stakes diplomacy where the odds don’t favor it. Russia can’t do a lot about the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but it can probably spoil the Iran negotiations and make Syria an even more horrible diplomatic and political problem for the Obama administration than it already is. Indeed, Samantha Power is now stating that Syria is dragging its feet in negotiations over the destruction of chemical weapons facilities. The U.S. should not expect any help from Russia as it searches for progress in Syria.

Putin can therefore inflict a great deal of pain on President Obama and American diplomacy if he chooses, and one suspects that he likes that. It’s possible that in happier times there were people in the Obama administration who believed that Putin would help them out diplomatically either because Russia and the US have common interests win Syria or over the Iranian issue or because he would prefer to help liberal, presumably more dovish Democrats consolidate power in Washington rather than making them look bad and easing the path for Republicans back into the White House.

Putin, however, doesn’t look at things that way. He appears to believe that under its dovish rhetoric the Obama administration was trying to detach Ukraine from Russia—a mortal threat to Russia’s vital interests as the Kremlin sees them. The Obama administration’s human rights rhetoric and its habit of making irritating though not genuinely wounding gestures (like sending gay delegates to the Sochi Olympics) angered the Russians without weakening them, and we can be sure that Putin believes in his gut that if some kind of Kiev style protest movement rose up in Moscow to drive him from office, that the United States would give it as much help as we dared.

From a Russian point of view, there already was a cold war between Moscow and Washington, and the West’s effort to snatch Ukraine last fall was a unilateral escalation of that conflict and an existential threat to the foundations of both the Putin government and the Russian national project. Putin believes he is fighting back and it looks as if his interest in punishing Obama over Ukraine is greater than his (limited and conditional) desire to keep working with Obama on issues like arms control.

From Putin’s point of view, there is much less difference between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans than narcissistic westerners might think. He sees the whole United States as his geopolitical arch-rival and sees differences between liberals and conservatives as arguments about the best sauce to cook Russia with. Reagan brought the Soviets down and George H. W. Bush reunified Germany and anchored it in NATO, but the Clinton administration rammed NATO expansion down a weak Yeltsin’s throat and Obama was ready to scoop Ukraine into the western swag bag if Russia hadn’t stopped him.

Just as Jimmy Carter did not understand that his human rights advocacy ruined his hopes for a new era of detente and arms negotiations with the Soviet Union, the Obama administration’s policy makers don’t seem seem to understand that their Ukraine policy (which they don’t ever seem to have thought much about one way or the other) contradicted their reset policy in a way that would alienate and enrage the Russians. 

Now, from the Kremlin’s point of view, it may be the Obama administration that has fallen into a trap. Domestic political pressures are meshing with the President’s own sense of legality and morality in international affairs to push the United States towards trying to make it look as if our sanctions and other responses are imposing. In fact, they will and must be fairly ineffective, and Russia can use its influence over events in Syria and Iran to cause more pain to Obama and more damage to America’s international standing.

Russian diplomats expect to be getting urgent calls for help from desperate American diplomats trying to get Iran to an acceptable agreement and perhaps also to keep the Syrians within some kind of bounds. They are probably also expecting some interesting calls from Saudis, and from Egyptian generals with Saudi money in their bank accounts, looking to punish the Obama administration by creating the appearance of a new Russian role in Egyptian military affairs. It’s quite possible that the value of some Saudi backed arms deals with Egyptians and maybe Pakistanis could more than offset the cost of western sanctions to the Russian economy. In any case, Russia thinks it has some running room in foreign policy now, and we should expect it to take advantage where it can.

There may still be some people in Washington who think Putin has blundered into a weak position, but from Tokyo and Beijing to Teheran and Damascus, Putin is probably looking like a stronger horse today, and Uncle Sam like a weaker one.

We shall see, but the most important question now probably isn’t what happens next in Ukraine. The question is how does the breakdown of the Obama administration’s Russia policy affect America’s position in the Middle East. Will Iran now assume that it can have more backing from Russia and will that harden its stance in the nuclear talks? Will Assad now conclude that he has less to fear from the Americans than ever before? Will that be reflected in a continual hardening of his stance on chemical weapons?

If those things happen, how will the Obama administration reshape its stance in the Middle East? If Iran and Syria negotiations deteriorate, and Russia is being the reverse of helpful, what is America’s next move?

Meanwhile, let’s see what the West comes up with for Plan D in Ukraine.

* Must be a rhetorical question. :-)

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