What to Do About Putin

After the fall of the communism, the Russian Federation, minus all of formerly associated states that made up the old Soviet Union, technically morphed into a democratic country. Supposedly free elections are held at regular intervals and the Russian citizens are free to elect representatives to both houses of the Russian Assembly (Russia’s legislature), the State Duma (the lower house) and the Federation Council (the upper house). They also democratically elect the Russian President every six years unless the Federation Council calls for an earlier election. The President serves as the nation’s chief executive officer and Commander in Chief of the Russian armed forces. The President also appoints the Prime Minister.

However, the Russian people, long accustomed to living under the dictatorship of the Communist party, appear to be only comfortable when their country is under the control of a very strong leader. Since Boris Yelsin unexpected retirement December 31, 1999 when he became Russia’s acting President, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, has been that extremely strong leader.

Vladimir Putin was elected and served as Russia’s President for two consecutive terms from 2000 through 2008 after which he could not run for the Presidency again. According the Russian constitution of 1993 a President is limited to two consecutive terms. Putin dealt that inconvenience by endorsing one of his protégées, Dmitry Medvedev, for the Presidency in 2008 elections. After Medvedev won the election he promptly appointed Putin as his Prime Minister. In that position Vladimir was widely regarded as the “power behind the throne”. Able to run again in 2012, Putin was again elected President. This time around he also managed to get the constitution changed so that the Presidential term was increased from 4 to 6 years. So now he can theoretically remain in power until 2024. As soon has he reassumed the Presidency, Putin immediately chose Dmitry Medvedev to be his Prime Minister. All of this was obviously very convenient.

To understand the typical Russian mindset, we have to go back a bit through history. Russia is a huge country, but historically its citizens are used to thinking in even larger terms. From the middle of the 15th century on, the Russian Tsars (as the Russian emperors were call) steadily increased the size of the country and the lands over which it had influence. By 1800, the Russian Empire extended from the Black Sea in the South to the Artic Ocean in the north. From east to west in stretched from Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea and also included all of Alaska on the North American continent. (Of course, Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 ending the Russian presence in North America.)

After the 1917 revolution, the Communist came to power in 1922. They joined Russia with 14 smaller states to form a federation of republics which eventually became known as the USSR or Soviet Union. This huge land mass was ruled from Moscow as one country with a very centralize economy. After World War II drew to a close, the Soviet Union expanded its sphere of influence. It continued to occupy the countries in Eastern Europe which the Soviet armies had “liberated” from the Nazis. The Soviet Union set up puppet communist governments in East Germany, Czechoslovakia. Poland, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania and continued to exert total control over these “satellite” states.

These countries also served as a natural buffer zone between Russia and the free countries in Western Union which joined with the United States to form the mutual defense pack know as the North American Treaty Association or NATO. NATO was formed to counter the military might of the Soviet Union and the satellite countries it controlled.

After the USSR fell apart in 1991, the 14 former member states of the Soviet, such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, etc., claimed independence and the satellite countries which had been firmly under the control of the USSR, such as Poland, Hungary, Albania, etc., drifted away from Russian influence. Shortly after Putin first took the reigns in Russia in 1999, former USSR satellites Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO. That had to be a diplomatic slap in the face of Russia. In 2004, former Soviet states – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovenia, as well as former satellite countries – Bulgaria Romania and Slovkia also joined NATO. More recently, Albania and Croatia joined NATO as well in 2009. Other formally Soviet aligned countries might also join NATO in the future. Russian leadership had to privately view these moves of its former allies as desertions and traitorous acts because they joined Russia’s former cold war enemies.

On the other hand, Ukraine, the third largest former USSR state after Russia and Kazakhstan, remained to some extent under Russia’s influence, due in no small part because ethnic Russians make up the country’s largest minority, 17.3%. In the eastern and Southern areas of the country nearest the Russian border the percentage of ethnic Russians is highest – from 42% to 77% and these people are often more aligned with Mother Russia then their fellow Ukrainians. According to a recent census 29.3% of the Ukrainian population consider Russian their primacy language while another study found that  Russian is used at home by 43–46% of the population of the country, though some Russian speakers identify themselves as Ukrainian patriots. On the other hand, as late as 1999, 30% of the population identified themselves, at least in part, as regretting the passing of the USSR and opposing Ukrainian independence.

