Putin’s High Risk Poker
David Remnick in the 3 March 2014 issue of The New Yorker, of which he is the editor, offers a wonderful portrait of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin in his essay “Patriot Games”. After a preliminary and succinct introduction to Putin, Remnick begins the second section of his essay as follows: “Great powers seldom retreat forever. But to people who suffer their fall, the sense of diminishment is acute.” For Putin, the fall of the empire of the Soviet Union was humiliating. “Power, a sense of greatness, was slipping away.”
Remnick understands Russia. He is fluent in Russian and wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire a few years after the USSR fell apart. Since that time, Putin has spent his energies trying to reverse course, symbolically, spiritually and in terms of both geography and international influence. His $50 billion Olympic Winter Games extravaganza took place beside the subtropical Sochi, not by accident next door to Abkhazia and South Ossetia that Putin managed to detach from Georgia in the all-too-brief Russian-Georgia war of 2008. Putin is in the process of repeating the exercise with the Crimea.
As Remnick writes: “Sochi was a theatrical event before it was a sporting event.” Sochi “wasn’t about ‘slope-style’ snow boarding; it was about the televised revival of a demoralized country.” Troops on the ground in the Crimea are part of the effort to make the symbolism real. Putin, the autocrat, frenetic macho muzhik, will not be deterred by a ninety minute conversation with Barack Obama who has found Putin’s moves into the Crimea objectionable. After the occupation, “Obama warned Russia not to violate Ukraine’s sovereign territory.” Had Obama already conceded that The Crimea was no longer part of Ukraine?
The Sochi games, in spite of and perhaps because of their enormous costs, were a triumph for Russia. The secession – perhaps blessed by a successful referendum for the autonomous region of The Crimea, if Putin thinks he needs that cover – is a forgone conclusion. Of the 2 1/4 million people (almost a third of a million in Sevastapol itself) in The Crimea, two-thirds are Russian and only one-quarter are Ukrainians. In a poll at the beginning of the twenty-first century, not one Russian in the Crimea accepted Crimea’s status as an autonomous entity within Ukraine while 15% wanted the Crimea to be made an autonomous republic within Russia. Almost all the schools in the Crimea until very recently taught in the Russian language and attempts to increase the number of schools in which the language of education is Ukrainian has been resisted. The Russian flag already flies over government buildings in The Crimea. The Crimea is as I write under the military and economic protection of Russia
Obama is fighting a rearguard defence to try to ensure that the capture of eastern Ukraine, and perhaps even all of Ukraine, will not to follow. The fact that the military occupation of Crimea without even a fig leaf of a provocation was in blatant breach of international law and the 1997 agreement over the military and huge naval base for the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol is irrelevant to Putin. Putin crushed the domestic opposition within Russia two years ago, swept aside the psychedelic Pussy Riot protesters like a bothersome fly, and will ignore Western pressure.
Boycotting the G-8 summit in Russia in 3 months will follow. Russian oligarchs who partner with Putin in carving up The Crimea for economic exploitation may have their bank accounts and assets frozen in the West. But what else can the West realistically do since it is clearly unwilling to go to war over The Crimea. The West will even pressure the new government of the Ukraine to be cautious lest it to be eaten up once again by the Russian bear. The US will not accompany that caution by provocatively deploying its Mediterranean fleet into the Black Sea as the hawkish Charles Krauthammer has advised.
Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov of the Ukraine may have announced that the country’s armed forces have been put on the alert, but he will not mobilize. Assuming that he could even rely on his largely Russian trained and equipped army, the Ukraine will not want to give Russia a pretext to invade eastern or even all of Ukraine. What can NATO do to defend the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine? Well it can do something. Ukraine could immediately vote to join NATO and be just as immediately accepted. A Marshall plan could be developed for the bankrupt Ukraine. The cost of the Russian success with The Crimea could be the final and permanent loss of the Ukraine to the renewed Russian imperial ambitions.
Putin will not take such a loss easily. Expect many efforts by the KGB to engage in many attempts at economic and political destabilization. He will not simply wait passively to see if Western economic and diplomatic intervention is successful.
However, the costs to the West will also be enormous – $35 billion dollars in life support over the next two years. (Putin’s counter offer of $15 billion was just a down payment.) Further, there are no guarantees of success even with Viktor Yanukovych taking refuge in Russia. The opposition that just came to power in the Ukraine is bitterly and deeply divided, of which the split between Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushshenko is only the surface. Ukraine’s underlying situation is even worse. Its population was 52.5 million when the USSSR fell apart. Although there was a brief burst in the early nineties when a million and half repatriated to the newly independent Ukraine, the population was down to 48.5 million at the last census in 2001 and 45.6 million in 2012, 80,000 less than in 2011. Death rates, among the highest in Europe with very high rates of acute and chronic suicide (smoking), exceed birth rates of only 1.4 per female; emigration was greater than immigration until 2005. Locally-born kleptocrats robbed the Ukraine blind when the Ukraine finally got on the bandwagon of economic growth.
Ukraine is riven with ideological, religious and ethnic divisions. The 77.8% Ukrainians population is divided between Greek Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox (50-60%) enjoying full communion with The Vatican with a small Roman Catholic population. The 17.3% Russian population, much less now with The Crimea detached, is concentrated in the Eastern Ukraine and no where outside of Crimea constitutes a majority. With the de facto excision of The Crimea from the Ukraine, its Tartar problem has been delivered back to Russia. However, there are significant concentrations of Romanians, Moldovans, Bulgarians and Hungarians (160,000 of the latter in Transcarpathia) in Western Ukraine. If Ukraine can get its political act together and if it can sign the deal negotiated with the EU, Ukraine could follow the Polish path to prosperity, as well as gain a heightened sense of morale and national purpose, unfortunately without The Crimea.
So the West will bail the Ukraine out and help integrate it into the EU. The West will provide help in stabilizing its democracy. Obama will have no choice except to be the Neville Chamberlain who surrendered the Sudentenland of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, but he will not sign an agreement acceding to the seizure of The Crimea.