Misreading Russia on Ukraine: Tom Friedman in today’s New York Times

In an op-ed in today’s New York Times entitled “Putin Blinked,” Tom Friedman makes an argument that I find unconvincing, to put it mildly. It is also one that I think Western policy makers would be very unwise to embrace.

Friedman’s claim is that Putin has gotten “pretty much everything wrong on Ukraine.” Putin was wrong in thinking that relations between states today are driven by competition over spheres of influence rather than by “The Square People” – that is, by people who want to join “the world of liberty and free markets represented by the European Union,” such as those who participated in the EuroMaidan protests. He likewise failed to appreciate the depth of Ukrainian patriotism and popular support for Ukrainian unity. Most importantly, he underestimated Russia’s vulnerability to economic sanctions. Friedman concludes: “In the end, it was Putinism versus Obamaism, and I’d like to be the first on my block to declare that the ‘other fellow’ – Putin – ‘just blinked’.”

Friedman may live in a “flattened” post-industrial world of transnational “flows” and newly empowered “Square People,” but Putin, and the Russian political elite, do not. Moreover, it is not peaceful demonstrators armed with iPhones who have been killing each other in eastern Ukraine – it is people with guns who are either directly or indirectly in the service of old fashioned states and who are fighting over state affiliation and borders. And while there are certainly a great many “patriotic” Ukrainians (some of whom are also illiberal ethno-nationalists), there are a great many Russophones as well, particularly in the east and south, who are convinced that they would be better off in an independent Donbas People’s Republic (or Novorossiya) or annexed by Russia. Nor is it in the least clear that Putin and his advisors have concluded that Western sanctions are biting deeper than expected and are therefore backing down. On the contrary, they apparently believe that sanctions will have only a minor and temporary impact on Russian economic performance, and they are in any case willing to accept economic pain in pursuit of what they consider Russia’s vital national interest.

Above all, I think it is at the least premature and probably simply false to conclude that Putin “just blinked.” I am convinced that the Kremlin is playing a long game in Ukraine, and Putin and his advisors remain as determined as ever to keep Ukraine out of the Western institutional orbit generally and out of NATO particularly. Nor have they given up on their long-term project of incorporating Ukraine into a Russian-dominated “Eurasian Union.”  They will therefore continue to stir the pot to one degree or another in eastern Ukraine, and they will continue to use the considerable economic leverage at their disposal, including natural gas, to keep Ukraine as weak and compliant as possible.

In short, it would be ill-advised in the extreme for Western policy makers to conclude that sanctions have forced the Kremlin to change course in Ukraine. Moreover, while the likelihood of a Russian invasion has gone down over the past several weeks, an invasion is still quite possible. The Ukrainian “anti-terrorist operation” is continuing, and there is no indication that Kyiv will call a halt to it, while Moscow continues to warn Kyiv against using force to suppress the uprising. It has also made very clear that it reserves the right to intervene to defend its “compatriots” in the east if necessary.