The Ukraine is also tied to Russian economically because Russia accounts forover 40% of its inter country trade. The Ukraine trade with Russia is also three times larger that of its next largest trading partner, China.   The Ukraine is dependent on Russia for a high percentage of its imports, including gas and other petroleum products, and it imports 65% more goods by value from Russia than it experts to that country.

Russia and the Ukraine appeared to be heading towards closer ties when Viktor Yanukovych won the Ukrainian Presidential elections in 2010. In Yanukovych, a politician from the eastern region of the Ukraine, Putin found a very willing partner. However, he also alienated the large segment of the population with strong Ukrainian nationalist sympathies. Yanukovych had also been elected President in the 2004 national elections, but he was accused of fraud and voter intimidation. His first election resulted in widespread citizen protests which became known as the “Orange Revolution”. Ultimately the Ukrainian Supreme Court nullified the vote and ordered a new election which Yanukovych lost.

In November of 2013, President Yanukovych rejected a very popular pending association agreement with European Union, instead opting for a Russian bailot loan and closer ties with Russia. Again independence Square in Kiev was filled with protestors and as the protest grew and moved into the New Year, there were deadly clashes between the protestors and Yanukovych’s special police. In late February of 2014, Yanukovych evidently saw the writing on the wall, because he abruptly disappeared and sought amnesty in Russia. Shortly thereafter the Ukrainian parliament removed him from his post, issued a warrant for his arrest for the mass killing of civilian protestors, appointed a temporary President, and set up new elections. Petro Poroshenko, a pro western businessman was elected President and took office in early June of 2014.

As you can imagine Vladimir Putin was not happy with these developments. States which were part of the old Soviet empire had drifted away and with many of them had already having joined the NATO, a military alliance specifically created to keep Soviet military aggression in check.   Putin evidently decided he could ill afford to have the Ukraine build stronger ties with Western Europe and slip further from Moscow’s influence.

In addition, Russia could ill afford to lose its naval base on the Black Sea near the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol. Located on the on the Crimean Peninsular, which was formally Russian territory seceded to the Ukraine 1954 when the two countries were both part of the USSR, the base is the home of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet. It has also been Russia’s only warm water port since the fall of the USSR in 1991. After the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the Crimea became an autonomous region of the Ukraine and Russia leased its naval base facilities from theUkraine. That lease runs out in 2017. With the Ukraine in the process of forming stronger ties with the West and the end of the lease fast approaching, Putin had good reason to be concerned about the future of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet as well as the loss of Russian influence in the Ukraine.

However, Putin was technically limited in how approached the situation. Obviously, invading another country without provocation is a breach of international law. In addition, Russian had previously provided specific assurance to the Ukraine on this point. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine possessed the world’s third largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, though it did not have the launch codes necessary to operate them. In December of 1994, it agreed to give up those weapons in return for guarantees that threats or use of force would never be used to compromise the territorial or political integrity of the Ukraine. That agreement was finalized by the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances which was signed by Russia along with United States and Great Britain and approved by France and China.

I am sure you aware of recent events. Putin sent Russian Special Forces (Spetsnaz) units in generic uniforms over the border, and together with Ukrainian separatists, they took effective military control of the entire Crimean Peninsular without major resistance. Russia then took steps to annex the region.

Perhaps if Putin had limited his military meddling in the Ukraine to what has already been described, Russia would have been able to maintain its ill gotten gains in the Crimea, the insurrection in Eastern Ukraine would have died down, and the rest of the world would probably have done its best to ignore Putin’s bad behavior and go on with business as usual. But Putin was not satisfied with just he Crimea. He obviously wanted to destabilize the rest of the country and/or carve out territory to create an independent state or states on the Ukrainian and Russian bourder to server as a kind of buffer zone. Of course it is difficult to read Putin’s intentions with any kind of certainly, probably because he is making it up as he goes along.

Several things are apparent however. It was Russian agents who stirred up the Ukrainians of Russian heritage – the so call separatists – into open rebellion against the Ukrainian government. Early on several of the top separatist leaders were Russian citizens, probably Russian intelligence agents, before they were eventually replaced by Ukrainian nationals. Since the uprising began in May of 2014, Russia has been providing the rebellious separatists with weapons, including heavy weapons such as artillery and sophisticated air defense systems such as the Buk missile launchers. It was Buk launcher which shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Eastern Ukraine in July of 2014. The Russians have also been training the separatists on the operation of those weapons.

