By Elizabeth Pond
Risks and rewards in the international battle over the future of Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin is gambling that his superior short-term hard power will prevail in Ukraine. The West is hoping that its superior long-term soft power will succeed. Whose bet will be the winning one?
It’s the perfect high-stakes test of this new form of asymmetrical warfare in a networked world. Vladimir Putin relies on old-fashioned, “hard” military coercion. The West, by contrast, refuses to put boots on the ground and is seeking to deter any further Russian dismemberment of Ukraine by “soft” means alone – financial sanctions on Kremlin insiders and billions of euros in economic and institutional aid to Kiev.
The problem here is that withholding visas and freezing Russian oligarchs’ Western bank accounts might prod Putin’s allies to urge restraint on the president only after months of application. Further, rescuing Ukraine’s free-fall economy and strengthening its fragile institutions may require decades to show results. By contrast, Putin could deploy overnight 20,000 troops now massing on the eastern border of Ukraine to seize Donetsk or Kharkiv or even Transnistria.
This gap is the main topic of transatlantic consultations this week as US President Barack Obama meets informally with the G7 (i.e. the G8 minus Russia, which was suspended from the group over the Ukraine crisis), addresses nuclear security at the biennial summit on the subject at The Hague, and visits Brussels and Rome. As a senior administration official expressed it in Brussels, “We’re focused on affecting Russia’s calculus through these economic and political measures. … [W]e can calibrate that impact based on how events transpire in the coming days.”
So far Putin is winning his bet. His seizure of Crimea from Ukraine capitalized on the old Soviet precept of military surprise – in this case shock for three generations of Europeans who believed that such bald aggression had become unthinkable in heartland Europe. In three short weeks Putin’s masked commandos in identikit unmarked uniforms bottled up the Ukrainian warships in port, disarmed the 10,000 Ukrainian troops on the peninsula, installed a puppet provincial government under a man called “Goblin,” and delivered Crimea to annexation by Moscow. Strict control of Russian media ensured that Russians believed the unisono propaganda that painted Ukraine (depending on the target audience) as a hotbed of either Nazis or Jews who were persecuting Russian speakers. Putin’s domestic popularity soared above 71 percent.
Will Putin, flush with success, now go on to attack mainland Ukraine next? No, says Russia’s president flatly. But that’s also what he said shortly before he annexed Crimea.
Certainly a more skeptical set of odd bedfellows – Belarus’s president, Ukraine’s foreign minister, and NATO’s top commander – all warn of the danger of a potential second Russian strike. On Sunday General Philip M. Breedlove called the massed Russian forces on the border with Ukraine “very, very sizeable and very, very ready.” He stated that “[t]here is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transnistria if the decision was made.” Control of Transnistria as well as Crimea would give Russia a pincer around Odessa, Ukraine’s second major naval base on the Black Sea. In parallel, acting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia spoke of rising risks of war.
More surprisingly, Alexander Lukashenko too joined the critical chorus. The Belarusian autocrat and long-time Putin ally said the consequences of the takeover of Crimea “could be very dangerous” and become “a bad precedent,” especially for “states on the threshold of acquiring nuclear weapons.” This may have been a reference to the Crimea operation’s breach of the 1994 security guarantee that Russia explicitly gave to Ukraine upon relinquishment of its nuclear weapons to Moscow. Belarus, like Ukraine, gave up its inherited Soviet nuclear stockpile in the mid-1990s, in exchange for a similar guarantee from the US and Russia.
Russian commentators, both the few liberal critics and the many true followers of Putin, also anticipate further land grabs by the Russian president. Ex-world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who now heads the Human Rights Foundation in New York, has no compunction about comparing Putin with Hitler. Andrei Illarionov, a former economic adviser to Putin who broke with him some years ago, predicted Putin’s takeover of Crimea at the end of February, before the actual Russian infiltration of the peninsula began. Now he says on Russian TV that Putin has a detailed program to set up a pro-Russia government in Kiev – and that some people in the Ukrainian government are ready to accept this as the price of remaining a nominally independent country.
Even Yana Amelina, pro-Putin senior analyst at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, enthusiastically expects [RU] the annexation of Crimea to become “a precedent for South Ossetia and the entire post-Soviet space.” She gives three chilling reasons [RU] why “Russia in no way can be limited to a single Crimea”: first, the millions of Russian speakers in Ukraine who are being repressed and must be protected by Russia; second, “the fate of Transnistria” that “will be possible only after the reunification of Russia and Novo Rossiya” (i.e., southern Ukraine); and third, Ukrainian ally Georgia must now “reflect upon the further existence of its state.”
The stakes in this asymmetric high noon of soft-vs.-hard power could not be greater. The West – which now includes the former Central European states freed from the Kremlin’s domination as the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended – sees Europe’s whole peaceful post-World War II order threatened if a stronger state can once again expropriate a weaker neighbor’s territory at gunpoint. Putin, on the other hand, sees the entire East Slav civilization under threat if Ukrainians can slip out from under the tutelage of their older brother Russia and join the decadent West.
And as it awaits the collateral damage, the world too asks whether globalization and its evolving rules-based system for the global commons will survive this duel unscathed.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and author of The Rebirth of Europe. She has reported on Ukraine over the past three decades.
This article was originally published by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik e.V.