Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Crimean Chess: The Six Unintended Effects of Putin's Ukrainian Miscalculation

by Nomad

Vladimir Putin
By miscalculation, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have painted himself into a corner since his decision to back the Ukrainian separatists.
At least that's what one expert on the Russian economy and foreign policy believes. 

The Crimean Move
In the chess game  of international diplomacy, Putin's decisions in Ukraine have been more blunderful than wonderful. His supporters have said it was a bold act of defiance to the West but others say it reflects that the Soviet mentality is still very much alive in Mother Russia.

In a recent article, Chatham House's John Lough observes that Vladimir Putin and his advisers may have been correct about how easy it was to undermine Kiev’s control of the strategically important area, Putin seems to have "gravely underestimated the consequences."

Lough is a associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia program and vice president with BGR Gabara Ltd, a public affairs and strategic consulting company. 
The Crimean move, Lough implies, was not Putin's finest hour.
 He writes:
An easy tactical victory has triggered the prospect of long-term confrontation with the West that spells potential strategic disaster.
It is easy to mistake Putin's decision in Ukraine as an offensive strategy. However, it's probably a misreading of the Russian pyche. One of Russia's historical fears has always been its border security.

Putin has provided many justifications for annexing Crimea, from the mystical to the pragmatic. Not too long ago, Putin attempted to claim that Crimea has sacred meaning for all Russians. Putin critics said the speech was striking for its "messianic and defensive overtones."

One Russian Orthodox deacon said that Putin's claim that Crimean was sacred had little basis in religion. Andrei Kuraev compared it to Fascist Mussolini's claim that Ethiopia belonged to Italy. 
It was a good comparison too. 
Mussolini rallied his people with words that Putin could easily have lifted for his own use.
We shall face economic sanctions with our discipline, our sobriety, and our spirit of sacrifice.
In addition to the questions of the legitimacy of the religious rationalization , the claim seemed strange in other ways. After all, the Supreme Soviet in 1954 with Nikita Khrushchev at the helm, apparently didn't think Crimea was so sacred when it decided to transfer sovereignty of the region to Ukraine

A much more likely- and understandable- reason probably had much more to do with the Russia’s naval base at Sevastopol. Any talk of Ukraine joining NATO could have put Russia in the decidedly uncomfortable position of losing one of its most important military facilities.

In any case, the whole Ukrainian fiasco served only to confirm old fears of paranoia. The new image of NATO as a friend to the East was not something that most Russian officials put much faith in.  

Whatever his reasons, Putin is now having to face the music. Lough cites a few of the unfortunate effects of his Putin's misjudgment:

1. Except for the Russian speaking Crimean region, Russia has forever lost Ukraine. It has been a public reactions everywhere but inside Ukraine, the anti-Russian feeling is unprecedented. It is hard to imagine Ukraine every voluntarily want to form any kind of alliance with Russia. Ukrainian hopes have turned toward a European path of development. 

2.The Novorossia project, the Russian backed push for independence in the eastern regions of Ukraine, has failed to materialize. Primarily reactionary in nature, Putin failed to establish any valid objections. Lough writes:
It has left Russia with the responsibility of propping up separatist entities in southeast Ukraine that bring no obvious value beyond inflicting economic damage on the rest of Ukraine.
3. Putin underestimated the level of resolve shown by President Obama and most of the European leaders to the events in Crimea. He failed to predict this response and then failed to consider what effect sanctions would have at a time when oil prices were plunging.
These are contributing to serious economic problems, and there is a real danger that a decline in living standards will feed dissatisfaction with Putin’s policies.
4. The Russian president's police in Crimea has had unintended- yet predictable- consequences when it came to NATO. In recent years, there had been serious questions about the mission of the organization in the post-Soviet era. For example, in 1997, NATO officials were openly discussing the new role -if any- was to play as an organization. NATO no longer considered the former Soviet Union to be an adversary and were directing effort as attempting to "erase divisions on the European continent."

Due to Putin's poorly thought out Crimean adventure, Russia’s actions, says Lough, have reactivated NATO’s core mission of collective defense.
After two largely fruitless decades of trying to develop a security partnership with Moscow, NATO countries are going back to the drawing board to reconfigure their security and defense policies.
5. Russian actions in Crimea has jarred its neighbors on its borders. Moscow's "unpredictable behavior" has made its close partners question whether when push comes to shove Russia would honor the treaties and the terms of the alliances it has made. Can Russia be trusted? is the basic question they must now ask themselves.
This reduced level of trust will compromise Moscow’s efforts to develop the Eurasian Union as a platform for promoting Russia’s global influence.
6. Lough notes too that Russia, in order to offset deterioration with the Western relations, has has affected closer ties with India and to a greater extent to China. Early last month, Putin himself traveled to India for a one-day summit. Billions of dollars' worth of economic agreements were signed on energy, precious stones and military equipment. (Russia is the largest supplier of military equipment to India,) The terms of economic and trade deals with China appear more advantageous to Beijing than Moscow. 

