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Posts Tagged ‘Putin’

President-elect Donald Trump has indicated on several occasions that he sees Russia as an ally in Syria against Islamic extremists there.  Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, has indicated a desire to cooperate with Trump on Syria.  But will Trump and Putin actually be able to come to an agreement on what to do about Syria?

The answer to this question may not become clear until quite some time after the Trump Administration comes into office.  To test whether such a deal might be possible, though, I conducted a role playing game in my undergraduate course on Russia that I am teaching this semester in the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government.

Role playing games, of course, do not necessarily predict what will actually happen.  They can be useful, though, for suggesting an outcome for the scenario being examined that was not anticipated in advance, but does seem possible (though not inevitable)  in retrospect.  And this is what happened in the role playing game that my students played in class.

The time of the scenario was set for just after Trump’s inauguration.  The class was divided into several teams:  USA, Russia, the major NATO allies (UK, France, and Germany), the Assad regime in Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.  (We clearly could have had many more teams, but the line had to be drawn somewhere to make the game manageable).  The game started simply with the American and Russian teams contemplating whether they could come to an agreement on Syria, and how the various other teams reacted to this possibility.

What quickly became apparent was that most of the other teams were apprehensive about how any deal reached by the American and Russian teams might negatively affect their interests.   These other teams also started to plan (often in cooperation with each other) how to prevent or thwart any such deal, even though—and perhaps because—they did not know what it might consist of.

While it was not clear at first whether the American and Russian teams could reach a deal on Syria, by the end of the game they did.  The main element of the Russian-American deal they came up with was essentially a trade:  in exchange for the American team acquiescing to the Assad regime remaining in power “temporarily” (i.e., indefinitely), the Russian team agreed to limit and reduce Iran’s role in Syria.  The agreement also involved intelligence sharing between the US and Russia, America taking over from Russia the targeting of the jihadist opposition (in order to alleviate the NATO team’s concerns about human rights), and Russia and America both agreeing to reduce support for the Syrian Kurds (in order to mollify the Turkish team).  The Saudi and Israeli teams were satisfied since they were more concerned about Iran’s continued presence in Syria than about whether Assad remained in power.  The Assad regime was also happy, since it now had not only Russian, but also American support, as well as general regional acceptance, for its remaining in power.

In contrast with all the others, though, the Iranian team was not at all happy with this agreement.  In the class discussion about how realistic the game had been after it was over, members of the Iranian team argued strongly that Iran would not leave Syria just because America and Russia agreed that they wanted it to, and that Iran would strongly any effort to force it out.

What the outcome of the game revealed to me was that the Trump Administration, Israel, and Saudi Arabia might well regard Russia as a partner both in Syria and the Middle East if Moscow could not only work with them in defeating the Sunni jihadist opposition in Syria, but also limit and reduce Iranian influence.  Similarly, Turkey would regard Moscow as a partner if it acted to limit Kurdish influence in Syria as well.  Iranian press commentators have often complained that Moscow is always willing to sell out Tehran’s interests in exchange for a mutually satisfactory deal with Washington, and so the outcome of this game would not have surprised them.

Putin might well prefer that the Assad regime become mainly dependent on Moscow and not be in a position to get help from Tehran in resisting policy advice it doesn’t like from Russia.  But would Putin be willing and able to limit or even reduce Iranian influence in Syria?  This is not clear since he values good relations with Tehran, but Putin might be willing to do this if he calculated that Iran could not afford to retaliate against Moscow when the Trump Administration is far more likely to be hostile toward the Islamic Republic than the Obama Administration ever was.  But even if Putin did think this way, the reality is that Iran has a much larger military presence in Syria than Russia does, and so Moscow is in no position to force it to leave.  Nor is the Assad regime likely to ask Iran to leave since this would mean sacrificing the possibility of playing two patrons off against each other, resulting in Damascus becoming far more dependent just on Moscow.

What the outcome of my class’s role playing game suggests to me is that even if Putin and Trump are genuinely interested in reaching an agreement on Syria, Iran will probably be in a position to block it.  Like it or not, the U.S. and Russia are going to have to negotiate with Iran if the Syrian civil war is ever going to be resolved.  But just as with the American team in my classroom, this is not something that the incoming Trump Administration appears willing even to acknowledge, much less undertake.

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The extraordinary Russian scholar, Georgy Mirsky, passed away on January 26, 2016. He was an exceptionally warm human being, and also a relentlessly honest observer of Moscow’s foreign policy and international affairs broadly.  I first became acquainted with his work while working on my dissertation at the beginning of the 1980’s.  I remember thinking then that unlike so much Soviet writing that portrayed the world in very simple, ideological terms, Mirsky understood and sought to explain the world in all its complexity. 

I first met him, thanks to my colleague Karen Dawisha, in Moscow in 1986. I met with him on numerous occasions afterward, including in Washington, Moscow, Tehran, and elsewhere.  He once came to George Mason University to speak to one of my classes. 

