If Putin isn’t punished, Europe risks a wider war

Stephen Blank
The Globe and Mail | Jul. 24 2014

Stephen Blank is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.

The tragic downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 on July 17 by Russian-armed troops provides another occasion for the West to use its superior power to bring Russia’s war in Ukraine to an end. This assertion may sound surprising but nobody denies that the West, if it acts in unison, possesses more than enough power to force Russia to stop its war in Ukraine, withdraw its soldiers who shot down this plane, and move out all of its weapons. Yet the West has only employed a fraction of its power to date, driven as it is by commercial considerations and misplaced geopolitical fear of Russia’s reaction. It is precisely this disunity that has allowed Vladimir Putin to keep raising the ante in Ukraine because it lets him indulge his belief that he can outlast any Western pressure. After all, major energy firms have signed big deals with Rusisa while this fighting was taking place, confirming his belief in the West’s essential decadence and greed.

Moreover he has so identified himself with the nationalist passion in Russian politics that he himself has generated that to retreat now would undermine his domestic political position and acknowledge a stunning geopolitical defeat caused solely by his obstinacy. If the West does not exploit this opportunity to impose truly powerful sanctions, Mr. Putin will likely continue to raise the stakes in Ukraine and be drawn into a deeper and still more protracted aggression that would truly increase the possibility for a general war.

In other words, because nothing until now has convinced Mr. Putin to stop and because he has hitherto seen his enemies as weak and divided, unless they impose such severe sanctions that make the message of Western resolve crystal clear, he is likely to keep plunging. If the West wants to deter a greater or wider war from breaking out it must now seize control of the so called ladder of escalation. By imposing severe sectoral sanctions on the key sectors of Russia’s economy – energy, banking, and finance – it can send Mr. Putin a message that continuing this war risks a wider war that Russia can neither win nor sustain.

The French Revolutionary Louis St. Just once acidly observed that those who make revolution by half steps are only digging their own graves. This insight also applies to the deterrence that the West should have provided before this crisis and since it began until now. Instead, the timorous half-steps and warnings backed up by nothing but air have led Mr. Putin to conclude that he can stand the sanctions imposed to date since they will probably not last and in any case the West is divided.

Moreover he has convinced himself that he cannot let Ukraine be an independent westward-looking state, for that spells the end of his system at home. As a result he has put the security and stability of Russia itself and Europe at greater risk than anyone has done in years. Paradoxically, a strong Western response, along the lines being called for by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron are essential to impose deterrence upon Russia, rescue it, Ukraine, and Europe from a wider war, and begin the task of pacifying post-war Ukraine. Another round of half-steps will only confirm St. Just’s observation although the forum for that justification will be war not revolution.

Indeed, the pathetically divided and hesitant Western response until now has allowed Mr. Putin to widen the war and maintain the strategic initiative. The sight of stronger, richer states cowering before Mr. Putin is more than a little reminiscent of the appeasers of the 1930s who feared what Hitler or Mussolini might do if they acted forcefully to thwart their aggressions in their early stages. While Mr. Putin is not Hitler – although he evidently aspires to something like Mussolini’s status – the same lesson holds today. Those who resist aggression by half-steps are only digging their own (and others’) graves. Thus the nearly 300 victims of the Flight 17 demonstrate the costs of inaction, along with the brutality and corruption of the Russian forces, largely composed of Russian intelligence, paramilitary, military, and volunteer forces.

The West must also act because Mr. Putin has repeatedly shown that he will not accept responsibility for his actions. This should not have surprised anyone. As a veteran KGB officer he and his colleague have long ago internalized the notion that their all their crimes were actually committed by the victims while they were saving the state. To let this kind of behaviour go unpunished, not only risks a wider war, it also further corrupts both Russia’s and Europe’s public morality. Once again the West has the opportunity to deter a war, rescue the latest victims of Russian aggression from its grasp and continue its historic mission to civilize international politics. If we forfeit that chance by not imposing the deterrence, punishments, or sanctions clearly required here, who knows when, if ever, we will get a second chance to do the right thing.

Stephen Blank is co-author of an upcoming project with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute on Russia’s ambitions in the Arctic.




Will Putin crash and burn with MH17?
Nina Khrushcheva
The Globe and Mail | Jul. 23 2014

Nina L. Khrushcheva, author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics, teaches international affairs at the New School and is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York.

