Putin Isn’t Miscalculating in Ukraine

29 Sep

Lilia Shevtsova, who I like a lot, has an interesting comment in the Financial Times. What she has to say doesn’t bode well for Ukraine or Putin. Putin has won but his victory is only tactical. According to Shevtsova, “tactical victories often end in strategic defeats” and Putin, by turning Russia into a “war state,” has “unleashed the process he cannot stop and made himself hostage to suicidal statecraft.” Essentially Putin has boxed himself in. He can’t extricate himself from Ukraine without a victory, and that victory—with the spent economic and political capital necessary to pull it off–risks “a loss of power.” I think this is pretty unlikely.

First Ukraine. Basically the west has given up without much of a fight. Sure there are the sanctions, which are taking a bite, but they just show how little leverage the West has over Putin. The West is unwilling to really defend Ukraine where it counts. Nato can bluster about the Russian threat and shore up its Baltic members all it wants. And when Poroshenko pleaded to Obama that he can’t win a war with blankets? He went home with more blankets. As for the sanctions, they aren’t going to alter Putin’s course in the short term. They depend too much on oligarchs enslaved to Putin getting together and pressuring him to change course. That’s highly unlikely to happen. If anything, the sanctions have forced a tightening of Putin’s inner circle and a strengthening of his autocratic hand.

So Ukraine has been sold out. Shevtsova writes:

The west dare not call the Russian incursion an act of aggression. They talk euphemistically of a “political solution” to the Ukrainian crisis, which means that the Kremlin’s interests should be taken into account. The Nato summit held in Wales this month demonstrated that the alliance is not prepared to do much more than condemn Russia.

The promises of lethal aid for Ukraine that have apparently been made by some Nato countries will not shift the military balance – though both sides have an interest in pretending otherwise. Western sanctions will not force Mr Putin to backtrack. The west has proved that it is neither ready to include Ukraine in its security umbrella, nor to live up to their commitments under international law as guarantors of Ukrainian territorial integrity. A New Russia (or “Novorossiya”) on the territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists is on its way to becoming a reality. The partition of Ukraine is silently being ratified by the rest of the world (emphasis added).

Still, for Shevtsova, this means Putin isn’t winning even though it appears that’s exactly what’s happening. In fact, “he is again miscalculating.” Putin thinks he can coax Russians into buying into the besieged fortress forever. Russians will tire of the propaganda eventually. Also, few are willing to die for Putin’s adventure in Ukraine. In fact, Shevtsova says that reports of Russian soldiers dying in Ukraine “has already begun undermining the patriotic mood.” Really? According to a recent Levada poll, only 42 percent of Russians believe Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine, and 54 percent think those that did die were volunteers. Fifty percent hadn’t heard anything at all about the Russian soldiers. Russians also don’t seem to be too concerned about the sanctions. A recent poll concluded that 84 percent of Russians agree with the ban on food imports from Europe. True, many don’t buy imported food anyway, but that says, contrary what many have argued, Russia isn’t sanctioning itself. Sure, an impressive 26,000 marched in Moscow for peace. But it’s going to take a lot more than that to turn the tide. Patriotism is hard thing to lick.

But the big problem Shevtsova foresees is Novorossyia. She writes:

The irony is that Novorossiya will soon become a problem for the Russian president. The Kremlin will have to contend with heavily armed separatists, embittered by their failure to secure a stipend from Moscow, just as the tide of protest begins to rise at home.

Moscow will have to keep its heroes at arm’s length. Those who are bravely fighting for a “Russian world” could quickly become a threat to Mr Putin if they were allowed into Russia proper. They are welcome in the motherland, but only in coffins.

It would be a problem if fighters began returning en mass to Russia with their guns in tow. This is probably why Putin has sought to “Ukrainianize” the rebel leadership and put forward a peace deal that keeps an autonomous Novorossyia within Ukraine. Russia wants to dominate the Donbas; it doesn’t want to incorporate it. Why formally incorporate the Donbas when Ukraine is willing to hold on to it and foot the bill? Let Poroshenko govern that mess.

So yeah, Putin’s going to keep Novorossiya’s heroes at arm’s length. Novorossyia is just a cinematic project to rile up the population anyway. The “heroes” have always been actors in a larger drama, and when this series jumps the shark, its production set will be folded up and the stage will be prepared for a new theatrical work to dazzle the spectator. The cinematography deployed to turn Russia into “war state” is all just the tactics. We shouldn’t so quickly substitute smoke and mirrors for reality. Putin’s real strategy is to hobble Ukraine and humble the West, and on that he’s doing pretty damn well.