I last met him at his apartment in Moscow on May 28, 2014. He was not well, but he had several things about the “present situation” that he wanted to convey, and he insisted that I take notes.  I am posting these notes here as a remembrance to him and the way in which he thought.

There are four reasons why Putin is acting as he has done in Ukraine: 1) age-old Russian complexes; 2) Soviet mentality; 3) KGB conspiracy; and 4) Putin’s fear of being humiliated.

Russian complexes regarding the West consist of: 1) the view that life is better in the West than in Russia; and 2) the belief that despite this, Russians are more warm-hearted, open, hospitable, and spiritual than Westerners.  Thus, while Russians have an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the West, they console themselves with the idea that Russian people are better than Western people.  Russians want to visit the West, but Russians have long believed that the West is hostile to Russia.

In the 19th century, there was in Russia wide distrust of Queen Victoria.  In Soviet times, the West was seen as besieging Russia.  There is, then, an age-old distrust of the West in Russia.  Russians believe that the West will harm Russia if it can.

The USSR collapsed, but Soviet mentality has remained. Inside the Soviet mentality is an inbuilt mechanism for anti-Western, anti-American feelings.  This only disappeared for four years during World War II.  On Victory Day in May 1945 (which Mirsky described from personal experience), American were genuinely popular in Red Square.

Putin does not see the possibility of war with the West. He is not afraid of war occurring.  But Putin and his supporters believe that America and the West want to hurt Russian interests wherever they can.  They feel strangled by NATO expansion.  Russians see NATO expansion as NATO coming closer to Russia, making the situation for Russia more dangerous.

But what, Mirsky asked, is the actual danger to Russia? Who cares if Poland and the Baltic states belong to NATO?  The answer is not clear, but Putin sees their belonging to NATO as bad.

The NATO bombing of Serbia in the 1990’s negatively affected Putin’s and Russian attitudes toward America. Mirsky was in Princeton when this occurred.  When he returned to Moscow, he saw what damage this war had done.  Serbs were seen as fellow Slavs.  Bombing them was seen as part of a plan for aggression against Russia.  “Yesterday Belgrade, today Baghdad, tomorrow Moscow,” was a common view after the U.S. intervened in Iraq.

Many saw the heat wave that occurred in Russia in 2010 as being due to deliberate American efforts at climate change (America had been blamed in the past as being somehow responsible for Soviet agricultural shortfalls). One third of Russian people that that it was possible that the U.S. introduced AIDS into Russia in order to harm it.  This was the sort of thinking that the KGB fostered among Russians, and succeeded in getting them used to.

Anti-Americanism in Russia is a popular, spontaneous sentiment resulting from the loss of superpower status and feeling of humiliation that Russia had been pushed out of world situations everywhere. Russia was feared in the past, but disrespected now.  This view is similar to anti-Americanism in Europe and Asia.  In fact, this form of anti-Americanism is universal, like anti-Semitism.  Even Israelis have this sort of anti-Americanism.   The only people who do not are Poles and Iraqi Kurds.

Putin exploits these feelings. After the Beslan attacks in 2004, Putin said that “certain forces” who were unhappy that Russia was still a nuclear power were responsible.  He also said that “some forces” want a part of Russian territory.  This, of course, must be the Americans.

Putin’s fear of being humiliated is based on his belief that American leaders have betrayed him. Putin supported Bush after 9/11, but Putin expected reciprocity from the U.S.  Putin thought Bush had double-crossed him when he strengthened U.S. forces in Europe and pulled out of the ABM Treaty.

Putin took all this badly. He saw the U.S. as deceiving him and Russia.  Putin was further upset by the 2004 “color revolution” in Ukraine.  (Mirsky noted that this was not a real revolution in the Marxist sense.)

The Arab Spring was seen by Putin as a color revolution, as an American scheme to instigate color revolutions to weaken Russia. Especially after Bolotnaya (anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow in May 2012 at the time Putin resumed the presidency), Putin and his supporters were upset and apprehensive.  When Medvedev was president (2008-2012), Putin saw his popularity decline.  He saw this as part of an American plot to bring color revolution to Russia.  This contributed to his bad feelings toward the West.

The capture of Crimea in early 2014 was not planned in advance. The pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Yanukovich, had disappointed Putin.  But Putin feared what would happen after he fled and a pro-Western government came to power in Kiev.  Even though it belonged to Ukraine, Crimea was the home of the Russian Navy.  Putin wanted to eliminate the possibility that the Russian Navy based in Crimea would be taken over.

Putin is a Russian nationalist. He described the breakup of the USSR in 1991 as a geopolitical disaster, but he also regarded the 1917 revolution and the subsequent federalization of the Russian Empire into separate union republics as a disaster too.  Putin saw turmoil in Kiev as giving Russia the chance to recapture Crimea for Russia.

