By Patricia H Kushlis
In a talk in Washington, DC last April, Strobe Talbot, Russian expert, journalist and former Deputy Secretary of State, described Vladimir Putin as a consummate risk taker, an excellent tactician but a poor strategist. Putin’s dream of recreating the Soviet Union, its predecessor the Russian Empire or something like a Russian Orthodox ultranationalist caliphate whereby the Kremlin protects Russian-speakers regardless of location is just that, a dream. It’s without a realistic vision, devoid of planning, in need of a reality check and, if continued economists predict, will bankrupt the country in approximately two years. (Photo left: Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Moscow, Dec 1991 by PHKushlis)
Is Vladimir Putin crazy – as a couple of people here in Santa Fe have recently asked me - or is he only paranoid with a dash of megalomania thrown in?
Regardless, his behavior is so bizarre that the US and Europe need to be on guard. I agree with Ambassador James Goodby in his recent article in the November 2014 Foreign Service Journal. I don’t see the Cold War returning. If nothing more, the Russian Federation is too weak. Besides Putin’s Russia has no ideology capable of attracting a worldwide audience as the siren song of Communism once did.
But . . .
Nibbling away at a neighbor’s territory violates basic OSCE principles. The Russian Federation agreed to uphold those principles in 1991. The OSCE grew out of the earlier 1975 Helsinki Accords which, by the way, were the brainchild of the Soviet Union. And the Russian Federation is its internationally recognized successor state.
Not only is a bankrupt state dangerous to a country’s health, its people and the ‘hood, but it can threaten a leader’s own domestic longevity. The Russian people have taken to the streets before – and despite the Kremlin’s seemingly successful efforts to squash them, they could do so again. The large Moscow demonstrations in 2012 were in reaction to blatant electoral fraud in favor of Putin’s party in the December 4 parliamentary elections. Yet then the economy was doing well - the Russian people had never had it so good and the Kremlin crackdown on popular dissent worked – but that’s not the case now. Empty refrigerators do not forebode well for long term political stability. And Russian agriculture has certain climatic limitations - global warming not withstanding. Frankly, Russian agricultural production was never all that strong and certainly not in the fresh fruit and vegetables departments.
A palace coup is not unthinkable especially in a country like Russia. The Bolsheviks did not gain power through popular elections in 1917. Mr. Putin should also not forget that a failed coup in August 1991 brought down the Soviet Union despite the George H.W. Bush Administration’s efforts to keep the Gorbachev government in power and the country whole - except as the record shows - for the Baltics which the US considered as illegally incorporated into the Soviet Union. Come to think of it, isn't the way the Soviet Union gobbled up the three small Baltic countries rather like Russia's take over of Crimea in March?
Unlike 1998, when Russia was faced with a huge financial crisis and the US and others helped rescue the country; or even in 1989, when the Soviet Union was printing money like it had gone out of style and the US supported Gorbachev for fear that hard liners would oust him, this time it’s obvious that the US will keep the derecks pumping at full speed. So too, apparently, will the Saudis.
Lower energy prices puts more money into American pockets and lower energy costs should profit US businesses. And this, in turn, will enrich the American government’s own coffers.
The flood of cheap petroleum on world markets as a result of recent finds extracted through fracking – controversial though the process may be - has lowered the price per barrel to under $80. It could sink lower. Moreover, the increased reliance on alternative energy, albeit insufficient for financial and especially environmental reasons, has helped reduce Europe’s need for Russian petroleum.
Even Finland, which relies on 100% of its gas from Russia, only uses gas for 22% of its energy needs. Furthermore, Russia’s recent pipeline deal with the Chinese – announced with great fanfare just before the G-20 - will take time to implement: pipelines are not built in a day – they take years to construct. Moreover, the Chinese bargain hard and have other suppliers.
For the Russian Federation to stay afloat once it has run through its reserves, the price per barrel needs to be around $90. Yet instead of curtailing nonessential spending, the Kremlin is doing just the opposite. It has increased the military budget, is re-nationalizing private businesses and turning them over to Putin's cronies rather than experienced businessmen and women to run and is embarking on any number of risky foreign adventures – from the most blatant military adventurism in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, to the comical dispatch of four warships off the coast of Australia perhaps in an attempt to intimidate the Aussies during the G-20.
Whatever the reason, the warship stunt backfired – or should that min-flotilla be viewed as a peculiar form of Russian bullying? It foremost infuriated the hosts and their allies and resulted in unprecedented criticism of Putin on the world stage. Hence, perhaps, his decision to depart early in a huff when he was publicly called to task.
After the fact military war games - that's all they were? Sure, right.
Toss in a rash of provocative military flights across the Baltic Sea upsetting the Swedes and Finns as well as launching an upswing of such flights off the coast of the US - apparently transponders off. And what about the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't mini-sub apparently submerged not far from Stockholm, the harrassment of Finnish research vessels in international waters and the earlier kidnapping of a senior Estonian security official on Estonian territory in a classic KGB operation. The Estonian official is still being held in captivity in Lublyanka, Russia’s old KGB prison in central Moscow.
So what’s this I read recently about Russian war games? They’ve got to be kidding.
More unnecessary risk taking? For what? To discover what? That NATO’s military and the Swedes and the Finns are not asleep at the switch? Maybe this kind of ultra-nationalist behavior still plays well among Putin’s faithful but it creates unnecessary enemies elsewhere.
Meanwhile, capital is fleeing, the ruble is depreciating, the educated are leaving and various world leaders have had it with Mr. Putin and his lies and empty promises. This was made clear at the G-20.
But what can the West do to convince Russia to change course? Russia under Putin lost G-7/8 status last summer. Will disbarment from the G-20 be far behind or not? Will there be increased sanctions? And if so in what form?
Instead of leaving its rag-tag special forces in Eastern Ukraine to fend for themselves against the Ukrainian Army – or better yet calling them home to spend Christmas with their families, the Kremlin has been upping the ante – supplying its troops with ever more sophisticated weapons and increasing their strength all the while clamping down further on what’s left of non-government controlled Russian media and harassing - of all groups - the Russian Soldiers’ Mothers Committee.
Propaganda, disinformation and public diplomacy: there is a difference
The launch of Sputnik.ru, the Kremlin’s latest propaganda/disinformation effort to influence Western public opinion occurred last week. Take a look at Max Siddon’s report of Russia’s badly photoshopped attempt to yet again pin the downing of MH-17 on Ukraine. Siddon reports for BuzzFeed. I understand he is one of the most knowledgeable foreign reporters covering the country: a Ukrainian speaker, he is based there - trust his reporting, not the Kremlin’s version of the truth.
It must be very difficult to be a Russian public diplomacy officer working for the Kremlin's master chef these days. No I don’t mean a propagandist or a disinformation specialist – those officials are clearly having a field day thinking up and then propagating all sorts of wild fabrications.
Public diplomacy, however, is about government officials connecting with the people of another country in order to gain influence or at least better understanding. To do so effectively means gaining trust – and trust comes from truth telling, not lying.
Much to my surprise, I received a copy of Russian Life in the mail just last week. Interestingly, the glossy magazine - perhaps patterned after USIA’s Russian language America of Cold War days - was pretty soft sell. I guess in a strange way, I’m flattered to think that the Russian government might consider that my views matter – but think again Moscow, I do not support the Kremlin's reckless foreign policy that threatens to upset the world order so that your country’s corrupt leader can stay in power and out of jail – or even worse.