Arrangements like this might look good on the short term but, says Lough, mortgaging Russia’s future to its eastern neighbor hardly looks like the actions of a nation challenging Western hegemony.
It looks much like a country that has lost the trust of its friends and neighbors and is on a quest for new relations.

So what options does Putin have left? After narrowing his options to a precious few, says Lough, "the most logical course open to Putin will be to escalate the conflict with the West." Backing down is simply not in his nature.

He is much more likely to try to find some way to fracture the "new-found resilience" of the Western response.

The Turkish Gambit
That seems to be an accurate assessment. But upon which door would Putin knock? Putin turned to Turkey, the alliance's only Muslim member and in many respects, NATO's weakest link. 

Earlier Russia decided to cancel a gas pipeline to Bulgaria the so-called Southern Stream- and open a new line- through Turkey. The proposed undersea pipeline to Turkey, with an annual capacity of 63 billion cubic metres (bcm), more than four times Turkey's annual purchases from Russia, would face no such problems.

This couldn't have made Turkey happier. It has its own aspirations to become the regional energy hub, which it will then export to Europe on its own commercial terms. (In addition to this, Russia has agreed to build and help finance Turkey's first nuclear power plant at a cost of $20 billion.) 

Having Europeans dependent on Turkey for its energy, for many proud Turks, this new importance undoubtedly has its appeal. For decades, the European Union has debated whether Turkey actually qualifies as a prospective member. Many excuses have been used by both France and Germany over the years, including Turkey's questionable commitment to human rights and European values. 

Turkey's deepening energy ties with Russia are likely to raise eyebrows in Europe and the United States. Such strong economic bonds and energy dependence has some people wondering whether Russia, with Turkish cooperation, is attempting to create friction within NATO itself. How Europe and the US plan to deal with this possibility is unclear. 

Food for Thought
Equally unclear is how the economic pressures, caused by the sanctions in tandem with the stunning fall in oil prices, will affect Putin domestically. Putin's popularity is based on his ability to control the discussion in the large state-dependent media. For that reason, there's no reason to expect economic hardships to cause Russians to grab pitch forks and torches.
With a Putin's popularity ranking at around 80%, the people are, in fact, just as likely to become more defiant and stand with their leader.

On the other hand, we have yet to see a recessionary effect appear on the Russian main street but it is only a matter of time. For the average Russian, Putin's nostalgic desire for the good old Soviet days may not be so welcome a walk down memory lane.
Imported goods may become harder to find due to the weakened ruble. Since Russia imports about 40 percent of its food - a completely inexcusable condition for any country- Russians should expect to see some bad news at the grocery story. 

Putin's own past poorly-thought out decisions will make this hardship even worse. In retaliation for Western sanctions, Russian unwisely banned most food imports from the US and EU. Up went prices. NPR reports:
Some regions, such as Russia's Far East, are more dependent on imports, and prices for some items, such as chicken, shot up by as much as 60 percent when the ban was announced.
Economists are predicting that prices in Russia could rise by up between 8 percent and 10 percent over the next year. Is that really unbearable? If that's the worst, then it is more of an annoying reminder that things have gone astray than anything else.

Russia's Economic Development Ministry predicted at the begining of December that Russian economy will not only not see any growth for 2015, but is now expected to contract by 0.8 percent this year.

Putin's solution for possible food shortages was to turn again to Turkey. Last year, Turkey sold $7 billion in goods to Russia,  this could increase by 25%.  as Moscow turns to Ankara, among others, for food it previously imported from Australia, Canada, Norway, the U.S. and the EU.

Ahmet Ozer, vice president of the general assembly at the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce, could hardly contain his joy at the thought of the commercial opportunites. He told the Wall Street Journal
"This is 100% positive, we need to seize this opportunity, Russia can devour everything we produce. We don't have energy like Russia, but we have agriculture, water and farmlands; we must work them and sell our produce."
Feeding Russia's 141.8 million mouths for profit might mean a golden opportunity for Turkey but such backdoor deals to bust Western sanctions are unlikely to make many friends in Washington, London or Brussels. 
Greece, Turkey's European neighbor and NATO fellow member, threw a fit. Relations between the two countries had been improving but this food deal with Russia set Greek teeth on edge. Greek companies are, due to the sanctions, banned from doing business with Russia. 
In August, Greek government officials issued a statement in which it implied that Turkey was playing fast and loose with the terms of its treaties.
“The EU and Euroatlantic partners also need to make the speedy realization that we cannot have countries that are candidates for accession to the EU – countries that are in fact members of the Alliance – participating a la carte in European policy and benefiting from the cost being paid by the member states.”
If Putin's plan was to disrupt things in Europe and in NATO, those plans appear to be on-track.
*   *   *
Lough sums up the future of the Crimean crisis in stark terms. Things are likely to become more complicated and dangerous unless cooler wiser heads prevail in Moscow.
The irreconcilable pressures that Putin faces have created a situation that is beyond his control and is likely to encourage Russia further down the road of confrontation.
While not everybody thinks that the situation is inevitably going to lead to direct confrontation, the chess game -which can easily lead to even more miscalculations than we have see so far- will definitely continue.

That in itself is a fairly grim prospect for 2015.