Posted on 03-03-2014
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

It has become an article of faith among American conservatives that Vladimir Putin is a Machiavellian maestro running circles around the United States.  The reality is the Russian despot rules over a petrostate with nukes that is gradually morphing into the stereotypical “Oriental” despotism.  Putin earned plaudits at home by improving on the inebriated Boris Yeltsin and “pacifying” Chechnya in a manner that brings to mind the famous quote attributed by Tacitus to the Caledonian chieftain Calgacus regarding Pax Romana:

Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.

To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.

The Russian Federation may not be in a state of anarchy of the Yeltsin years but it is a profoundly diseased state.  Putin has grasped on the sinews of power but has fundamentally failed to regenerate the institutions of the state that create great leaders.  Wealth is concentrated with the oligarchs so long as they remain loyal to the Kremlin.  Public dissent is not tolerated and public protests require permits.  Journalists have been killed and opposition leaders have been locked up on spurious charges.  The last round of elections in Russia and the blatant rigging of the results underscored a deep dissatisfaction with the path Putin’s Russia has taken.  Yet with no rivals visible and with any threats snuffed out, Tsar Vlad continues to rule.  Oil, nukes and size ensure that for now Russia will not be a basket case like the next door (Russian subsidized) despotism in Belarus.

Yet Tsar Vlad is deeply paranoid.  The color revolutions over the past decade (Green in Iran, Rose in Georgia and Orange in Ukraine in 2004), even if they were not all successful, have evidently create a determination that Putin’s creaky aristocracy will not be next.  The fall of his patsy Viktor Yanukovych, even though he distrusted him, was an unwelcome slap in the face that eliminated the buzz from the Sochi Olympics.

The trigger for the protests that brought down Yanukovych was his backtracking on an agreement with the European Union in favor of a Russian led customs union.  Over the course of the crisis Putin dangled the bait for the 15 billion dollar loan Ukraine desperately needed and at times withheld funds when Yanukovych showed signs of wobbling to the protesters in the Maidan.  All of this was to no avail.  His fellow kelptocrat fled Kiev and the despised opposition took over in Kiev.

Ukraine is a divided country with a large Russian speaking population.  It desperately needs Russian natural gas and financial help.  Putin could have disavowed Yanukovych as a corrupt incompetent and made the desperate Ukrainian regime the type of offer that wins friends.  That would have been the act of a statesman.

But Tsar Putin has never been confused with a statesman.  The man who felt the fall of the Soviet Union was a tragedy has over the years been obsessed with restoring Russian prestige in the near abroad.  So the wounded Tsar chose to flex his muscles by invading the Crimea under the shield of a laughable subterfuge.

In the finest Russian tradition of acting to protect its compatriots – who never were really in any danger – Russia sent soldiers in camouflage into the Crimea in violation of a 1994 agreement to respect Ukraine’s borders.  The Crimea has always been a sore sport for Russia since Nikita Khrushchev arbitrarily gifted to Ukraine in the 1950s.  With a majority Russian population it has long seethed at ties to Kiev.  Yet for the last 20 years it has internationally been recognized as a part of Ukraine and has had its own autonomous sub-republic.   More worryingly Tsar Vlad declared a right to interfere on behalf of Russian minorities anywhere which sent chills down the spines of Russia’s neighbors.

The intervention leaves the United States with few options.  Military intervention is unthinkable and Ukraine is not a NATO member.  The United States needs Russian cooperation in Syria and Iran.  Yet the usual suspects have gone to the TV shows bleating about this being due to American “weakness.”  Senator Grumpy already proclaimed that “we [were] all Ukrainians,” a reminder of his similar dumb comment during the 2008 Russian war with Georgia.  Senator Lumpy excoriated President Obama’s weaknesses for encouraging the Russians.  Senator Rubio desperate to regain his conservative bonafides in time for the 2016 Presidential primaries proclaimed that “Russia has a government of liars.”

None of this is immediately helpful for solutions on what the United States should do with Tsar Vlad’s petulant invasion.  Senator Grumpy in his continuing efforts to get us into another war wants the United States to bring Georgia into NATO. The immediate aftermath will be a cancellation of the impending G-8 meeting in Sochi.  Russia which never really belonged in the group will likely be suspended from the organization.  The primary weapon will likely be some type of targeted economic retaliation – even though sanctions have had limited effects on countries in the past.  Hopefully the solution includes a generous economic assistance package to the wobbly Ukrainian government (hopefully without the German depression inducing austerity prescriptions).

But for now we watch and wait…and hope that Putin’s miscalculations and bluster do not trigger a civil war in Ukraine.

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