By Paolo von Schirach
March 4, 2014
WASHINGTON – What is truly worrisome about the ongoing Ukrainian crisis is that Putin sets the stage and the tempo. A startled and frankly frightened world is on edge after Putin invaded the Crimea because he got mad after his strategy to get the Ukraine back into Russian orbit failed. Instead of saying: “You get out, Mr. Putin, or else“, the West muttered: “Oh Brother, what is he going to do next?” Well, calm down. After a few days of ominous silence, Putin finally talked, saying mildly reassuring things. Relax, Russia is not going to invade the Ukraine. And the West is relieved. “Thank God, he is going to be nice, after all. Oh Boy, this was a close call“.
Putin determines the agenda
The upshot here is that, one way or the other, Putin is in command. The timid and disorganized West at best is in a reactive mode. Where is America’s leadership? Where is the European Union? Where is NATO? No united front. Oblique and generally innocuous statements in Europe. Big words with no chance of an organized follow on in Washington. This is the sad spectacle.
And look who is winning: Russia. A rather sorry-looking “has been”, a country masquerading as great power only thanks to the considerable cash flow provided by oil and gas exports. This otherwise semi-developed petro-state gets to determine the mood in Europe and in America. (Consider this: even with all its oil and gas revenue, Russia per capita GDP is only $ 18,000 a year. This places it at number 77 in a descending world scale, below semi-bankrupt Argentina and just a few notches ahead of Botswana. Not exactly economic giants. In contrast, the US per capita GDP is $ 52,000 a year. The US is number 13 in the same world ranking. And do keep in mind that the spots at the very top are occupied by special cases like Qatar, Singapore and Luxembourg).
The West has a lot more wealth
This is crazy. A semi impoverished state with a third-rate economy determines world events. It should be quite different. The West, with its power founded on real wealth creation made possible by free institutions, should dominate. And we certainly have the resources. The combined GDP of the US and the European Union is more than US $ 35 trillion, compared with Russia’s mere US $ 2 trillion! However, instead of using intellingently our considerable wealth, we allow the neighborhood bully to determine whether we can feel at peace or under threat.
This is a bad situation. Sane people would call it intolerable.
Bringing Russia into the West
And remember that the whole point of bringing Russia into the G 7 Club (thus creating the G 8) was to make post-Soviet Russia feel welcome and at ease in the West. Ditto for its belated entry into the World Trade Organization, WTO. The idea was that a democratic Russia, willing to play by the rules, had only to gain from a closer association with the West. And what did we get as a result? The invasion of Georgia in 2008, and now the invasion of the Crimea.
An authoritarian regime
Instead of learning from the Western experience, Putin created his own semi-authoritarian state. For all practical purposes, he re-nationalized Russia’s vast energy sector, while he created a climate of open intimidation against any domestic opposition. And now he proved that he is capable of truly crazy things (Crimea) when he gets mad, as in this case caused by the blistering political defeat he just suffered in the Ukraine. With no apparent fear of any consequences, Putin invaded the Crimea, and then he threatened all out war against Kiev. And he did all this, in open breach of many established international law principles, essentially with impunity. Who is going to resist him? Nobody.
A post Cold War order?
In fact, stock markets sink when he makes threats, and they rally when he says a few conciliatory things. Therefore Putin is the modern tyrant who holds sway and whose mood changes we all must fear. In fact, as he is moody, all the more reasons to be extra nice to him, in order to avoid provoking another temper tantrum.
Is this our idea of the post Cold War international political order? Is this the end result of the carefully crafted “reset” with Russia smartly engineered during Obama’s first term, (and executed, I might add, by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton)?
Putin will keep the Crimea
That said, even though we may have a welcome de-escalation regarding the Ukraine, as I predicted, (see link above to a related piece), there is no sign that Putin is about to relinquish his grip on the Crimean peninsula. The region is now under total Russian control. I believe that, as soon as things calm down a bit, Russia will force a referendum whose outcome will clearly indicate that the Russians in the Crimea want a higher degree of “autonomy” in the context of a loose federation with the Ukraine. This will be de facto independence and de facto Russian control over the Crimea.
Is this the way to make constitutional changes?
In this case, the facts on the ground favor Russia. Most Crimeans are ethnic Russians. And probably they do not mind Russian domination. Therefore, my sense is that, as long as there will be no formal breaches of basic international law principles (such as an outright annexation) the world will acquiesce. That said, even though the Russians in the Crimea may indeed prefer greater autonomy, and do not mind a closer association with Russia, this is certainly not the way to put forward a constitutional change agenda.
This way of doing things, with a clear military threat in the background, sets a bad precedent. And this is not good. Not good at all.