After Ukrainians voted for independence in December 1991, Ukrainians were seen as untrustworthy. The recapture of Crimea, then, was seen as justified.  Putin denied that Russian troops were involved in this, but of course they were.

On February 21, 2014, an agreement had been signed between Yanukovich and the Ukrainian opposition on elections to be held in Ukraine. But the next day, the agreement collapsed and Yanukovich fled.  At this point, Putin saw acquiescing to the rise of a pro-Western government in Kiev as being a sign of weakness.  In his view, Yanukovich’s oppnents saw him as weak for signing the agreement, and so they pressed further.

Putin saw Russia as about to lose Ukraine, and believed that the West had double-crossed him yet again. The agreement had simply been a Western ruse.  He thought that after Crimea, the West would try to take the rest of Ukraine.  Putin hadn’t yet decided on annexation; Crimea could have been made into an independent state.  But once Yanukovich fled, Putin decided on annexation.

Eastern Ukraine: Putin was unhappy that the pro-Western Poroshenko won the Ukrainian presidency.  Putin then hoped Poroshenko would compromise regarding secessionist eastern Ukraine, with its large Russian population.  But Poroshenko decided to crush the pro-Russian rebels there instead.  Putin felt compelled to help “the people” in eastern Ukraine resist this.

But according to Mirsky, the Russian public isn’t really as concerned about eastern Ukraine as it is about Crimea. Crimea and eastern Ukraine were not regarded as the same by them.  But if Poroshenko succeeded in retaking eastern Ukraine, this would make Putin look bad.  And Putin did not want to look weak.

By this time, Russian relations with the West had deteriorated badly. The West was surprised and disappointed by Putin’s actions in Ukraine.  The West had expectations that Putin would play by Western rules, but these proved false.

In the short term, Putin has won. His ratings are high, and he hopes to be president for life.

Syria: Putin can’t be seen as backing down under Western pressure.  Thus, Putin is stuck with Assad.  If Putin stopped supporting Assad, he fears that he would be seen as a loser.

Putin is popular in Russia, but he has lost most of Ukraine for Russia. Putin is not afraid in the short-term, but what he has done will result in a long-term loss for Russia.

RIP, Georgy Mirsky.

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IEMed (the European Institute of the Mediterranean) has published an article of mine in the Winter 2015/2016 issue of its journal, Afkar/Ideas, which is issued both in Spanish and in French.  With the permission of IEMed, I am posting the original English version of the article here.  Written before the dramatic deterioration of Russo-Turkish relations at the end of November 2015, I noted that Moscow has important reasons to pursue good relations with Ankara, but that their interests differ sharply over Syria.

Russia has several different geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean Sea basin. Some of these interests, though, conflict with one another.  After reviewing what Russian geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean are and identifying in what ways they conflict with one another, this paper will discuss and assess Putin’s geopolitical strategy for advancing these conflicting goals.

A key Russian geopolitical interest in the Mediterranean is to maintain maritime access through the Turkish Straits in order for Russian naval and commercial vessels to easily transit between the Black Sea (which Russia borders) on the one hand and the Mediterranean and beyond on the other. The pursuit of this interest requires a stable Turkey that is able to ensure orderly passage through these straits as well as a Turkish government that is not hostile (and preferably, is friendly) toward Russia.

Another Russian goal is to promote Moscow’s economic interests in the region—especially in the petroleum sphere which the Russian economy is so heavily dependent on. Advancing this goal not only depends on market factors, but Russia’s image both as a reliable supplier and desirable partner for the region’s petroleum importing countries.  In pursuing this goal, of course, Russia must compete with other petroleum producing countries either in the region (such as Algeria), already exporting significant amounts to it (such as Saudi Arabia), or potentially doing so (such as Iran).  Yet even countries competing with Russia in the petroleum market (such as Algeria and Libya) can also provide investment opportunities for Russian firms.

In that Putin sees America, NATO, and even the EU as hostile toward Russia, he has seen undercutting each of these as an important Russian geopolitical interest. This can be pursued through supporting various actors (governments, political parties, public opinion) in the region that are also opposed to any or all of these to a greater or even lesser extent.

Yet another important Russian geopolitical interest is preventing the further rise of Sunni jihadist forces in the region that could threaten Russian interests as well as Russia itself. Putin has sought to work with any and all Mediterranean governments (as well as others active in the region) in pursuit of this goal, including Western democracies, secular Arab dictatorships (including Syria’s Assad regime), Shi’a forces (Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah), and even Israel.

As in Soviet times, Putin regards maintaining a permanent Russian military presence in the Mediterranean as an important geopolitical interest. Doing so can serve various purposes, including the specific goal of providing support for the Assad regime (Moscow’s beleaguered ally in Syria) to the more general one of projecting an image of Russia as a great power.  And, of course, other unanticipated purposes can be pursued more easily in the region through Russia already having some military presence in the Mediterranean. Pursuit of this interest requires at least one government in the region willing and able to provide Russia with military facilities.  Syria does this at present.