The Revenge of the Sovok

26 Sep

The Russian Duma has passed the second and third reading of a new law that would limit foreign ownership of a media to 20 percent. The law goes into effect on 1 January 2016, but companies have until 1 February 2017 to divest their foreign holdings. The bill had tri-partisan support from the get go. Vadim Dengin (LDPR), Vladimir Parakhin (Just Russia), and Denis Voronenkov (KPRF) sponsored the bill. Every Duma deputy voted for its passage except three. Just Russia’s Dmitry Gudkov and Sergei Petrov voted against, while Valerii Zubov abstained. Given how these things go the bill will likely skate through the Senate and be signed by Putin sometime next week.

The vast majority of media affected by this law are cooking, lifestyle, fashion, health, and entertainment magazines. But the real targets are the few last bastions of Russia’s independent press: Vedomosti, which is owned in partnership with the Finnish media group Sanoma Independent, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, and Forbes Russia, owned by the German firm Axel Springer. Both Vedomosi and Forbes are often critical of Putin and the government.

Russia’s fortress mentality where Russia’s venerable politicians perceive the country as besieged by internal and external enemies prevails once again.

But how to explain this mentality?  Andrei Sinitsyn’s editorial, “The Psychological Justification of Isolation,” in Vedomosti explained things thus:

In the discussion of the [law on the media] in the Duma it was possible to hear from deputies that social networks result in disorderly sexual relations, glossy magazines work as a “fifth column,” and Russian journalists would not resent censorship.

This besieged fortress and moralizing rhetoric—the rhetoric of a Soviet teachers meeting—now accompanies many of the government’s decisions. The West is soulless, Russian orphans are tormented in America, the CIA controls internet, NGOs “work off grants,” the State Department is organizing rallies. And accordingly, Russia has risen from its knees; the state is most important, etc.

Curiously enough is whether the quasi-Soviet rhetoric is simply a political instrument or part of a more general and objective phenomena that can be called the revenge of the “sovok.” Perhaps both. Dividing the rhetoric of society is beneficial for maintaining power. Concrete decisions that accompany it may carry a specific economic benefit to interested groups. But they also reflect decision-makers’ misunderstanding of the tenets of a post-industrial economy and an open society. Perhaps here we see the effects of the conscious (and the accumulated) lag behind the progress.

. . .

Returning to the words and actions of the times of the president’s Komsomol youth can be explained by many factors. Perhaps the reason for the vitality of the psychology of the “sovok” is that a radical restructuring of the consciousness of society did not occur over the last thirty years. This correlates with the incompleteness of political and economic reforms. The European Social Survey’s study of Russians’ value system consistently shows that, in comparison to people in other countries, Russians’ conservative adherence to security and tradition (“the conservation of values”) outweighs the willingness to take risks and change, and the aspiration for power and wealth are by far stronger than goodwill and the respect for others.

The same fear of the new and the desire at all costs to hold on to the steering wheel characterizes the ruling elite.

There is a more complex explanation for the revenge of the “sovok.” Each manager is forced to choose between the loyalty and the competence of his subordinates. For a long time, Putin kept for himself the possibility of choosing the competent and the loyal, and supported initiatives of both. But at some point, it became necessary to choose the loyal to maintain power. The “conservation of values” again took over the willingness to change. At the same time, however, it was necessary to cut off contact with the complex outside world, which for sure arose as a project of the CIA, “and so it develops.”

On Obama’s UN General Assembly Speech

24 Sep

A key part of Barack Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly was the crisis in Ukraine, specifically what he called Russian aggression. “Russian aggression in Europe,” the US President stated, “recalls the days when large nations trampled small ones in pursuit of territorial ambition.” What followed was pretty much White House boilerplate. But then Obama said:

Moreover, a different path is available – the path of diplomacy and peace and the ideals this institution is designed to uphold. The recent cease-fire agreement in Ukraine offers an opening to achieve that objective. If Russia takes that path – a path that for stretches of the post-Cold War period resulted in prosperity for the Russian people – then we will lift our sanctions and welcome Russia’s role in addressing common challenges. That’s what the United States and Russia have been able to do in past years – from reducing our nuclear stockpiles to meet our obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to cooperating to remove and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons. And that’s the kind of cooperation we are prepared to pursue again—if Russia changes course.

