Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Putin the Great

PARIS – One day, monuments to Vladimir Putin may stand in Russian cities, bearing the inscription: “The man who returned Crimea to Mother Russia.” But perhaps monuments will be erected on many European squares as well, acclaiming Russia’s president as “The Father of United Europe.” Indeed, Putin’s swift move to annex Crimea has done more to harmonize European governments’ views on Russia than dozens of bilateral or multilateral meetings.

In Berlin last week, I heard French and German elites speak with one voice in discussing how to respond to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Of course, words are not deeds. Yet, thanks to Putin, the European Union may have found the new narrative and momentum that it has sought since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Europe badly needs that momentum. Confronted with a neo-imperial Russia’s desire to revise the post-Cold War order in Europe, the EU must speak with a single voice if it wants to appear strong and credible. And it must speak as one with the United States, just as it (mostly) did during the Cold War.

The US, for its part, also seems newly galvanized by the crisis in Ukraine. It is as if the Americans’ familiarity with their new/old enemy – an adversary whom they understand in a way that they do not understand Afghans, Arabs, or Persians – has provided a renewed sense of purpose. The alliance of democracies is back, and the facile quip that America comes from Mars and Europe from Venus no longer makes sense. Confronted with a Russia that really does come from Mars and seems to understand and respect only force, the firmness of the world’s democracies must prevail, underpinned by a unity of purpose that was lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As events have taken their course in Ukraine, historical analogies have multiplied. According to some, we are in 1914, on the eve of a world war that few want but that no one can prevent. Or we are in 1938, in the aftermath of Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland, confronted with an aggressor who will not be appeased. Or we are in 1945, on the eve of a decades-long cold war. We could also be in 1991, in the midst of Yugoslavia’s implosion, watching a multi-ethnic society divide into warring camps. Or we could be in August 2008, in Georgia, when Putin’s Russia redrew a map by force for the first time.

All of these analogies contain an element of truth, even if none applies perfectly. But to understand Putin’s current attitude and behavior, another analogy is probably more important: the 1853-56 Crimean War, in which more than 800,000 people died, including 250,000 Russians.

The pretext for the war, which pitted the Russians, under Czar Nicholas I, against the British, French, and Ottomans, was Russia’s self-declared responsibility to protect Jerusalem’s holy places. Nicholas’s reign combined imperial ambition and religious fervor (directed against both the Ottoman Empire and the Catholic Church), and Russia’s defeat was glorious. During the long siege of Sevastopol, more than 120,000 Russian soldiers lost their lives. Leo Tolstoy, who took part in the war, found in it a source of inspiration for his novel War and Peace.

Putin used to present himself as the political heir of Peter the Great. He may instead be remembered as a new Nicholas I (whose portrait hangs in his office): an ultra-conservative czar who was in power too long and lost touch with reality. Combining nationalism, orthodoxy, and the mental habits of his KGB years, Putin constitutes an explosive mixture that must be handled with care, but above all with firmness.

This implies the need to stand behind Ukraine both politically and economically. The general election on May 25 must not only take place as planned, but must do so under the best possible conditions, even as Putin does his utmost to derail them. Preventing that outcome requires containing Ukraine’s small but loud far-right parties, whose anti-Russian chauvinism makes them Putin’s closest ally in escalating the conflict.

Sanctions against Russia, such as its ejection from the G-8, or against Putin’s closest allies will not suffice. The goal should be to convince Putin that Europe (including Italy and Germany) has alternatives to its gas and oil: Nigeria and Brazil, for example, not to mention the possibility of US shale energy. Indeed, Putin may have given Europe an unexpected opportunity to create, at long last, a common energy policy, one that would be more rational and much less costly in the long run.

Of course, the far-reaching reappraisal of international relations that now confronts Europe (the rest of the world’s democracies) will have a cost. Sacrifices will have to be made. But in this game of attrition, despotic Russia has more to lose than democratic Europe. One thing is certain: Putin did not stop with Georgia, and he will not stop with Crimea. Unless the limits to his ambitions are set now, the scariest historical analogies will become the most accurate.

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    1. CommentedSpiro V

      Something about this personification of nations has been lost in translation, since it makes no sense as is a absurd attempt at creating a metaphor. If we refrain from such nonsense, the people of the west have no stomach for confrontation with Russia. The Ukraine has a national income per capita proportional to that of Albania, and it is not in the interest of barely solvent Western nations such as France, Italy, and USA to spend taxpayers funds on war or even economic support of The Ukraine. Sanctions may impose some cost on the economy of Russia, but the madness will become apparent when the greater cost will fall on the countries with high national debt that will be imposing the sanctions. For the record USA govt debt 110% of GDP, France 90%, Russia 10%.

    2. CommentedJonathan Lam

      Wakening of a strategist

      One percent rules to explore, Ninety nine follows to suffer;
      Both jammed at its cost of living in the silence of deflation.
      When currencies rose above what he earned; many squealed.
      Money talks, people fellows----plutocracy won.
      As monetarists won by its margins of growth and profits; madness roamed.
      Only a few mesmerized in the writ of democracy and more dissent.
      Uprising at causation, multitude riots over a change---- oligarchy blundered.
      Sovereignty fell to its ground----Balkanize.
      What a strategist was drowned under the hedge of dollars.
      Annexation or abolition, totalitarian toke its stand.
      Inevitably Black Sea fleet made Crimea it home, Democracy writhed EU.
      Change of throne in the battle of economics and sovereign----polarized.