There is also ample evidence that in many cases the heavy weaponry supplied by the Russians have also been operated by Russian army personnel. For instance, the only tanks which the separatists had any access to are Ukrainian army tanks of Russian design which they may have captured. However there have been multiple sightings by neutral observers and US satellites of long columns of tanks crossing the Russian border into the eastern Ukraine. Those tanks are of a sophisticated design which never been sold to Russia’s allies. In addition, it seems that when Ukrainian army forces seemed to be getting the upper hand in key conflicts, Russian tanks arrive to turn the tide of battle. Yet Putin steadfastly refuses to acknowledge any Russian intervention.

Russian solders have been observed fighting with and directing separatist forces. Some Russian solders have even been captured by Ukrainian army forces. When such reports are undeniable, Putin’s says that those Russian solders are on leave from their army units. He would have us believe that his solders would rather spend their off time fighting in the Eastern Ukraine rather than with their families or chasing pretty women on a beach somewhere. Even separatist leaders admit that three to four thousand Russian troops have been fighting in the Ukraine. Eighty men of Russian 76th Guards Air Assault Division were killed in Ukrainian territory in one skirmish. As the Russian dead piled up, protesting Russian civil rights groups have been pressured into silence. Yet Putin continues to claim that there is no Russian involvement in the Ukraine.

While a tenuous cease fire has been in effect in the Ukraine for several weeks, the Russian backed separatist continue their efforts to take over key cities in Eastern Ukrainian still being held by the Ukrainian army. For instance, in the last 24 hours the Ukrainian government reported six attacks by separatists using Russian heavy weapons such as howitzers and mortars near the strategically important coastal city of Mariupol. Everyone knows that Putin pulls the string of his separatist puppets and that the cease fire can and will be broken whenever Putin considers to his advantage to put additional pressure on the Ukraine.

So what should we and our European allies do about Putin. He has been breaking international law and violating the treaty Russia signed with the US and several other world powers by violating Ukrainian sovereignty. And to date has gotten away with it. He has brazenly lied to us and the rest of the world about his military’s involvement in the Ukraine knowing full well that everyone knows he is lying through his teeth. But again the question is, what can and should we do about it? There are no real good options, and Putin knows that.

That decision would be a lot easier if the Ukraine were a member of NATO, but if that were the case I doubt if we would even be discussing this situation. Any attack against a NATO country is considered by treaty to be an attack against all NATO nations. If the Ukraine had been a member of NATO, I sincerely doubt whether even Putin would have bold enough to take on all of NATO. Russia still has a large military, but it is a shadow of the former military of the USSR. In a conventional war Russia would be out numbered NATO by a three or four to one ratio in men at arms, tanks, combat aircraft, etc. On the other hand Russia still has the largest stock of nuclear weapons in the world, but unless a country is stupid enough to use them, nuclear weapons are useless in the kind of conventional war one would expect in the Ukraine.

However, the Ukraine is not a member of NATO and the Western powers were not obligated in any way, expect perhaps morally, to come to that country’s aid militarily. Leader’s both in the United States and European countries in NATO would be faced with very difficult if not impossible tasks if they tried to convince their constitutes that it was necessary to go to war with Russia over the invasion of the Ukraine. The citizens of Europe especially would be unwilling to enter into a conflict Russia in their back yard. Putin of course knows this and that factor has always been part of his calculations.

Now some, including many Republican politicians here in the United States favour providing the Ukraine with better weapons, and the Ukrainians have indeed been begging the Western nations provide them with more advanced arms. Compared to Russia’s armament, most to the Ukraine’s weapons are older and less effective. When I first studied this problem, this was the solution that I favoured. The argument for this option is that it would make Russia’s forays into the Ukraine more expensive in terms of lost men and war material. It seemed like attempting to even things up a bit was the right thing to do. As one prominent Republican said, it would at least make us feel better because we would be doing something concrete.