When incompetence in the Kremlin turns murderous, its incumbents can begin to tremble. As news of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine trickled into Russia, people with a long memory recalled the Soviet Union’s attack, 31 years ago this September, on Korean Air Lines Flight 007, and its political consequences.

Back then, the Kremlin first lied to the world by saying that it had nothing to do with the missing KAL plane. Later, it claimed that the South Korean jet was on an American spy mission. But, within the Soviet leadership, the incident was a tipping point. It ended the career of Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, Chief of the General Staff and a hardliner of the hardest sort, whose inconsistent and unconvincing efforts to justify the downing of the plane proved deeply embarrassing to the Kremlin.

Mr. Ogarkov’s ineptness (and inept mendacity), together with the mounting failure since 1979 of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, exposed the system’s advanced decrepitude. The stagnation that had begun during Leonid Brezhnev’s rule deepened after his death in 1982. His successors, first the KGB’s Yuri Andropov and then the Communist Party Central Committee’s Konstantin Chernenko, not only had one foot in the grave when they came to power, but were also completely unequipped to reform the Soviet Union.

The huge loss of life in Afghanistan (equal to the United States’ losses in Vietnam, but in a far shorter period of time) already suggested to many that the Kremlin was becoming a danger to itself; the attack on a civilian airliner seemed to confirm that emerging view. It was this realization that spurred Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power, as well as support among the leadership for Mr. Gorbachev’s reformist policies of perestroika and glasnost.

Of course, history is not destiny, but one can be sure that at least some in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s entourage, if not Mr. Putin himself, have been thinking about Mr. Ogarkov’s failure and its impact on the Soviet elite. After all, Kremlin leaders, Mr. Putin included, define themselves through what was, not what could be.

Indeed, Mr. Putin’s rationale for annexing Crimea closely resembles Mr. Brezhnev’s reasoning for invading Afghanistan: to confound enemies seeking to surround the country. In 2004, speaking to Russian veterans about the Afghan invasion, Mr. Putin explained that there were legitimate geopolitical reasons to protect the Soviet Central Asian border, just as in March he cited security concerns to justify his Ukrainian land grab.

In the Brezhnev era, expansionist policies reflected the country’s new energy-derived wealth. Mr. Putin’s military build-up and modernization of the past decade was also fuelled by energy exports. But Russia’s latest energy windfall has masked Mr. Putin’s incompetent economic management, with growth and government revenues now entirely reliant on the hydrocarbons sector.

Moreover, Mr. Putin’s incompetence extends far beyond the economy. His security forces remain brutal and unaccountable; in some parts of the country, they have merged with criminal gangs. His managed judiciary provides no comfort to ordinary people, and the country’s military installations, submarines, oil rigs, mining shafts, hospitals and retirement homes regularly blow up, collapse or sink, owing to neglect and zero liability.

When public support for Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea wanes – as it will – his failings will shine more starkly in the light of the MH17 catastrophe. If the Russian state functioned well, Mr. Putin could continue to withstand pressure from opposition leaders. But the opposition’s charge that Mr. Putin’s regime is composed of “swindlers and thieves” will resonate more strongly, because Russians can now see the results all around them.

By making himself, in effect, the state, Mr. Putin, like the gerontocracy that collapsed with Mr. Gorbachev’s rise, is increasingly viewed as responsible for all state failures. And though thoughtful Russians may be hostages to Mr. Putin’s arrogance and blunders, the rest of the world is not. Indeed, his partners – particularly the other BRICS countries (Brazil, India, China and South Africa) – are now unlikely to be able to turn a blind eye to his contempt for international law and for his neighbours’ national sovereignty, as they did during their recent Brazilian summit. And Europe’s last blinders about Mr. Putin seem to have fallen, with the result that serious sanctions are almost certain to be imposed.

Mr. Putin is only 61, a decade younger than the leaders who led the Soviet Union to the precipice, and the constitution permits him to remain in power for at least another 10 years. But with GDP up by just 1.3 per cent in 2013 – and with sanctions likely to hasten the economy’s decline – patriotic pride will not be able to shield him much longer.

By overplaying its hand in Afghanistan and lying to the world about the downing of KAL007, the Soviet regime exposed and accelerated the rot that made its collapse inevitable. There is no reason to believe in a different fate for Mr. Putin’s effort to re-establish Russia as an imperial power.



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