The problem with pursuing all these disparate geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean region, as was noted earlier, is that some of them conflict with others. Moscow’s strong support for the Assad regime in Syria, for example, conflicts with Moscow’s desire to build and maintain good relations with Turkey in particular when Ankara is calling for Assad to step down.  Further, it is difficult for Moscow to maintain good relations (including in the economic realm) with European states which are members of NATO and the EU when they see Moscow supporting far right and far left political parties in them seeking to undercut European governments, these two institutions, and perhaps even democracy itself.  Similarly, it is difficult for Moscow to build and sustain the trade relations it needs with the European countries in the region when Russian politico-military actions (whether through support for separatism in Ukraine or unauthorized military flights over many European countries) serve to reduce Russia’s attractiveness as an economic partner.  Further, it is difficult for Moscow to persuade both European and Middle Eastern governments in the Mediterranean that they should join Russia in backing the Assad regime in order to thwart the forces of radical Islam when many on both sides of the Mediterranean see the actions of the Assad regime (and its external backers) as only serving to strengthen these forces.

Russia, of course, is not the only country pursuing contradictory geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean (or elsewhere). Indeed, the Mediterranean is a challenging environment not just because of its dual European and Middle Eastern natures (as well as tremendous differentiation within each), but also because Moscow perceives that Russia faces threats from both the European and the Middle Eastern sides of the Mediterranean.

Has Putin adopted an effective geopolitical strategy to deal with these challenges as well as Russia’s conflicting interests in the region? In order to address this question, it is important to understand what different geopolitical strategies are available for states pursuing conflicting interests.

One possibility is to devise an overarching strategy which manages to overcome the inherent contradictions in the foreign policy aims being sought and successfully pursues all of them more or less simultaneously. Another possibility is to make a determination that contradictory interests cannot successfully be pursued simultaneously, and that it is therefore necessary to prioritize among them by devising a strategy that pragmatically de-emphasizes what has been determined to be the less important or less achievable interests in order to successfully pursue the ones deemed to be more important and more achievable.  A third possibility is to subordinate foreign policy interests to domestic political ones because even though pursuing contradictory geopolitical interests simultaneously may interfere with achieving some or even all of them, doing so may serve to advance what are a government’s (or just a leader’s) higher priority domestic political goals.  A fourth possibility is not to consciously adopt an overarching, prioritizing, or domestically-oriented geopolitical strategy, but to pursue differing interests on a piecemeal, tactical basis as opportunities to do so arise.

Which of these approaches has Putin adopted? To some extent, all four.  Just as Moscow pursues contradictory interests in the region, Putin has employed differing strategic approaches for doing so.  The key to understanding the overall Russian geopolitical strategy that results from these differing strategic approaches is to understand how Putin prioritizes them, and when he tends to rely more on one than another.

Putin’s domestic concerns appear to underlie his overall geopolitical strategy toward the Mediterranean region. He sees the rise of Islamist forces on the Middle Eastern side of the Mediterranean as threatening to spill over into the Muslim regions of Russia.  And he genuinely sees America, NATO, and the EU (concerns that are not limited to but definitely include the European side of the Mediterranean) as threatening to topple his rule via democracy promotion.

What to do about this dual threat from the Mediterranean is variously informed by the three other approaches. When he is more optimistic, Putin appears to pursue something of an overarching geopolitical strategy of working against the “threat” from the West on the one hand while simultaneously working with the West against Islamist forces on the other.  This strategy is based on the assumption that whatever the West’s differences with Russia, the West sees the Islamist threat as an even greater problem, and thus should be willing to work with Russia against it.  Further, it is especially the European countries of the Mediterranean plus Turkey (and even Israel) that Moscow believes understand this since the Islamist threat is a more immediate one for them.  They, then, should act to persuade America and certain northern European countries that this is a far more serious problem than Russia.  In other words, even though they may not like certain aspects of Russian foreign policy, “the logic of the situation” will propel not just America’s allies in the Mediterranean, but America itself to subordinate Western concerns about Russia to dealing with the common Islamist threat in that region.  It was this logic that, despite sharp differences between Russia on the one hand and much of the West on the other over Ukraine, underlay Putin’s call to, “join efforts to address the problems that all of us are facing and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism,” in his September 28, 2015 speech to the UN General Assembly.

By contrast, it is when Putin is more pessimistic and sees the West as placing a higher priority on undermining Russia than on responding to the Islamist threat—or perhaps simply when the opportunity arises—that he pursues a more piecemeal, tactical approach toward the Mediterranean—especially vis-à-vis the European side and Turkey. Putin did not create right-wing and left-wing political parties such as the National Front in France, Podemos in Spain, the Northern League and Forza Italia in Italy, or SYRIZA and Golden Dawn in Greece which are hostile to America, NATO, and the European Union.  Their political popularity as well as generally pro-Putin stance, though, present the opportunity for undercutting efforts by the U.S. and certain more anti-Russian European governments to increase sanctions against Russia, and even undermining both NATO and the EU, especially if—as in Greece—they become governing parties.