Europeans leaders including those in Great Britain and Germany have been steadfastly against this option, and with good reason. The cold hard facts are that when compared to that of the Ukraine, the Russia military is massive. The Europeans argue that if Putin chose to order his military to overrun the Ukraine, the attack would be over in a matter of days even if the Ukrainians were give the best weapons they could accommodate. In addition there would be nothing that the Western powers could do to help short of declaring all out war on Russia. So far Putin has been content to use the separatists as cover while relatively small segments of their military engage in “stealth” operations which Putin has denied with a straight face.

Those who reject the better arms for the Ukraine option also point out that if the Ukrainians had better weapons, the Russians would simply be forced to use greater force escalating the conflict. The European are greatly concerned that with sufficient provocation Putin would no longer be satisfied with trying to destabilize the Ukrainian government and economy with small attacks. They fear that instead Putin would order his military to take over the entire country. On further reflection, the European’s arguments have some real merit.

Another option is one that not even the most hardline Republicansd seem to favour. We could give Russia an ultimatum that they have say two weeks to remove all of their forces and heavy weapons out of Ukrainian territory with firm assurances it they are not removed we will have our military destroy them. (Sounds like a plan that the last cowboy in the White House might have favoured.) Heck, since Putin claims that neither Russian forces nor heavy weapons have crossed the border, there should be nothing for the US military to destroy, right?

However, despite Putin’s claims to the contrary, I suspect ordinary Russians are well aware of their military’s involvement in the Eastern Ukraine and a large majority support the effort. Much of Putin’s popularity is based on his macho demeanour and what the Russian people see as his efforts to return Russia to the glory days of the Russian Empire and the USSR when Russia was a super power. With much of his popularity on the line, Putin might well feel he could not afford to back down.

In addition the US could not embark of such a strategy in Europe without the full support of our NATO allies, and there is no way the European nations would agree. They don’t want a full scale war breaking out in their backyard and likely spilling over into their countries. In addition, whenever there is a “hot” war between nuclear powers, there is always a chance that the conflict could escalate into a nuclear exchange. Both the Russians and the NATO forces in Europe possess small tactical nuclear weapons meant for limited battle field use. If one side of or the other made the mistake of using one or more of those weapons, the results could be devastating for all involved.

The option already employed by both the European Union, other countries around the world, and the United State have been to place economic sanctions on Russians government officials, business people and corporations (Russian banks, oil companies, etc.). This is an effort to force Putin to cease Russia military involvement in the Ukraine and to protest Russian annexation of the Crimea. The sanctions basically make it very difficult for Russians individuals and corporations to do business with the rest of the world. Aside from the US and the nations of European Union, countries as diverse as Japan, Norway, and Australia, Canada, Albania, Iceland, Montenegro and Moldova have all slapped sanctions on Russia. These sanctions have been gradually tightened over time as Putin refused to bow to the economic pressure exerted by the rest of the world. Russia has retaliated to a lesser extent by imposing sanctions which eliminated the import in to Russia of many food goods from Europe and the United Sates. That alone eliminated a $10 billion business.

Sanctions have been very effective against Russia. In addition, due to a world wide glut of oil, the prices of oil have dropped considerably over the last few months.   Lower oil prices have hurt the Russian economy in particular because it relies heavily on the exportation of Russian oil. These two factors have combined to devastate the Russian economy. According to the Obama administration, “the results have been massive capital flight from Russia, a virtual freeze on foreign direct investment, the ruble at an all-time low against the dollar, and the Russian economy teetering on the brink of recession.”

However, the sanctions enacted against Russia are swords which cut both ways. Counties responsible for the sanctions are also taking economic hits, though certainly to a lesser extent than those absorbed by Russia. Trade with Russia amounts to only a small percentage of our international trade so while our ability to hurt the Russia economy with sanctions is not great, but neither are the resulting negative affects on our economy.

It is a different story for the European countries. Russia is the European Union’s third largest trading partner while the EU is the largest trading partner of Russia. Consequently European countries are in the best position to hurt the Russian economy with sanctions. However, their own economies are also adversely affected by those same sanctions and by retaliatory sanctions imposed by Russia. Therefore the European nations were initially very reluctant to impose heavy sanctions. However, after those countries lost citizens in the shocking downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the Eastern Ukraine by a Russian supplied anti aircraft missile battery, their reluctance to apply sanctions was greatly reduced and tougher sanctions were applied. However, still today some of countries and economic segments in Europe most severely affected by the sanctions are arguing for lifting them.

