John Osullivan

If you think you understand what Putin’s doing in Ukraine, you’re not paying enough attention

Russia’s foreign policy has become a ‘Wizard of Oz’ mixture of fake grandiosity and real menace

If you think you understand what Putin’s doing in Ukraine, you’re not paying enough attention
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Vladimir Putin has won in Ukraine. Russia is on the verge of getting de facto control of eastern Ukraine, destabilising the remainder, and establishing its president’s cherished Eurasian Union. The West is nowhere — weak, disunited, and out-strategised by a master of geopolitics.

Hang on, that’s all wrong. Crimea was the high-water mark of Putin’s neo-imperialist vision. He lost control of all Ukraine when Yanukovych fell and most of it voted firmly to stay outside his control in the recent presidential election. He’s not even won the battle for eastern Ukraine, where the ‘separatists’ now meet a stronger Ukrainian military response. Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, thinks this is partly because the West has been united in aiding Ukraine and opposing Russian aggression.

On the other hand, maybe all this just means that he’s winning more slowly. Ethnic Russians and Russophones are two thirds of the east’s population. They want continued political links with Russia, to which they are culturally linked for ever. Moreover, their ‘separatists’ control major eastern cities. And Russian troops are just over the border which, for practical purposes, has disappeared. It’s just a matter of time, especially since Putin made Russia invulnerable to western pressure by concluding the biggest energy deal in history — a 30-year, $400 billion deal to export Siberian natural gas to China.

Well, OK, the separatists control major buildings in eastern cities, and they have enough guns and clubs to prevent others from voting in the presidential election. But opinion polls show that two thirds of eastern Ukrainians want independence and a close relationship with Europe as well as links with Russia. They have started demonstrating too.

So the separatists are feeling nervous—and not just because the Ukrainian army is killing large numbers of them. They fear betrayal by Putin, who called on them to cancel their referendum on independence and to embark on ‘dialogue’ with the newly ‘legitimate’ president and the formerly ‘neo-fascist’ Kiev regime. That same week he announced that the Russian troops had been ordered to return to their barracks. The markets briefly concluded that Putin knew he had overreached, wanted to avoid further sanctions, and would halt hostilities.

Confusing, isn’t it? And Putin at least seems to like it that way. Nato spokesmen doubted his claim of Russian troop withdrawals because nothing had happened the last three times he said it. And the day after the ‘legitimate’ Ukrainian president was elected, separatists launched not ‘dialogue’ but an attack on the government-held airport in Donetsk. Since western journalists on the border report that the separatist forces are both Russian volunteers and trained soldiers, that attack may not have come as a surprise to the Kremlin. And news agencies recalled that Putin had earlier qualified his commitment to ‘dialogue’ with Kiev with the regretful comment that it would be ‘very difficult for us to develop relations with people who come to power amid a punitive operation in southeastern Ukraine’. Battles in the east continue. Watch this olive branch in my hand; now you see it; now you don’t; now you see it again — oh, it’s a razor.

So what is Putin’s game? Conferences of intellectuals have been discussing the Russian president in the context of Ukraine in recent months — and they generally find the experience like trying to pin down Proteus. Historian Timothy Snyder, New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, and a slew of western embassies jointly convened a recent such conference in Kiev which expressed both puzzlement and distress at Russia’s success in persuading many on the western left that Putin’s actions over Ukraine were justified or at least understandable.

At an earlier conference in Vilnius of Russian, Ukrainian, Baltic, and Polish intellectuals (with a sprinkling of Brits and Americans), ‘Russia Reality Check’ organised by Lithuania’s Eastern Europe Studies Centre,’ those present divided roughly into two camps. Some thought Putin a shrewd, ruthless, cynical kleptocrat, principally concerned to protect and increase his vast fortune, to avoid any future imprisonment, and thus to retain power for himself and his clique more or less indefinitely. That was the optimistic view: it implied a desire to avoid serious conflict—or at least to confine it to domestic opponents.

But a disturbingly large number, including some former government officials from Russia and western Europe, saw the Russian president as bent upon a tactically cautious but strategically bold campaign to reverse the post-Cold War settlement of 1989, and indeed to go further.

A former Russian official with some personal knowledge of Putin outlined what he thought was his long-term vision, and reckoned its domestic stages had already been accomplished: create a strong centralised presidency, subordinate all arms of government to it, extend its control over private industry through corruption and favouritism, and make the media, public or private, an arm of presidential propaganda.

The vision’s application to foreign policy only began with the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. It is unfolding further with the Ukraine crisis. In succession it would include the gradual re-incorporation of ethnic Russians and Russophones in the Russian ‘federation’, the establishment of a Eurasian Union composed of former Soviet republics in Central Asia (with similar authoritarian regimes) to augment Russian stability and power, a rapprochement with China, the sedation and neutralising of western Europe, especially Germany, and finally a long economic struggle with the principal enemy, now isolated: the English-speaking world, the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, etc — in current lingo, the Anglosphere.

This was heady stuff and, for a Brit, even flattering: the Great Game redivivus on an even larger scale than in the 19th century! Does Peter Jones, I wondered, still stock swagger sticks and pith helmets? But two qualifications may calm the mind.

The first is the protean nature of the Putin regime, especially in its use of the media. Journalist Peter Pomerantsev, an Anglo-Russian essayist and film-maker who graduated with honours in the world of modern Russian media, describes the regime as a post-modern dictatorship ‘in the sense that it uses many of the techniques associated with postmodern art and philosophy: pastiches of other’s narratives, simulacra (i.e. fake) institutions, and a “society of spectacle” with no substance.’ He continues in a recent Legatum Institute lecture: ‘The regime’s salient feature is a liquid, shape-shifting approach to power… the leaders of today’s Kremlin can speak like liberal modernisers in the morning and religious fanatics in the afternoon.’ And that is exactly what they do — a regime run by its intelligence service puts on a series of happenings to suit the political needs of the moment.