It is when Putin is in a more pragmatic mood, however, that he seems to pursue a geopolitical strategy toward the Mediterranean which prioritizes certain goals over other ones in the region. Further, in three recent instances in which he has made a choice between what Russian interests to pursue in the Mediterranean, Putin has adopted a pragmatic and not a confrontational geopolitical strategy.

For example, while Putin has frequently and loudly denounced the 2011 intervention in Libya against Qaddafi by certain Western and Arab states and vowed not to let something similar happen in Syria, Moscow has quietly established relatively good relations with the internationally recognized Libyan post-Qaddafi government based in Tobruk, with which it has revived various agreements that Moscow had previously reached with Qaddafi. Moscow is talking to the rival government based in Tripoli as well.  In this case, Putin’s interest in restoring Russia’s business ties with Libya are more important to him than any inclination to remain aloof from the forces that ousted Moscow’s longstanding ally there.

In Egypt, as is well known, Putin supported the 2013 overthrow of the elected Muslim Brotherhood leader, Morsi, by his top general, al-Sisi, and has taken advantage of the Obama administration’s disapproval of al-Sisi’s actions to improve Moscow’s ties with Cairo. But when Morsi was actually in power in 2012-13, Moscow had relatively good relations with him. Morsi met with Putin at the BRICS summits in South Africa in March 2013 and again in Sochi, Russia, in April 2013. During the latter, the two reportedly agreed that Russia would help Egypt with the construction of a nuclear reactor and the development of its uranium deposits.  Thus, when actually faced with the question of how to deal with a Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Putin chose a highly pragmatic course of action.

Furthermore, when Greek Prime Minister Tsipras appealed to Putin for Russian economic support as a way of avoiding the strict bailout terms that Germany and the EU were insisting on to resolve the Greek debt crisis, Putin refused and urged Tsipras to reach an agreement with the EU instead. Putin apparently did not see the potential geopolitical benefits that Moscow might garner from Greece moving toward Russia and away from the EU and the US as being worth the certain economic burden that Moscow would have to bear in supporting Greece.  In addition, the negative economic repercussions that Europe as a whole would have suffered from “Grexit” would have also hurt Russia which—despite Western sanctions—still prefers an economically stronger Europe which can afford to buy relatively more Russian petroleum to a weaker one that cannot.  Thus, when it came to actually making a choice between furthering Russia’s economic interests on the one hand and weakening EU institutions politically, Putin pragmatically prioritized the former over the latter.

What this suggests is that while Putin is strongly supporting the Assad regime in Syria now, if it should fall, he will pragmatically try to establish good relations with the regime (or regimes, if the country fragments) that replace him if they are willing to work with Russia. Moscow, then, might be able to keep (or regain if it loses) its military facilities in a post-Assad Syria.  And even if it cannot, Moscow might be able to establish new ones in Egypt, Cyprus, or Greece.  Obviously, though, Putin would prefer not to have to make such pragmatic choices.

It makes an enormous difference to the countries of the Mediterranean, as well as outside ones active in the region, whether Putin pursues an overarching (and usually aggressive) strategy that pursues most or all of Russia’s geopolitical interests simultaneously; a tactical, piecemeal one in response to what it considers aggressive moves by the West (or just from the opportunity to do so) that can actually undermine Russia’s larger interests; or a prioritizing strategy that often favors pragmatic interests over more confrontational ones. If indeed, as was argued here, that it is Putin’s domestic priorities that underlie his overall geopolitical strategy toward the Mediterranean, then his variable perceptions of the intensity of the threats Russia faces either from the Middle Eastern side of the Mediterranean, the European side, or both will affect the strategies he pursues in response, the allies (even if only temporary) he sees as available to work against those threats, and above all, whether he does or does not have to pragmatically prioritize among Russia’s contradictory interests in the region.

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Russians take pride in how whenever Russia has experienced a severe blow to its ability to play the role of a great power in the past, Russia has every time been able to recover and re-emerge as one—often in a very short period of time.

Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 was soon followed by Russia being part of the winning coalition that defeated him in 1814-15.

Germany’s forcing Moscow to sign the humiliating treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 which involved great loss territory for Russia was soon followed by the Bolsheviks’ consolidation of power and recapture of most of that territory.

The Nazi invasion of the USSR in 1941 was followed by the USSR being part of the winning coalition that defeated Germany in 1945 and the USSR becoming one of the world’s two acknowledged superpowers afterward.

The collapse of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev and the economic chaos under him and Yeltsin was followed by Putin restoring stability and prosperity internally and reasserting Russia’s role as a great power internationally.