This is the first time Obama has put forth conditions for the possible removal of sanctions against Russia. It was somewhat vague: Russia would have to take the path of “diplomacy and peace.” Interestingly, the return of Crimea seems to be off the table as a precondition. And by invoking the cease-fire agreement Obama seems was fine with Luhansk and Donetsk turning into a frozen conflict and dominated by Russia. Essentially, Obama’s support for Ukraine is rather light—the US will support the embattled country “as they develop their democracy and economy,” but nothing more. Obama is playing cautious with Russia, as he did by refusing to give Poroshenko arms. Overall, he favors good relations with Russia and “addressing common challenges” over a long drawn out conflict in Ukraine, even if that means Ukraine has to give up a lot as a result. I wouldn’t call it a return to the “Reset,” but clearly Obama is looking for some détente with Russia.

Putin for 15 Years and Counting

11 Aug

putin-17

On August 9, 1999, fifteen years ago, Boris Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin, an unknown, ex-KGB man to become Prime Minister of Russia. Then, no one would have guessed that Putin would still be with us today, and likely for many more years to come. For the anniversary, Oleg Kashin has provided long post detailing how the Russian press covered Putin’s appointment. How about the English language press? How did they describe this now historic moment?

Colin McMahon of The Daily Telegraph wrote:

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the man they called “the grey cardinal” in St Petersburg for his careful avoidance of the political limelight, is a blank slate to the average Russian.

For the third time in the last four tries, Russian President Boris Yeltsin has plucked from relative obscurity a bureaucrat to take over the post of prime minister of the Russian Federation.

Mr Putin has the added advantage, or handicap, depending on one’s point of view, of being named Mr Yeltsin’s preferred successor as president. . .

He spoke little, smiled less and, except in the hottest of times, wore over his suit a leather jacket that still says KGB. That deadpan style was on display on Monday night in an extensive interview on the independent station NTV.

He seemed guarded on just about everything, as if the interview were an interrogation and not a get-to-know-you visit.

“I have a wife and two children, two girls, ages 13 and 14,” he said. “They study in Moscow.”

Asked about interests beyond work: “Sport, literature, music. Which sport? Fighting and judo.”

If Mr Putin lacks charisma, say his supporters, it has yet to hurt his effectiveness. . .

Mr Chubais, a Yeltsin confidant regarded in the West as one of the smartest free marketers in Russia, opposed Yeltsin’s plan to name Mr Putin to replace Sergei Stepashin as prime minister.

A source in the political movement Right Cause told Interfax that while Mr Chubais considers Mr Putin a “contemporary politician” and a “powerful leader,” he predicts that public politics will test Mr Putin’s abilities.

At this stage, Mr Putin would be considered a long shot to win the presidency, no matter how much Mr Yeltsin might wish it.

Celestine Bohlen of the New York Times:

Nor do many Russians necessarily believe that Mr. Putin, 46, will still be Mr. Yeltsin’s preferred choice as a successor by the time the presidential elections roll around, several months after December’s parliamentary elections. Russian politics are littered with men who, at one time or another, held the mantle that has now been bestowed on Mr. Putin.

In Prime Minister Putin, Mr. Yeltsin will have a loyal servant — and a recent boss of Russia’s domestic intelligence service at that — who will be more ready than his predecessor to pull the kind of levers of power that might make even Russia’s most brazen regional bosses, an increasingly independent lot, think twice. Often portrayed as the kingmakers in the coming elections, they are still sensitive to the granting of funds and the release of compromising information — tools at the Kremlin’s disposal.

Brian Whitmore, now of RFE/RL’s the Power Vertical, wrote in the Moscow Times:

Vladimir Putin is a former KGB spy, a shrewd bureaucratic operator – and a completely untested public politician. He also has the reputation of a man who is completely loyal to his immediate boss. . .

But analysts say that Putin, an uninspiring speaker who rarely makes public statements, would be a tough sell in Russia’s presidential elections, scheduled for next July.

“I can’t imagine that in one year’s time it will be possible to turn Putin into a viable public politician,” said Yevgeny Volk of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Moscow office. Instead, said Volk, “Putin will be a useful and obedient tool in Yeltsin’s hands.” Putin, nominated for prime minister on Monday after Yeltsin fired Sergei Stepashin, has been director of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor agency to the Soviet KGB, and has chaired the Security Council, which advises the president. His views on important matters such as economic policy are not well known.

Several observers said that Stepashin was sacked in favor of Putin because Putin is a tougher operator, more likely to use all available means against Yeltsin’s opponents – Gennady Zyuganov’s Communists, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, and Russia’s increasingly assertive regional leaders.

Throughout his career, Putin has been a tough bureaucratic infighter and a master of behind-the-scenes politics who has been able to advance his career and loyally serve various masters.