In such a regime the media plays an especially important role (as indeed it did in prewar fascist regimes). ‘Politics as spectacle’, to borrow Pomerantsev’s phrase, is a perfect distraction-substitute for politics as who gets what, where, when and how. It is therefore an especially valuable technique for a kleptocratic regime. Whenever the populace seems riled up over something like corruption, state television will show Putin summoning leading officials and giving them a stern talking-to. The political needs of the Ukraine crisis were for an injection of jingoism into the body politic. And state television — Russia Today for abroad — obliged with a steady diet of anti-fascist denunciations directed towards Kiev. Nor was that without effect. Some of the Russian intellectuals in Vilnius were genuinely sad over the fact that close friends had been swept away in this fake-nationalist tsunami, along with high percentages of ordinary Russians. And the western leftists who were excusing Putin’s Ukrainian adventure, or so the Kiev conference intellectuals lamented, were probably repeating memes — Russia’s natural sphere of interest, anti-Semites running Kiev, the threat from the EU(!) — that they had picked up via Russia Today.

For the Kremlin’s postmodern media techniques seem to work as well with foreign as with domestic audiences. Thus, Putin announces the withdrawal of the same troops several times over and even gets credit for his willingness to compromise. Or as President Obama complained in a press conference, he assures the world that the troops in Crimea are nothing to do with him until some time later he cheerfully admits they are Russian. Or he publicly calls on the separatists to abandon their planned independence referendum while continuing to give practical military support to them after they ‘ignore’ him (those are postmodern quotes).

Pomerantsev compares these exercises in political technology to the final scene in the Wizard of Oz. Another comparison might be the satirical film Wag the Dog, in which an American president gets re-elected by winning an entirely simulated war. In Putin’s case, of course, the war is real enough — a recent UN estimate was that 127 people have been killed in the recent unrest in eastern Ukraine — but the dialogue is simulated.

Will that continue to be the case? Some of the ‘geo-politicians’ in Moscow who chill our blood with their grand designs for a world-dominating Eurasian Union may well be no more than touring cast members in Putin’s repertory theatre of useful ideologues — to be wheeled on stage when the troops go in and pushed behind the scenery when Mrs Merkel is in town. One of the advantages of post-modernity is that it is shameless. It makes major adjustments to the script — or strategic vision — without ever conceding that there was such a thing in the first place. And even when there is such a thing, a tactically agile strategist will postpone it indefinitely if he meets a harsh response or high obstacles.

The second reason for calm is that Putin is probably more aware than anyone of the formidable obstacles in the path of his Eurasian Union and its march to victory over the Anglo-Saxons. To begin with, Ukraine’s membership in his Union is essential to its success — and that outcome is farther away than when he began to squeeze Yanukovych into breaking off negotiations with the EU.

The spontaneous pro-Russian uprising he expected never occurred; it had to be goosed by thuggery and covert intervention. It has since led to a widespread anti-Kremlin nationalism among Ukrainians of all ethnicities. A Ukrainian president has been elected with the legitimacy of a clear majority and without needing a destabilising run-off vote. The neo-fascist parties supposedly ruling Kiev got 1 per cent each in the same elections. The new leader will get more western aid than did his predecessors. Putin can see that continuing a covert subversion of eastern Ukraine would probably cost him and his kleptocratic supporters dear — and invading the rest of Ukraine might even bring him down.

Even if Putin succeeds in destabilising Ukraine indefinitely, that is the most he can hope for. He cannot now draw it into his authoritarian stockade. Indeed, other authoritarians in Central Asia may be reluctant to join his camp or to yield it any real power if they do. It is their own authoritarianism they favour, not the domination of Moscow.

And the wider geopolitical struggle with the Anglo-Saxons? The Sino-Russian gas deal was a plot twist of brilliant timing, since it came after mumbled western threats to diversify European energy suppliers. A Gazprom spokesman drove home the message, comparing Sino-Russian co-operation in exploiting fossil fuels with western Europe’s reliance on wind in every sense. But it signifies no great geopolitical shift of power.

Turn from the worried strategists on newspaper opinion pages to the business pages and trade journals. There you will learn that it was Putin who forced the pace on finalising a deal that had been in negotiation for years (for the obvious reason that he wanted a response to western pressure); that just hours beforehand the leaks suggested no agreement on prices; that the prices agreed at the last minute will not be publicly revealed; but that they are almost certainly at or below the discount rates that Gazprom offers its traditional Central European customers. This was an OK commercial deal for Gazprom at best; it was a great political announcement for Putin; it was a shrewd exploitation of Putin’s weakness by China; and it signifies that hard bargaining will characterise Sino-Russian relations across the board — including border disputes and foreign policy towards third parties.

Even if China were ever to get into a serious dispute with the US, then a middle-ranking energy-dependent power in demographic and economic decline like Russia would not be much help. And China would prefer to avoid such a conflict, even with a stronger ally than Putin, because it knows that the idea of American decline has been vastly oversold and that it faces major demographic and economic problems of its own. As Josef Joffe establishes in his magisterial Myth of America’s Decline, even if China’s growth does not slow down — which would make it unique in economic history — it will catch up with the US by about the Greek kalends. And with Chinese military spending at about a ninth of Washington’s, military equality would take even longer.

Given a choice between defeating the Anglo-Saxons and tyrannising over his billions, Putin should do the latter. A master of political fantasy should never start believing it.

John O’Sullivan is director of the Danube Institute in Budapest and co-founder of Twenty-First Century Initiatives in Washington.