Putin, then, appears to conform to the pattern of Russian leaders who succeeded in reversing precipitate decline and reviving Russia, like the phoenix, as a great power.

There is, though, another way of viewing Russian history:  instead of seeing Russia as always being able to bounce back from near collapse, the pattern can also be seen as one in which despite Russia constantly building up its power and prestige, it always experiences catastrophic setbacks—much like Sisyphus’s efforts to push a boulder up to the top of the hill always ending in futility.

Despite everything the 18th century tsars did to advance Russia into the ranks of the European great powers, Russia was unable to avoid the disaster of being invaded by Napoleon.

Despite the tremendous economic development that Tsarist Russia experienced in the late 19th/early 20th centuries and the promising political reforms of the early 20th century, Russia did not avoid the disasters of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Civil War

Despite the tremendous economic strides made under Stalin (albeit at enormous human cost), the Soviet Union experienced the catastrophe of the German invasion of 1941.

And despite the Soviet Union’s achievement of superpower status after World War II, the USSR collapsed in 1991 and Russia experienced severe economic decline..

All this raises the question:  Will Putin’s efforts aimed at reasserting Russia’s role as a great power also end in yet another painful setback?  Instead of another phoenix, will he prove to be another Sisyphus?

The answer depends on a determination about what has been the main cause of Russia’s repeated setbacks.  Many Russians would point to invasions by other powerful states—Napoleonic France, Imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany—as the cause of them.  While there was no direct Soviet-American conflict during the Cold War, they see America’s containment policy as having served to weaken the Soviet Union.  Putin has long claimed that the West seeks his downfall.

Viewing Russia’s past catastrophic setbacks as being due to foreign aggression and overcoming them as the result of Russian grit and determination is a very comforting view for many Russians.  Russia’s setbacks were caused by hostile foreigners, and its recoveries are the admirable result of Russian initiative.

But in three of Russia’s most catastrophic setbacks, poor decisions made by Russian leaders—decisions that they did not have to make—played an important role in bringing them about.

Nicholas II did not have to decide to defend Serbia and enter World War I.  If the war had remained limited to one between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, the increasingly vulnerable imperial government in Vienna may well have exhausted itself in a conflict with nationalist Serbia.  The Tsarist government, though, could have survived even in the unlikely event that Austria-Hungary quickly defeated Serbia, and avoided the far greater catastrophe of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Similarly, Stalin did not have to agree to the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, which put Germany in a far better position to attack the USSR in 1941.  Stalin’s extraordinary belief that Hitler would not attack the USSR was a truly historic blunder.

And while Gorbachev was right in concluding that the USSR needed sweeping economic reform in order to keep up with a strengthening West, he did not have to try to implement his utterly naive economic reform plans—especially when he could have just copied the successful model of market-based economic reform while maintaining political control that Deng Xiao-ping had implemented in China.

Will Putin experience the same fate?  He clearly seeks to reassert Russia’s role as a great power.  But it is not at all certain that the way he has chosen to do so will achieve that aim.  He did not, after all, have to annex Crimea, get Russia involved in a prolonged conflict in eastern Ukraine, frighten many European nations, or do anything else that has unnecessarily resulted in antagonizing the West—Russia’s most likely ally against an increasingly powerful China which has been more slowly but more successfully reasserting itself as a great power than Russia.  Instead of strengthening Russia, Putin’s decisions may be similar to the avoidable ones made by Nicholas II, Stalin, and Gorbachev that resulted in harming Russia.

Just like previous Russian rulers, then, what Putin’s aggressive efforts to reassert Russia’s status as a great power may actually be setting Russia up for yet another catastrophic setback.

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I visited Berlin March 10-14, 2015 to talk with people there about Russian policy toward Ukraine and related issues. I was able to speak with several highly knowledgeable German government officials and scholars about this subject. I will not cite the views of specific individuals here, but will give a general sense of the views I heard in Berlin.

Nobody I spoke with was happy about Russian foreign policy toward Ukraine or optimistic that the situation there would be resolved satisfactorily any time soon. Nor is anybody certain what Putin’s goals are or how far he will go. There is hope that the augmented version of the Minsk Accords that have led to a tentative ceasefire will hold, but there are widespread doubts about whether they will.

If not, the West may have to do something more than it is now doing. But none of my German interlocutors saw the proposals by some in Washington to send American arms to Ukraine as being a good idea. Indeed, there is fear that this is not something that just some Republicans in Congress want, but that influential figures in the Obama Administration are also enthusiasts for this approach. My German interlocutors are hopeful, though, that President Obama will not allow U.S. arms to go to Ukraine and so risk a bigger conflict which could have serious consequences for all of Europe.

On the whole, however, the people I spoke to in Berlin regard German-American cooperation as strong. The German government, though, is limited by two important factors. One is German public opinion, which has a large anti-American element. The U.S. is widely seen here as being too willing to use force without thinking about the long-term consequences of doing so. The German public, some noted, is not actually pro-Putin, but is desirous of understanding Russian concerns and accommodating them in order to resolve the crisis.