Corky Siemaszko in the Daily News:

Putin, who admitted he had not “been involved in politics,” said he would run for president on his record in office in the coming months.

Yeltsin, who cannot seek a third term, gave no reason for firing the loyal Stepashin after three months in the job, but Putin suggested Stepashin’s failure to end the standoff with Muslim militants in the Caucasus played a role in his dismissal.

Political analysts noted the emergence of Moscow mayor and Yeltsin rival, Yuri Luzhkov, and his new political alliance last week as the catalyst. Muscovites were cynical.

“What do you expect from an ill president and his troupe of clowns?” asked a Muscovite named Marina.

Kremlin watchers, however, said Yeltsin’s anointing of Putin shows how desperate he is to find a successor who will guarantee immunity from prosecution for him and his allegedly corrupt entourage.

They also predicted Putin would not last long.

“He wants his allies to rally around Putin, but it’s too late,” said Columbia University political science Prof. Steven Solnick. “Putin has never even run for political office. . . . He’s not presidential material.”

Yulia Latynina opined in the Moscow Times:

Monday morning, it finally became clear who will not become Russia’s president in the year 2000. It will not be Vladimir Putin. He will not become president simply because prime ministers are sacked in Russia these days when they are just ripening. Besides, it’s impossible to stay for a year as an heir apparent to a sultan who is fanatically in love with his power and has only a vague idea of what is happening in reality. The astonishing fact that President Boris Yeltsin seriously considers himself capable of appointing his successor shows how little the president understands the political reality. Any nomination from him would inevitably cause a serious allergic reaction in the voters. The only thing worse for Putin would be an endorsement from a Russian lesbian association.

The New York Times editors wrote:

Mr. Yeltsin’s latest selection, Vladimir Putin, shares some of the same questionable qualifications as his immediate predecessors, Sergei Stepashin, who lasted only three months, and Yevgeny Primakov, who served for nine months. All three held senior positions in the Russian security services that succeeded the Soviet K.G.B., organizations not known for teaching the fine points of democracy. During the cold war Mr. Putin, who is 46, worked as a top Russian security officer in Germany, and most recently ran Russia’s internal security service.

None of these men had experience in economic management when they were appointed Prime Minister, making it difficult for them to devise programs that might revive Russia’s sinking economy. If Mr. Putin is confirmed by the Communist-dominated Duma, he will have to move quickly to show the International Monetary Fund that he is exercising budgetary restraint, collecting taxes effectively and taking other steps to justify a new round of lending.

Mr. Yeltsin’s clumsy efforts to stage-manage the next presidential election now leave Mr. Putin as his designated candidate in a likely field of far more prominent, seasoned politicians. Other possible contenders include Mr. Primakov; Yuri Luzhkov, the Mayor of Moscow; Gennadi Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, and Aleksandr Lebed, a former general who is now Governor of a region in Siberia. So far the only prospective candidate with strong democratic credentials is Grigory Yavlinsky, who has had difficulty building a national base. It is hard to imagine how Mr. Putin, with no experience in electoral politics and no organized party behind him, can expect to compete for the presidency.

Alice Lagnado in the Times London:

Vladimir Putin, chosen by President Yeltsin yesterday as Russia’s acting Prime Minister and the Kremlin’s favoured presidential candidate, is a loyal but little-known figure known as the “grey cardinal”.

Mr Putin, 47 and married with two children, graduated from the law faculty of Leningrad University before being recruited into the KGB’s foreign espionage operation. He was posted to Dresden, part of the then East Germany, for 15 years.

In the 1980s he became an adviser to Anatoli Sobchak, the head of the Leningrad Soviet, or legislative assembly.

Mr Putin’s conscientious work – he was said to have had the final say in all of Mr Sobchak’s decisions – earned him the post of first deputy head of the St Petersburg city government in 1994, and the “grey cardinal” tag. When Mr Sobchak, St Petersburg’s first Mayor, lost the 1996 elections, Mr Putin moved to Moscow to become deputy to Pavel Borodin, Mr Yeltsin’s administration manager.

In March 1997 he became head of the Kremlin’s Control Department, a watchdog body, where he oversaw relations with Russia’s 89 regions. There he was dubbed an “imperialist” due to his toughness in preventing regional leaders seceding from Russia.

In July last year his loyalty paid off when he was promoted to head the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB. But he received only a half-hearted welcome from liberals, who saw him as a reformist intelligence chief. He is believed to be a protege of Anatoli Chubais, the architect of Russian privatisation, It is believed Mr Chubais was a key figure in his promotion. “There are rumours in Moscow that Putin landed his post with the help of influential natives of Leningrad working in the Government and presidential administration,” the Segodnya newspaper wrote of his appointment.