      From Economic cost of Crimea seizure mounts for Russia
      • A World Bank report on the Russian economy, compiled before the most recent evidence of the scale of capital flight, made clear Moscow was already set to pay a significant price in lost growth due to the most serious East-West confrontation since the end of the Cold War.
      • Gross domestic product (GDP) could contract by as much as 1.8 percent in 2014 if the crisis persists, it said. That high-risk forecast assumes that the international community would still refrain from trade sanctions.
      • "An intensification of political tension could lead to heightened uncertainties around economic sanctions and would further depress confidence and investment activities," the World Bank said.
      • "We assume that political risks will be prominent in the short-term."
      • Under a low-risk scenario, assuming only a short-lived impact from the crisis, GDP could grow by 1.1 percent, just half the bank's 2.2-percent growth forecast published in December.
      • At 1050 GMT the rouble-denominated MICEX index was up 2 percent and the dollar-denominated RTS was up 2.6 percent.
      • Hail to Mr. Putin, he saved his rouble. Can he hold? Perhaps, many may learn as well in his faith of one’s value if mergers fail.
      Mr. Putin, how do see the inequality and revival of growth by its means on sustainability and stability?
      And Mr. Obama where will you value your dollar after QE broke its line on ROE?
      Monetarist and totalitarian are competing on the application on productivity at the expense of it populace or benediction to its sovereign is soon to be known; and I hope World Bank could stop disparage competition and keep it data on the digits of stability and sustainability. East-West confrontation may not a bad thing if monetarist cannot balance its books.
      May the Buddha bless you?

    3. CommentedGerry Hofman

      I agree that we again are united by a common enemy, and because of this might now finally take issues such as energy independence a bit more seriously. Perhaps we might even get a common defence policy and who knows, a joint fast strike force together. However i would still be hesitant to put too much significance in Putin's despotic nature. I still think Crimea genuinely wanted to turn to the Russian fold, as do various east Ukraine provinces. But this point of view is not on offer from the official side and even discouraged, unless we start to show sympathy for the Russians' case. So in fact this is a sham, designed to produce an artificial gap between us and them. Personally i feel that the US is still trying to cover up for its own military adventures and global surveillance programs.

    4. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      On one hand it is inspiring if indeed the events around Ukraine achieve the long awaited European unity.
      On the other hand "unity against a common enemy" is still the wrong kind of unity.
      Uniting against a common enemy completely misses the point why we should be uniting.
      Hitler united Germany beautifully, most probably Russia is uniting around the Crimea action right now, the Catalans are excited about possible independence just as the Scottish, and only after a while will they understand they cut their own Oxygen pipe by disconnecting.
      Today we need to unite and mutually work together because the global, integral human system we evolved into obliges us.
      There is not one nation, region, locality that could disconnect and become independent in this global system, we all fully depend on each other, including the largest and strongest countries.
      Due to the terrible example Communism showed us not long ago, due to our upbringing, education we are all afraid of notions like "unity", "mutual cooperation, mutual responsibility".
      But today we do not have to do it based on some ideology, philosophy, or an "ism".
      Today we have to enter into mutual guarantee with each other based on an evolutionary necessity, this is the condition we have to adapt to to survive.
      Europe, despite the so far unfulfilled potential, already possesses the infrastructure to start showing the world a positive, working example of such mutual cooperation, integration, which positive example could provide the motivation for others to join in instead of trying to separate or invade.

        CommentedEdward Ponderer

        The point is as sharp as a razor blade. Whatever the idealism of Socialism, it becomes a perverse evil when it is not meant to be universal, but rather a national socialism -- whatever, us vs. them nature "national" takes on. Nazi Germany might be the prototype, but certainly it was such nationalism that corrupted pure Marxism into "Marxist-Leninism." In this, President Putin's actions are essentially no different than that of the premiers before him, and the czars before them.

        And unfortunately, the present conglomerates against him are also just conglomerates of self-interested nations. When Russia is not seen as a pariah, in fact no nation or subgroup is seen as a pariah, but rather the whole rises above individual difference to see improper actions as an illness of a part of that whole, then will the most worthy title "Unity" have been earned.

    5. CommentedJay Tkachuk

      Here is a great overview of what Maidan is and isn't:

    6. CommentedJay Tkachuk

      Paul De La Motte: Maidan was not a result of Western meddling - EU and the US were both caught with their pants down and had to scramble to understand it. As as far as the rest of your comment, Europe must decide whether it will go through some pain now, or fight a large war later, since by your logic the Anschluss in 1930's was also justified, since it was a battle Germany was unlikely to lose?

    7. CommentedPaul de La Motte

      From a French author, this article comes at a surprise. Where is the subtlety of the longstanding French diplomatic tradition? Such anti-Russian dialectic has certainly its roots in Mars, not in the real world. It should be borne in mind that the current events are a direct consequence to Europe’s meddling in the Ukrainian crisis, which provided far Ukrainian right-wing parties legitimacy in their mounted coup. It also strengthened Putin’s image in the Russian speaking world. By triggering Russia’s angst, European leaders have exposed their people to unnecessary sacrifices. And this is a battle that Russia in unlikely to lose. We are now paying the price for the diplomatic amateurism of our European leaders.