And this desire stems from the second factor limiting the German response to Russian policy in Ukraine: the legacy of the Nazi past. People I spoke with emphasized that this factor, and German angst over it, plays a huge role in determining—and limiting—Berlin’s response to what Russia is doing in Ukraine now. As is well known, Germans have gone to great lengths to acknowledge and atone for Nazi treatment of the Jews. One senior scholar told me that Germans have similar feelings about Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. (The German-Soviet war in the East, several emphasized, was far more vicious than the war in the West.)

But while this factor contributes to a greater German willingness to accommodate Russian concerns, it does not mean that Germans approve of what Russia is doing. Indeed, there is great disappointment that Putin has not respected the friendship and cooperation with Moscow that Germany has taken pains to build up over the course of several decades now. Putin’s sending Russian military aircraft to violate the airspace of several European countries—especially that of Sweden and Ireland, which are not NATO members—is seen in Berlin as inexcusable.

There is hope that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approach of continuing to talk with Putin as well as continuing negotiations through the “Normandy Format” (Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine) will succeed in calming the situation and preventing further Russian incursions. People I spoke with, though, recognize that there is a possibility that this will not succeed (Russian action against the Baltic states is seen as possible, but less likely than further incursions into Ukraine as well as efforts to prevent Kiev from cooperating with the West). If so, then Chancellor Merkel can at least show the German public that Berlin tried hard to accommodate Moscow, but that Putin refused to cooperate. And this will justify Germany working more closely with America (as well as, of course, with NATO and the EU) on a tougher approach toward Russia. Nobody I met would specify, though, what a tougher approach would entail.

Germans I spoke with did not seem to be at all in awe of Putin. Having experienced a demagogic leader of their own, they have little doubt that the current one in Moscow will not serve to benefit Russia. While Putin is seen as having many advantages in the short-run regarding the crisis in Ukraine, Russia suffers from many structural disadvantages (population decline, economic stagnation, ethnic unrest, and suboptimal leadership, among others) that will weaken it in the long-run. Further, Putin’s policy toward Ukraine does nothing to ameliorate any of these problems.  Eventually, then, Russia’s long-term disadvantages will ripen to the point that they undercut Putin’s current short-term advantages in Ukraine.

How long this process will take is unclear. But many whom I spoke to in Berlin see Putin’s continued efforts to strengthen Moscow through reckless means as only making Russia’s further decline as more likely instead.

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I visited Paris March 4-10, 2015, to talk with people there about Russian policy toward Ukraine and related issues.  I was able to speak with highly knowledgeable French government officials, scholars, and journalists about this subject.  I will not cite the views of specific individuals here, but will give a general sense of the views I heard in Paris.

There was much praise for the degree to which Washington and Paris have collaborated on this matter (as opposed to previous instances—namely the 2003 U.S.-led intervention in Iraq—when they did not).  Indeed, there was a sense that the members of NATO and the EU have succeeded in working together in opposing Russian policy toward Ukraine, and that even the somewhat troublesome governments in Hungary and Greece will not pose an obstacle to this.

French observers, though, are unanimous in opposing the suggestions made by some American politicians and officials that the U.S. should provide arms to Ukraine in order to fight against Russian and Russian-backed forces on its territory.  Indeed, I was frequently asked whether these suggestions were actually serious.  They oppose such a move for several reasons, including:  1) Moscow’s ability to easily counter it with additional arms to the Russian separatists or deployment of its own forces; 2) the Ukrainian military’s weakness which casts doubt on its ability to make effective use of any arms that it might receive; and 3) the prospect that this could lead to an expanded conflict.

But just as my French interlocutors fear the impact of American over-involvement in the Ukrainian crisis, they also fear the impact of American under-involvement.  There is concern in Paris that the Obama Administration is not sufficiently engaged in this conflict due to its prioritization of other issues.  President Obama’s characterization of Russia as a regional threat is seen as an indicator that he may think that Russian policy in Ukraine is less America’s problem than it is Europe’s.

Some I spoke with in Paris see Europe as unable to deal with Russia on its own—partly because of the growing strength of Russian influence with business interests as well as with certain political parties.  The motives of those wishing to protect their business interests in Russia are straightforward:  they don’t want to suffer the damaging losses that further sanctions or open hostilities would lead to.  The views of pro-Putin politicians are more complex.  Many of these are motivated not so much by genuine support for—or even understanding—of Russian foreign policy, but by seeing Putin as an ally in their generally anti-American, anti-EU, and anti-German cluster of resentments.  Further, some of my interlocutors felt that in France, these views are not just limited to the far right or far left, but to many mainstream politicians as well.  When asked if there was anything Washington could do to change this, one observer responded with a flat, “Non!”

