Monday, March 17, 2014

Putin's Folly

Men rise from one ambition to another: first, they seek to secure themselves against attack, and then they attack others.

Niccolo Machiavelli

Republican hawks, including the inimitable John McCain, are dyspeptically belching bellicosity over the expected Russian annexation of the Crimea and possibly Eastern Ukraine.
"Obama is weak," they all sing, cacophonously. "Obama has sapped the strength of the United States.  The North Koreans and the Iranians sense it.  And we will pay the price for his gutting our military."
"We are in danger of losing all our geo-strategic power."  They make no mention of our invasions Iraq and Afghanistan having increased American influence.

The fact is that the US has lost much of its global empire, just as did the British.  But now we are gaining a new empire--energy independence.   Globalization does not function through territorial conquest or dominance and those who think so are residing in the last century, including the prominent senior senator from Arizona who, despite his heroism and captivity has never seen a war he does not like.

Global strength lies in homegrown economic success, but that is not to imply that the world should not speak out and sanction Russian thuggery, a naked power-grab by a latter-day Cossack.

The world, however, has changed since 1939, rendering the Munich--Chamberlain--Hitler appeasement analogies no longer the paradigm of international puissance.    Angela Merkel, speaking to the Bundestag, voiced Germany's concern about Russian aggression, not speaking only for Deutschland, but speaking for 27 members of the European Union.   Students of the alliances that led to the First World War (one hundred years ago) understand that alliances that led to that war and to World War II are no longer de rigueur.  The United States, a reluctant entrant to that war as well as a semi-reluctant entrant to World War II twenty years later, should understand that nation-states no longer have the influence over their populace they once had.  "Putin is engaging in 20th century politics," Merkel said angrily.  She ought to know, her forebears were champion malefactors of the art.

The lessons of Iraq, Viet Nam, Afghanistan, and other failed wars costing thousands of American lives, garnished by trillions of lost dollars, have soured Americans on the unexpected consequences of poorly chosen battles.    The empowerment of "everyman" through information technology enables people to clearly and more quickly see the misfeasance of their leaders.   Putin, despite his attempts at suppressing internal dissent, is seen by most of the world community as the thug that he is, his preening Olympic strut in Sochi having vanished with the melting snows.  Even if he annexes the Crimea and the dubious referendum provides a pretext to do so, he is going to pay the price with the world community, despite Republicans in congress heaping blame on the President for American "weakness."

There will be sanctions, served up by the world community for Vladimir Putin.  But let's take a deeper look at his worldview. Historically part of Russia, and always an obsession since the Czars, the Russians enjoy contractual rights to the Crimea's warm water ports because the rest of the Russian northern ports are locked in ice for most of the year.  Without warm water ports, Russian influence and global shipping diminishes exponentially, obliging them to rely on land transport, and even worse, needing access through other countries for a route to the seas.  But these ports were not in jeopardy.  And now, the war waged by the European Union and the United States will be economic and not military.

What some are forgetting that it is the Ukrainians themselves who are to blame for much of the current crisis.   Their Slavic Polish brethren have managed to straighten out their economy as a prerequisite to having been admitted to the European Union, frightening Putin.  Happy consolidating his power because of the Ukrainian government's incompetence, he can divert attention from the growing perception by his own people about manifold problems within Russia itself.   Obsessing about NATO and the EU moving toward the Russian borders, Putin promulgates a Western conspiracy to undermine Russian hegemony.  He is partially right; the West does seek incorporation of most of Europe into the EU, both as a war preventative and, just as importantly, as a key to growing the European Union economic sphere.   This is not necessarily contrary to Russian interests, unless the leadership fears more transparency and integrity in government, the latter not a lesson taught in the KGB.

What Putin does not realize is that the same nationalist forces that caused the break up of the Soviet Union are still extant in Ukraine and even in the Crimea.  Having not disappeared, those forces are simply exacerbated by a failing economy, the key to Western influence that Putin ignores in his imperial quest. The disparate forces in Ukraine, ethnic Russian speakers and ethnic Ukrainians are still going to clash, unless the basket case Ukrainian economy shows dramatic improvement, a process that will take years.  The Russian economy, meanwhile, now dependent more than ever on energy and gas prices, will be obliged to sustain more impoverished geography without the wherewithal to do so, especially if energy prices tumble and sanctions bite.  (This principle also applies to places like Venezuela, shoring up the sputtering Cuban economy with subsidies from oil revenues, whilst restless Venezuelans riot in the streets.) 

Putin may find himself in an economic dungeon, sanctions operating against him; more discontented Russians, and no way out.

Russian natural gas is propping up an essentially gangster regime--a regime that suppresses dissent, stifles free expression and needs an external diversion to coalesce the Russian public over foreign "enemies."  A classically cynical maneuver, it was the policy of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Lenin, Castro, Chavez, Arafat and even Assad and Saddam Hussein.  Often this policy is successful in the short term but ultimately masks a deep, corrosive interior.  It is said that Putin has become one of the world's wealthiest men with a fortune in excess of $100 billion.  His efforts to rescue his comrade, Viktor Yanukovych, demonstrably a satiric clone of Putin himself, as depicted by the deposed Ukrainian President’s opulent palace, festooned with stuffed animals and ornate Sevres vases reminiscent of Versailles devolved into Las Vegas.   No one ever said that dictators are tasteful.

One can hardly imagine Mr. Putin living in less Nero-like splendor.