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How Dangerous Is Putin?

Western leaders – including America's tycoon president – should know that a man with no purse can wage no fight. Sooner rather than later, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s economic incompetence will catch up with him.

LONDON – Is US President Donald Trump right to be sympathetic toward Russia? At first blush, it certainly does not seem so. In Russia, elections are rigged, and organized opposition is suppressed. And under President Vladimir Putin, the country has reverted to Cold War tactics against domestic dissidents and foreign targets, including the United States.

Putin’s government has flooded the West with so many spies that there are now more in Britain than during the Cold War. It has carried out vendettas abroad and is believed to have murdered a host of opponents – including journalists, activists, and political leaders – at home. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was the first unilateral land grab in Europe since 1945. The Russian military has intervened in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, ruthlessly bombed civilians and rebel groups in the Syrian city of Aleppo, and brutalized Georgia and Chechnya.

This litany of horrors – a highly abbreviated one, at that – would seem to put the case to rest. Surely Trump is wrong to trust Russia’s most ruthless leader since Stalin.

But how big a threat does Russia actually pose to the West? After all, Russia has generally upheld its arms-control agreements with the US. And while Russia is beefing up its armed forces and introducing new battle tanks from an old rusting base, it does not have the economic and industrial might to sustain any long-term war effort – and its leaders know this.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, it was hard enough for the Kremlin to lose Ukraine – the empire’s former industrial heartland and breadbasket – to a moderately democratic (by Russian standards), independent government. But the Kremlin would suffer a mortal blow if Ukraine were to actually join the European Union or NATO, as some in the West have suggested it should.

And yet despite Russia’s brutal intervention in Donbas, the Minsk Protocol to end the fighting there has more or less held. Russia, knowing that it would have an endless war on its hands, has not given any indication that it intends to annex the region’s dilapidated pro-Russian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.

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In Syria, Russia’s last-ditch defense of its only remaining Middle Eastern satrapy smacks of pathos and desperation. It is worth remembering that the Kremlin once had Algeria, Iraq, South Yemen, and Egypt in its camp. Putin is only partly to blame for Syrians’ current plight, but he could end up owning the problem, and reprising the Soviet Union’s quagmire in Afghanistan 30 years ago. It is only a matter of time before jihadists begin to seek vengeance against Russia, rather than the West.

As it happens, Russia’s position today is even less secure than it was in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union’s weakening economy could no longer sustain control of an Eastern European buffer and satellites elsewhere. Russia is now struggling to regain its self-respect, and it is pursuing traditional foreign policy goals that are based on a historical fear of being encircled – this time by Islamist extremists to the south, a potentially expansionist China to the east, and its former Cold War enemies to the west.

If these fears seem unwarranted, it is worth recalling that Siberia was once a part of China’s Middle Kingdom, and that Russia has been invaded twice in as many centuries – first by Napoleon, then by Hitler. Indeed, this ancient fear is what led Stalin to enter into a self-protective and ultimately disastrous alliance with Nazi Germany in 1939.

Unfortunately, even after the Berlin Wall fell, the Cold War mindset remained ingrained on both sides. During Boris Yeltsin’s shambolic presidency in the 1990s, the West did not follow Winston Churchill’s dictum: “In victory, magnanimity.” With the end of the Warsaw Pact, NATO expanded right up to Russia’s border. It missed its opportunity to reassure a democratic Russia that it sought cooperation, and its apparent disdain created the conditions for Putin to emerge.

This brings us back to Trump, whose optimism for the US-Russia relationship will inevitably turn into disappointment. We have seen this before. Like Trump today, former US President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair initially saw Putin as a man with whom they could do business. But, now in power for 17 years, Putin has shown himself to be a venal and violent leader, who took advantage of an oil-price boom to enrich himself and his cronies.

When Mikhail Gorbachev allowed Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe to collapse in 1989, he did so not on a whim, but because hegemony had become unaffordable. But today’s Russia is feeling even greater economic pressures. Owing to Putin’s cronyism and incompetent economic stewardship, Russians’ living standards have improved only modestly, the Russian economy is not globally competitive, and the country’s oil and gas fields have not been properly developed. With oil prices down by more than half from their level in 2014, Russia’s economy is being severely squeezed.

Trump is right to hold out a hand, but he also must continue to impose sanctions for serious violations of international norms. As a businessman, he should know that a man with no purse can wage no fight. Sooner rather than later, Putin’s economic incompetence will catch up with him. When it does, the US, NATO, and the EU must not miss the opportunity to bring a post-Putin Russia into the family of civilized countries.

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