None of this, of course, makes it easier for Europe and America to respond effectively to Russia’s forward policy in Ukraine.  Some French observers expressed fear that Putin might make similar incursions into the Baltic states—especially Latvia, where there is a large, disgruntled Russian population living along the border with Russia.  This would be far more serious since the three Baltic states are members of NATO, which the other members are all bound to defend.   Some, though, believe that Putin will not pursue policies toward the Baltics similar to those he has pursued toward Ukraine due to the greater risks this would run.

Yet while specific proposals about how to deal with Putin were in short supply in Paris (just as they are in Washington), there was a general sense that although Putin is in an advantageous position to pursue an aggressive foreign policy in the short run, he faces many disadvantages in the long-run.  His rule in fragile and it is not in his interests to get Russia bogged down in numerous conflicts that could go on indefinitely.  Putin, they believe, is rational enough to recognize this.

The best that the West can do, then, is to avoid measures (such as arming Ukraine) that could lead to a broader conflict, but make it clear to Putin that further expansion is unacceptable and will have significant costs for Russia through, among other things, continued—or perhaps even increased—economic sanctions.  At the same time, Europe and America should encourage Kiev not to focus on regaining lost territory, but on reforming Ukraine economically and politically—a difficult task, but one that Putin’s behavior has made Ukrainians more willing than before to undertake.  If there is one silver lining that my French interlocutors see in all this, it is that the United States government—especially Secretary of State John Kerry—has been more willing to consult and confer with the French government about this crisis with Russia than over a decade ago about the one in Iraq.  Both Washington and Paris do better when they work together than when they are at cross purposes.

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Russia, Ukraine, and NATO

Top level Russian government officials have reacted angrily to the Ukrainian parliament’s recent vote to seek NATO membership.  But what did they expect after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, supported Russian secessionists in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and threatened to cut off gas supplies unless Ukraine pays what Moscow claims Kiev owes as if nothing untoward had happened?  Indeed, each one of these actions could reasonably be expected to induce Ukraine to seek NATO membership.  All of them together were practically guaranteed to do so.

If Moscow had really not wanted Ukraine to seek NATO membership, then it never should have seized Crimea from it in the first place.  Instead of regarding the downfall of Russia’s dubious ally, President Yanukovych, as a Western plot, Moscow could have recognized it for what it was (a popular uprising against an unpopular autocrat) and sought to establish good relations with the new government in Kiev.

Even if Moscow had insisted on seizing Crimea, it might have then sought to prevent Ukraine from seeking NATO membership by trying to assuage Kiev and those residents of Crimea who objected to the Russian annexation by offering to compensate them generously and by forswearing any further ambitions in Ukraine.

And even if Moscow went ahead (as it did) in supporting Russian secessionists in Donetsk and Luhansk, it could have made clear that these were the only regions where it would do this, and offer compensation to Kiev (including in the form of guaranteed petroleum deliveries at a reduced price).  Instead, though, Putin and his allies have indicated that they might well seek to protect Russian-speaking populations elsewhere in Ukraine as well as other Soviet republics if they do not behave how Moscow wants them to.

In short:  if Moscow really did not want Kiev to seek NATO membership, it would have sought to reassure Kiev (and everyone else) about the limits of its ambitions in Ukraine as well as offered compensation as a way of giving Ukrainians some incentive not to seek NATO membership.

Moscow, of course, has not done anything like this.  Indeed, it does not seem to even have occurred to Russia’s current leaders to do so.  They truly seem to think that they can take as much as they please from Ukraine, and that both the West and Ukraine should declare that Ukraine will never join NATO in response.

Moscow sees the Western imposition of economic sanctions on Russia in reply to its actions in Ukraine as completely unreasonable.  Russian leaders seem to believe that they should be able to take what they want from Ukraine, and that the West should simply accept this and continue doing business as usual with Moscow.

The truth, of course, is that Putin’s actions have pushed the Ukrainian government and public to seek NATO membership.  Putin seems to believe that by making others fear Moscow, they will respond by seeking to mollify Russian wrath through altering their behavior to please Moscow.  Predictably, though, this has backfired.  Instead, Putin’s making others fear Moscow has resulted in their seeking to work with others (including NATO) to constrain Russia.

The claim by Putin and Russian nationalists that Ukraine and other former Soviet states joining NATO is somehow a threat to Russia appears paranoid.  It is simply not credible to believe that NATO is planning to attack Russia. But if Moscow genuinely fears this, then the best way for Putin to prevent Ukraine and other former Soviet states from seeking NATO membership would be to reassure them that they have nothing to fear from Russia.  Threatening Russian behavior, by contrast, is what drives them to seek NATO membership.

Putin, though, seems not just unwilling to understand this, but unable.  If so, then he has condemned Russia to a vicious cycle in which its hostile responses to cooperation between its neighbors and the West only leads to further such cooperation between them and isolation for Russia.

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