Now one would think that the Russian people would eventually turn against a President whose actions are a large part responsible for an increasingly bad Russian economy, but not so far that has not been the case. Putin’s approval ratings, if the Russian poles can be believed, have actually risen to lofty heights since his military invaded the Ukraine. American politicians would love to have Putin’s 80% approval ratings. Now this all sounds counter intuitive except for two factors. First many Russians miss the “good ole days” both under the Czars’ Russian Empire and later as center piece of the USSR when Russia was a great world power. Many Russians see Putin as attempting to restore Russia’s greatness. The other factor is that Putin effectively controls almost the entire Russian media apparatus so the average Russian only sees and hears news accounts complementary to Putin.

None of the arrows in our quiver appear to be effective, so what should the US and the rest of the world do about Putin? Doing nothing is really not an option. Neville Chamberlain taught us that lesson. All out war with Russia appears to be out of the question and supplying better arms to the Ukrainians could well prove to be counter productive. Sanctions are having the desired affect on the Russian economy, but at least for now, Putin himself is showing no ill affects. So what can be done?

First all we need to join the European countries in continuing to prop up the Ukrainian government and its economy. One of the main objectives of Putin’s Ukrainian adventures is to destabilize the country’s government and destroy its economy, perhaps paving the way for another pro-Russian Ukrainian government. Since the conflict in Eastern Ukraine began the country’s economy has been in a tail spin. A recent Reuters article warned, “Ukraine nears financial collapse,….” The official currency, the Hryvnia, has plunged 50 percent against the dollar. A recent BBC article reads, “According to some estimates, the country’s economy shrank by more than 8% last year, driven in part by the loss of revenues from the war-torn Donbass region, where the country’s money-making coal and steel industries are based. At the same time, Kiev is shelling out billions of dollars to pay off its international loans and buy natural gas from Russia.”

Putin cannot be allowed succeed in driving the Ukrainian economy into the toilet. The International Monitary Fund is stepping in to help, but it may not be enough. If furnishing better arms is not viable options for the US and the EU, we must step in to insure that Putin is not able to obtain his objectives by economic means rather than by military means.

In addition, I strongly believe that the existing sanctions against Russia must be maintained and even strengthened for the foreseeable future. These sanctions are hurting the Russian economy, even if they are not hurting Putin personally. In addition, the effects of sanctions are cumulative; their effect continues to be more pronounced the longer they are in place. Sooner are later the Russian population is going to be forced to chose between their wallets and their dreams of national grandeur. Dreams are powerful, but they are much lower on Maslow’s priority of needs when compared to personal economic survival.

In addition, given Putin’s willingness to pay the price for attempting to increase Russia’s influence in nearby countries does not speak well for his overall national objectives. If he truly dreams of restoring Russia to its “rightful place in the world” I would fully expect him to continue to rebuild the Russian military. To accomplish this objective he needs the Russian economy to be running on all cylinders. If Putin proves unwilling, as I expect he will, to withdraw from the eastern portion of Ukraine and the Crimea, the sanctions should be made permanent. Since the sanctions will continue to be a serious drag on the Russian economy, Putin will not have sufficient funding to greatly improve the Russian military.

In addition we should work free the EU from their dependence on Russian energy products. European nations presently import over 30% of their oil and nearly 40% of their natural gas from Russia. This trade not only bolsters the Russian economy, but it also makes European leaders less likely to taken on Putin economically. The United Sattes has recently become the world wide leader in producing natural gas and will soon be the leader in producing crude oil. However, there has been a forty year band on selling American crude oil abroad. The Obama administration recently started to loosen that band to allow American companies to export American crude oil to Europe. More this should be done. In addition, the technology now exist to facilitate the exporting of American natural gas to Europe as well. The more energy options the Europeans have and the less they are dependent of Russian gas and oil, the better they will be able to stand up to Putin when he behaves badly in the future.

So the bottom line of an over all strategy I would suggest for dealing with Putin both in the short term and the long term is to help stabilize the Ukrainian economy, keep the present economic pressures on Russia in place and to create an economic atmosphere where the pressure on Putin can be ratcheted up if necessary in the future. Putin and Russia are tough nuts, but given enough pressure even tough nuts eventually crack.

Cajun   3/17/15

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