I received a number of responses to yesterday’s blog, many of them almost immediate. Here is a sample:
“This is a beautiful and timely essay. Thank you Howard.”
“Uncanny — no? — how empires then partition the nations they reluctantly sire?
Actually, you could also flip the Sochi-Crimea story and say that what’s remarkable — and revealing — about Putin’s moves is his willingness to throw away $50b in Olympic spending to announce Russia’s resurrection into a 21st century ‘power’ by dragging it all down with a 20th century land grab.”
“Don’t be so sure of Russia’s continued rise. It is a decayed and deteriorating society. He will bite off more then he can chew and indigestion will follow.
He’s a thug and he surrounds himself with thugs. He should be treated as such. Unfortunately the West is bankrupt, not only economically, but in terms of thought and especially leadership. When it’s the last quality we have really needed for the last years, golf appears a priority. Unfortunately, the US is governed by a rank amateur, and one that appears to have little regard for the truth, whose only saving grace is a corrupt congress.
“This is a very insightful analysis.
I have read both of Remnick’s books on Russia. Lenin’s Tomb was a masterpiece.
I will check out the New Yorker article. Remnick always writes so well.
I really enjoyed your article. I found it very valuable to understand modern Russia and Putin’s motivations.
Putin seems to know when to hold them and when to fold them.”
The Ukraine is now mobilizing. The question will quickly come to the fore whether the West is willing to challenge Putin militarily through NATO. We will very quickly see how Obama et al will handle a bully and whether Putin knows when to hold and when to fold. Some of this action will be played out on the periphery.
Putin, The Crimea and Syria
As the West and Russia clash over The Crimea diplomatically and economically, and the possibility of a clash militarily creeps closer in spite of the unwillingness of all parties, including Putin, to clash in that arena, what will the effect be on Syria? Whatever either the US or Russia henceforth do, there will be serious repercussions. One will be on the prospects of enhanced warfare in Syria as well as other fallout on U.S.-Russian relations. After all, Bashir Assad has been strongly supported by Putin and US backed off its red line when Russia got the Assad regime to surrender its chemical weapons.
As the situation deteriorates – and it will before and if it gets better – will the dismantling of Syria’s chemical arsenal stop even though it is in no one’s interest to do so? That would be one way to counter the economic and diplomatic initiatives now underway by the West. Putin may send a signal, “If you do not cooperate with me when Russia’s vital interests are affected, if you seem on the verge of bringing NATO troops right up to the borders of Russia, if you seem to threaten the ability of the Russian fleet to mobilize and move through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, then my efforts to cooperate with the West must stop immediately.”
Further, the U.S., particularly American hawks, may now see an opportunity to resurrect its strong relationship with Saudi Arabia and offer real military support to the rebels, especially now that the radical Islamists, ISIS and al-Nusra, have totally fallen out. Hawks have been calling Obama a weak-kneed statesman, especially for trusting Putin and allowing Russia to become a key player in the Syrian peace talks. In taking up that role, Putin made sure that Assad would not be required to resign as a condition of peace. As a result, the peace talks were going nowhere fast.
The emptiness of those peace talks will become totally evident. They will end very soon and the West will not only have immediate decisions to make about NATO-Ukraine relations, but about its backing for the rebels in Syria with significant military supplies. The West has few ways it can influence Putin directly. As the action focuses on NATO and the Ukraine, other political and economic action will shift to the margins, particularly since Obama now owes Putin nothing for saving Obama from having to cross the red line and intervene militarily in Syria. Obama now has to calculate how he can weaken Russia’s leverage in the Middle East, weaken Assad, yet not strengthen the radical jihadists.
In opting for direct military action against all international norms and agreements, given his belief in the primacy of a president and his use of Parliament only as a rubber stamp, in getting the Russian Duma to authorize the deployment of Russian military forces in all of Ukraine and not just The Crimea, Putin has opted not to use proxies in Kyiv because they failed him. Putin has the “cover” of claiming to act on behalf of the legitimately elected government of the Ukraine. As John Kerry has said, that is a cover that is so transparent and thin as to be more revealing than concealing. Will Putin also desert his past record of caution and deliberate and stealthy moves now that the challenge is on his doorstep? He may or may not use direct action in eastern Ukraine, but he is bound to stir up the Russophiles.
Putin has repeatedly despised the way the USSR folded up and gave away its western frontier states because of its unwillingness to use force when the people revolted. He has always admired the way the Hungarian and Czech revolts were put down deliberately and decisively. Is he still convinced that NATO will continue to stand down in the face of a direct challenge when a society like Ukraine is on the verge of taking the next crucial step in throwing off the autocratic yoke of Russia?
Recall that Putin has his own domestic demons, a society he believes he can and, more importantly, needs to rally behind him in the face of alleged external threats. So his supporters peacefully rally without interference while those advocating peace and criticizing Putin are rounded up and arrested. Putin does not want to go the way of Recep Tayyip Erdogan where the endemic corruption of the extractive kleptocratic economy becomes apparent for all too see and he loses his last tenuous hold on the loyalty of the Russian people. What better way to rally the troops than giving proof that the U.S. and the West cannot be trusted and intend to surround Russia with military troops in its expansionist vision!.
The Syrian peace prospect has been dead for a long time. That announcement will soon be forthcoming, but there will unlikely be time for a funeral. There will continue to be an escalation in military activity on the Syrian front and Saudi Arabia hopefully will be pulled away at the last minute from its flirtation with Putin. As Putin moves speedily to foment dissent in Eastern Ukraine where Russians are decisively in the minority, distractions will be needed. Expect the periphery to heat up considerably as well.
It already has. Assad’s escalation in the barrel-bombing campaign on Aleppo has driven out residents and rebels by the tens of thousands. What is the difference between the depopulation of Darfur of sources of rebel strength in the Sudan and the depopulation of Aleppo and its surroundings? After all, proxy forces, including both the Palestinian Quds Battalion and Hezbollah’s Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades, have been active in cleaning up the villages around Aleppo of rebels leaving only the radical Islamists in contention, both with one another and the Assad regime. Will the U.S. finally supply the rebels with shoulder-launched anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles and risk those weapons falling into the hands of jihadists? Will the U.S. provide direct military support for the rebel training camps and rally their morale? Will the rebels reassert themselves on the Daraa front to offset losses along the Turkish border? Will Obama decide that the regime needs to overthrown or will he allow the rebels to be beaten on the battlefield? Or is it already too late? Will Obama and the West reset the reset policy in time, but with care and prudence?