The Gendarme of Eurasia

20 Mar


My new article for Warscapes, “The Gendarme of Eurasia.” Here’s the opening excerpt:

In 1830, in response to the crowning of Louis-Philippe as king of France after revolution deposed Charles X, Russia’s Nicholas I wrote, “However, our allies, without agreeing beforehand with us on a step so important, so decisive, hastened…to crown insurrection and usurpation—a fatal, incomprehensible step to which must be attributed the series of misfortunes which has not since ceased plaguing Europe.” These words could have easily been spoken by Vladimir Putin about Kyiv. Shave off the literary flourish and exchange “allies” for “partners” and “Europe” for “Eurasia,” Nicholas I’s trepidation about revolution in nineteenth century Europe speaks to Putin’s alarm about the destabilizing nature of revolution in the twenty-first century. Putin’s pushback against his Western “partners’” fancy for revolution was on full display in his speech (here in English) before members of the Russian government. The speech wove together romantic, even volkish, Russian nationalism, anti-Westernism and Russian exceptionalism, and anti-revolution. A Gendarme of Eurasia has risen! But do the verbal epaulets of a gendarme make a different Putin? A Putin 3.0? I say rather than a new Putin, we’re seeing a crystallization of positions that have been apparent since he returned to the presidency in 2012.

Read on . . .


Infantilizing Putin

13 Mar


My new column for Russia Magazein, “Infantilizing Putin.” Here’s an excerpt:

Last week, The New York Times lamented the dearth of Russian specialists to comment on the crisis in Crimea. “As a result, Russia experts say, there has been less internal resistance to American presidents seeking to superimpose their notions on a large and complex nation of 140 million people led by a former K.G.B. operative with a zero-sum view of the world,” writes Jason Horowitz. Presidents aren’t the only ones making superimposition upon superimposition. The persistent caricature of Russia, and in particular, its president Vladimir Putin is alive and well. Since Russia’s occupation of Crimea, entering Putin’s mind, let alone understanding his logic, has become a booming industry. Everyone, it seems, has some sort of inner insight into Putin’s psychology. Even pop-psychologist Keith Ablow diagnosed Putin’s being as “inseparable from the manifest destiny of the country he leads.” For Ablow, Putin’s psychology is “one part nationalism, one part narcissism.”

Some of this armchair psychoanalysis comes from the fact that Putin seems unclear as to what his endgame is. The over the top propaganda coming out of Russia coupled with Putin’s own contradictory and confused press conference has people asking: Is he insane? Simply out of touch? Suffers from a Napoleon complex? Or is Putin increasingly isolated from the world around him, a kind of cloistered and lonely Tsar surrounded by a diminishing circle of confidants? An excellent article in the Times suggested just that. Putin’s Crimea move was made with the council of only a few officials and born of frustration and anger rather than a well thought out plan.

One main thread in these psychoanalytical portraits of Putin is to infantilize him and his behavior.

Read on . . .

Interview with Mark Adomanis

10 Mar

My interview with Mark Adomanis who blogs about Russia at the Russian Hand on You can follow him on Twitter @MarkAdomanis.


The Cost of Crimea

8 Mar

If and when Russia absorbs Crimea, acquiring the peninsula isn’t going to come cheap. The real cost of Crimea might not be sanctions from the US and EU but the funding it’s going to take to support the region. Here’s how Leonid Bershidskii breaks down the numbers for subsidizing Crimea in Forbes Russia.

In the first half of 2013, according to figures from Kyiv Investgazet, Crimea (without Sevastopol) was fifth of 26 Ukrainian regions by the amount of net-assistance from the central budget. (In first place, despite the widespread myth of the “freeloading west” is Kyiv and second and third are Donetsk and Lugansk provinces). For these six months, Crimea received from Ukraine’s state budget 3.78 billion more than it paid in. If you consider 4 rubles to a hryvnia—at the rate until the end of last June—that is 15 billion rubles ($410 million). That’s 30 billion rubles a year.

According to Ministry of Finance figures on the distribution of aid to Russia’s regions in 2014 there are three regions with higher levels of subsidizing from the federal budget: Yakutia, Dagestan, and Kamchatka. For every Crimean, Ukraine currently allocates the region a subsidy of 15,200 rubles, and in 2014 Russia allocates to Chechnya 14,750 rubles a person.