Since then there has been some disappointment that Mr Putin has failed to meet important challenges. His officers still spend much time and resources on harassing environmentalists. The case continues against Aleksandr Nikitin, a former naval captain accused of spying, after he wrote a report claiming that the Russian Navy dumped nuclear waste in the Arctic Sea.

 

Putin’s Strategy Behind the Food Ban

8 Aug

The consensus around Russia’s ban of food imports from the US and EU is that Russia is only hurting itself. As a NY Times editorial, aptly named “Russia Sanctions Itself,” stated, “No doubt many producers in these countries will feel the loss of $30 billion in food exports to Russia, but the overall effect on their large and diversified economies will be marginal. Russia, by contrast, imports about 40 percent of its food needs in terms of value, and the Russian agriculture minister has acknowledged that the sanctions would cause a spike in inflation.” If this is the case, then what’s Putin’s strategy behind the food ban?

Writing in Slon, Maksim Samorukov takes a stab at Putin’s possible strategy. In 2013, the EU exported 10.5 billion euros of food to Russia, about 10 percent of its total agricultural exports, making it the second largest market after the US. It’s a growing market, Samorukov states, because Russia imports three times more from Europe than it did ten years ago. Moreover, these exports are important to balance trade in Russian oil and gas. Nevertheless, 10.5 billion euros doesn’t seem like a lot when spread over 28 EU countries. Nevertheless, some countries will be more affected than others as this chart shows.

sanctions_graphic

And this is perhaps what Putin is banking on. Europe’s agricultural lobby will put pressure on their governments and countries like Spain, which has the most to lose with Russia’s food ban, will break the solidarity of the EU. It’s wishful thinking, for sure, but here’s what Samorukov argues:

  1. The food ban will hit European farmers, and their discontent might force governments to weaken their resolve. Samorukov writes, “Farmers in Europe are very organized people, with extensive experience in lobbying and a tradition of organizing mass demonstrations at the slightest threat to their welfare. You can always find a group of fishermen or peasants at the official European Union buildings in Brussels expressing their indignation at the next food policy. And if it comes to any major changes in agricultural policy, then there is bound to be a crowd of many thousands. . .” Moreover, these farmers will have the sympathy of the population, adding to the political pressue. Putin is essentially counting on European democracy to work in his favor.
  2. The EU’s pocket book is squeezed on both sides. There’s the “pampered” farmers in western Europe that refuse to accept any reduction of agricultural subsidies on one side, and the poorer famers from eastern Europe on the other.  Until now, according to Samorukov, famers in the east were getting fewer subsidies than their counterparts in the west. But now the EU will have to pay those famers equally to alleviate the pain of the Russian food ban. “A unified EU budget, where agrarian subsidies make up almost half of expenses, cannot support such a burden.” Putin, therefore, is hoping that the EU financial woes will play to his advantage as well.

Samorukov concludes:

Russian ban on European food seems to have been invented in the hope to take advantage of these difficulties in the EU’s agricultural sector and try to split the unity of the Union. For example, the countries of southern Europe, that have little enthusiasm for sanctions against Russia, joined the them solely to not betray European solidarity. And now the imposition of sanctions would mean they would not only have possible problems with the flow of tourists, but also tangible losses to their already problematic and large agricultural sector.

Samorukov, however, doubts this will work:

The Kremlin certain in its cynicism, as usual, underestimates the principles of Western leaders and their willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of the idea of ​​European solidarity, especially when it comes to such lawlessness as the revision of the borders. But still the impact on agriculture was the best choice from the viewpoint of the proportion of losses and effect.

There’s also the shooting down of MH17 by Russian backed separatists. This changed everything, and explains Europe’s suddenly discovered resolve.

Though Samorukov doesn’t make the argument, I think there’s a possible third idea behind Putin’s thinking: the long term goal of reducing Russian dependence on the West. This project of import substitution coincides with the nationalist fervor that has characterized Putin’s third term. In the short term, Russia will likely increase its exports from places like Brazil. In the long term Putin is banking on the food ban to invigorate Russia domestic agricultural production. Russian consumers will certainly feel the pinch of this policy, but as Samorukov states, the Kremlin can reassert that Russia is a besieged fortress and its people must sacrifice for the sake of sovereignty. But this mobilization can’t last forever. The question is whether Putin’s strategy will pay some geopolitical dividends before the nationalist mobilization peters out.