Conditions Favor an Expansion of Putin's Aggression
Eight thousand glowing balloons were released last week to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unfortunately, the geopolitical context of this beautiful event is less airy and luminescent, as relations between the West and Russia sink to a post-Cold War nadir.
Nobody expects Russian President Vladimir Putin's regime to relax its aggressive posture. However, could we be taken by surprise, just as Henry Kissinger was when the Soviet Union collapsed? Kissinger recently told Foreign Policy: "I thought I would see the collapse of the satellite empire. I did not think the Soviet Union would collapse or the Soviet system would collapse." Could Putin's leadership experience a like collapse? Or, on the other hand, could Russia further strain the pitch of its confrontation with the West?
Putin avails himself of the lack of unity and strong leadership in Europe and the United States as he tests the patience and tolerance of the West, but over the coming months, we will find out whether Putin is able to continue along his authoritarian, nationalist path. Putin faces an array of imminent political challenges: These started with last weekend's G20 summit, and will continue on Dec. 7, when Kiev wants to hold regional elections in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. (Ukraine believes the recent vote by the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics is illegal.) Finally, at the end of March, the gas deal between Moscow and Kiev is set to expire.
Western countries have long seen Putin as a scoundrel - but a scoundrel you could do business with. This has changed, and Putin now has more to worry about as sanctions and low oil prices have partly isolated and pressured Russia's economy. Putin's clique of oligarchs and intelligence operatives have lost a lot of money in the process. As a result, the Russian president is less able to trust his power base of old - which is why he is creating a new one. Putin is increasingly focused on traditional Russian values and nationalism, trumpeting a broad pitch to "the people" and to Russia's religious leaders.
As Putin's strategy evolves, the country's weak geographic position is bound to play a part. Russia's geography leaves its core unprotected by natural buffers, and foreign leaders such as Napoleon and Hitler regarded it as attractive prey. Russia throughout history has tried to solve its geopolitical problem through expansion, pushing outward in order to defend Moscow and its surroundings against invaders. This forces Moscow to exert control over a gigantic landmass. Such control has always required centralised, authoritarian leadership, which sometimes develops into tyranny. In that sense, Putin is simply following the same patterns established by many of his predecessors.
Despite the challenges Russia faces, there are plenty of reasons why Putin will not be pushed back now.
The first reason is force: Russia has the second strongest army in the world, and no neighboring country outside of China even approaches its military heft. The second reason is grounded in domestic politics: Putin is popular with the Russian public. His nationalist leanings in particular provide him with a solid power base. Even should Russia's economic situation worsen, the population may be slow to sour on Putin, much less to revolt. Russians are used to setbacks and misery.
Low oil prices may harm Russia, but according to Alfa Bank, these effects are often exaggerated. The drop in the oil price deals a tough blow to Russia's budget, its economic growth, and its trade balance, but it will be some time before this threatens Putin in any serious way. Moreover, due to a sharply depreciated ruble, Russia's break-even point for the price of oil has dropped significantly.
Meanwhile, Russia's adversaries appear weak and divided. European leaders face considerable domestic problems and are struggling to keep the European Union intact. British Prime Minister David Cameron is politically handcuffed, among other factors by the euroskeptic UKIP. France is in economic distress, and no more than 4 percent of French voters want President Francois Hollande to serve a second term. In addition, cracks are appearing in the "united European front" against Putin. Countries such as Hungary are slowly sliding back into the Kremlin's orbit.
Outside of Europe, the U.S. midterm elections cast doubts on President Barack Obama's ability to pursue a forceful foreign policy in his final years in office, while other powers are keeping their options open in responding to Putin's aggression. Japan avoids confrontation, and Russia's fellow BRICS (Brazil, India, China, and South Africa) are taking a neutral stance.
Even as Berlin celebrated the fall of the Wall on a grand scale, erstwhile Russian leader Gorbachev said he fears that Cold War 2.0 may be about to start. The reality won't be so severe, because unlike in the Cold War, there is not an underlying ideological struggle between the adversaries. Further, while Russia may cover a huge surface area and field a mighty military, it remains a shadow of its former self - it cannot engage in open battle with other large powers.
So if a shock is in store, it probably won't involve a collapse of the adversarial Moscow regime. Putin seems likely to hold power, and there is every indication that Moscow will continue along its belligerent course. Tensions will mount until Ukraine is locked in as a "frozen" conflict, just as Putin intends. If the Russian leader succeeds in locking in this conflict - and he probably will - Ukraine will not be able to openly align itself with the West. That is when Putin may be tempted to open the next round.