Reading Russia on Ukraine (2)

As I suggested at the end of my previous post, how one reads Russia on Ukraine has implications for how the West responds to the annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s destabilization of southeastern Ukraine. If the Wag the Dog school is correct, then Putin and his advisors (“cronies,” in this reading) are motivated primarily by insecurity about the stability of Putin’s regime and by fear of losing their power and privileges. Thus, it is weakness and vulnerability, not strength, that is driving Kremlin policy. And it is not NATO that worries the Kremlin most, but the risk of contagion from a democratic, liberal, pro-Western regime in Kyiv.


If so, then the most effective response by the West would be to impose sanctions targeting Putin and his team directly, ratcheting up those sanctions, step-by-step, if Moscow does not back off. Broader sanctions targeting particular sectors of the economy, or the economy overall, may help moderate Russian behavior by increasing popular opposition to the regime, but only over the long run. Moreover, Russian claims about its security and geopolitical interests in Ukraine are smokescreens masking their real objective, which is to provoke some kind of international crisis to distract the Russian population from problems at home, particularly declining economic performance. These security and geopolitical interests can therefore be ignored – responding to them would only encourage more acts of aggression the next time the regime feels politically vulnerable. In the long run, the best way to change Russian behavior is to support the opposition to Putin and push for regime change, or at least the advent of a new, more reasonable leader through the ballot box.

If the Great Power reading of Russian behavior is correct, on the other hand, then Russian policy is driven not so much by insecurity and fear as by assertive self-confidence, however ill considered and unfounded. In that case, targeting individuals will not be very effective because Putin and his advisors are not simply self-interested wealth accumulators; rather, they are state actors motivated by a particular perception of Russian national interest. Putin is not trying to protect an ill-gotten fortune tucked away in foreign tax havens – instead, he is doing what he thinks best for the Russian state and the Russian people (however odd that sounds to American ears). To that end, he is determined to consolidate Russian hegemony in post-Soviet space, and he will keep doing so regardless of sanctions.

If so, then the West should be prepared for a long period of geopolitical struggle with Russia over the external orientation of the countries along Russia’s western border, as well as the South Caucasus. Sanctions should be imposed not so much in the expectation that they will change Russian behavior in the current crisis (that is unlikely, in my view) but because they can undermine – eventually – Russia’s ability to project power abroad. Targeted sanctions against individual members of the elite are less important than sectoral or (especially) financial sanctions that undermine an already stressed Russian economy. And sanctions should target Russian military production in particular, while making the annexation of Crimea and the establishment of Russian protectorates in eastern Ukraine (and perhaps elsewhere) as expensive for Moscow as possible (e.g., sanctions on companies that do business in Crimea, and for that matter South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Transnistria as well). Most importantly, it will require a long-term, hard power response to bolster deterrence along NATO’s eastern borders, particularly in Estonia and Latvia.

That said, it is also true that if Moscow’s policy is rooted in national security concerns and a Great Power geopolitical project, it is at least possible that, after the current crisis stabilizes, an agreement can be worked out with Moscow on an overarching security arrangement for the region (see my earlier posts) that lowers tensions, reduces the risk of military conflict, and accommodates enough of the Kremlin’s strategic concerns to allow for the stabilization of Ukraine and head off future crises over Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and elsewhere. Again, the analogy is with détente with the Soviet Union – we need new rules of the game with a formidable Russia, just as we needed new rules of the game with Moscow in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Indeed, one way to think about the different readings of Russia today is to ask whether we are dealing with a typical corrupt, authoritarian regime – Putin as Yanukovich – or whether Russia is more like the Soviet Union, at least in the sense that it is committed to a geopolitical project that puts it into long-term conflict with the West and that presents itself as the champion of the global opposition to liberal democracy. I believe the latter – which is not to say that I think Putin actually wants or intends to restore the USSR, but in the limited sense that he is absolutely determined to establish Russian hegemony in Central Eurasia.

My view is that the Great Power reading of Russia is not only correct, it is the more worrisome interpretation. We are confronting a powerful and assertive adversary, not a weak and insecure one. Putin is not corrupt or irrational: rather, he is tough and resolute. However, if Putin were to leave office tomorrow, it is very unlikely that the result would be a more liberal and moderate leader (e.g., Medvedev). The regime is domestically more entrenched than it was two years ago, and it is unlikely that that will change soon, which means it would be unwise to count on regime or leadership change to moderate Russian policy for the foreseeable future. Russia may be much weaker than the Soviet Union before it (and it is certainly so in relative terms), and its ability to serve as the lodestone of opposition to liberal democracy may be much more limited, but it is not your run-of-mill, corrupt authoritarian regime. Moreover, it has, for now at least, the great preponderance of force in the theater of contestation. The West should be cognizant of all this in devising a long-term response to the Ukrainian crisis that combines hard power containment measures as well as negotiations (eventually) with Moscow over its geopolitical concerns. And the West should strap in for the long haul.