There’s also infrastructure costs:

According to the Ukrainian edition of Insider, currently 65% of gas supplies in the Crimea are delivered by the 100% state Chernomorneftegaz which produces this gas in the Black and Azov Seas. You can, of course, change this proportion and deliver gas directly from Russia, but you have to build the pipeline.

Approximately 80% of the water comes to the Crimea through the North-Crimean channel from Ukraine. True, no one can cap the channel, but Ukraine is quite able to take more money for water.

Four-fifths of the electricity to the Crimea is supplied by Zaporizhia Kakhovskaya HPP, located outside the Crimean territory. Rates here could be raised as well.

Russia will have to either negotiate for the livelihood of Crimea with Ukraine or to build new infrastructure. The first would be difficult: outside of sending troops to Kiev if it drives a hard bargain, something will have to give. And second, it’s expensive.

Basically, Crimea is potentially a heavy economic burden.

As Forbes concludes, “imperialism is generally expensive. Imperialism during years of economic stagnation is ruinous.”

No Room for No in Crimea

8 Mar


Thus far I’ve been silent on the Russian military occupation of Crimea. I’ve found the deluge of media on the crisis quite overwhelming. I do have a stance: Russia has violated Ukrainian sovereignty, an irony considering Moscow’s often paeans to sovereign integrity. I agree with Mark Adomanis that Russia has made a grave mistake that will cost their economy and international standing. And like him, I don’t support invasions of countries on principle so there’s no reason why I would support Russia on this. I’m not sure if taking Crimea amounts to “a blunder of historic proportions,” however. It’s too soon to assess the final fallout. It’s clear to me that Putin has the upper hand here. The West has little leverage—targeted economic sanctions and visa bans just don’t rattle Putin very much. Ending trade talks, G8 preparations, and other agreements under negotiation will do little. The US and EU just have nothing Putin wants or cares enough about. The Russian president clearly believes he can weather any storm western powers conjure over him. The only measure I think that will put pressure on Putin is if Russia’s elite is targeted. By one calculation 20 of Russia’s richest lost $9.5 billion when the Russian market crashed last Monday. Continued economic dips could mobilize Russia’s elite against their president. The question is when Russia’s elite have enough collective wherewithal, strength and gumption to challenge him.

Putin is going to take Crimea. The question is in what form: as part of Russia or as a protectorate. And to do it, he’s going use the next week’s referendum as the excuse. Basically, he’s going to claim that the Crimeans voted to join Russia. He will assert to no end that it was done “democratically” and “by the law.” Both houses of Russia’s Duma are ready to accept Crimea. Few outside of Russia will recognize the vote, of course. It’s not even legal under the Ukrainian constitution which stipulates any attempt at succession must be put to a national referendum. Whatever happens, Crimea will become a contested sovereign space like other “frozen conflicts” in the region.

This move could also open up a can of worms for Putin. If he’s ready to accept Crimea’s referendum on leaving Ukraine, will he welcome other republics in the Russian Federation to hold votes on succession? Probably not. Still, it’s a potentially dangerous precedent.

Crimea joining Russia is inevitable if only because the referendum ballot is rigged. The ballot asks voters two questions. 1) Do you support joining Crimea with the Russian Federation as a subject of Russian Federation? and 2) Do you support restoration of 1992 Crimean Constitution and Crimea’s status as a part of Ukraine? There’s a box next to each question indicating a “Yes” vote. There isn’t a place to mark “No.” Further the ballot states, “Ballots left unmarked or marked with both answers will be disqualified.” As Volodymyr Yavorkiy, a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group, told the Kyiv Post, “There is no option for ‘no,’ they are not counting the number of votes, but rather which one of the options gets more votes. Moreover, the first question is about Crimea joining Russia, the second – about it declaring independence and joining Russia. In other words, there is no difference.” Indeed, as Halya Coynash put it: “There is no possibility of voting for the status quo.”

This vote will be a farce for many reasons. There is little time to properly organize or propagate it let alone educate voters on its implications. Plus monitors have to quickly organize and make sure the vote is run without machinations. Schemes might already be in the works. As the Kyiv Post noted, 2.5 million votes have been printed even though there are only 1.5 million voters. The situation is ripe for ballot stuffing. Crimean Tatar leaders are calling for a boycott. But it won’t matter. It’s likely that a small minority of Crimeans will decide the majority’s fate since there’s no minimum hurtle for passage. So on March 16 Crimeans are left with a non-choice: Russia or a protectorate of Russia. There just isn’t any room for no.

Image: BBC