Countering Putin

It’s one thing to act as one thinks a great power would act. It’s another to be acknowledged as a great power. Vladimir Putin thinks a great power would freely take a bite of a neighbor’s land, intervene on behalf of a client, and flaunt its cruise missiles. But the real prize is negotiating with other great powers over spheres of interest. The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

But the great powers, particularly the United States, are not cooperating.

Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin sat down at Yalta in February 1945 to decide the shape of the post-World War II world. Putin would like a conference with Barack Obama and maybe Angela Merkel. And an invitation to join NATO with a request for Russia’s input on reshaping the organization. After all, Russia is a part of Europe and concerned about its security too. The Cold War is over.

The Soviet Union had a particular view of economic organization and applied it mostly in its own territories, reaching out to places like Cuba. The economic system was different enough that it isolated those places from the “free world,” where capitalism mostly held sway. That greatly simplified George Kennan’s plan of containment. Russia is economically integrated into the world, but it would like a different sort of world. That difference has not been clearly outlined in a manifesto, although it seems to involve conservative religious values and autocratic rule.

A great power needs economic and military might. Except for nuclear weapons, Russia lags in both. Putin’s recent actions follow a pattern of jumping into international conflict, then engaging Europe and America in formulating solutions. Europe and America believe that the nations most directly involved in those conflicts, Ukraine and Syria, have a say in their future. I continue to focus only on Russia’s great-power ambitions, as I did in an earlier post. Other factors are in play, but the differing worldviews of Russia and the US and EU require a very smart strategy.

I will call the US and EU position the post-WWII settlement, which includes the United Nations, the European Union, and other organizations and their rules designed to minimize or eliminate war. Russia’s actions seem attuned to a 19th-century realist frame, in which states demonstrate power by military means. Putin’s actions and comments imply zero-sum thinking: a victory for Russia must be loss for someone else, and vice-versa. The post-WWII settlement tries to avoid zero-sum situations. Zero-sum players and non-zero-sum players are as separate as the Soviet Union and the capitalist world were economically.

Putin’s moves, however, have been conditioned by the post-WWII settlement. He did not attempt to occupy all of Ukraine when his man was forced out of the presidency, despite his rhetoric about subversion, civil war, and Nazis in power. Instead, he used stealth backed by military force to take Crimea, pasting the semblance of an election on the action. In the Donbas, he first attempted to foment civil war and hid Russia’s direct military involvement. He put a veneer of legitimacy on his actions.

There must be a response to Russia’s actions if the post-WWII settlement is to be preserved. A tit-for-tat military response would break that settlement and thus play into Putin’s worldview, so the primary response must be elsewhere. Denying him the type of great-power status he is seeking is essential. That has been the approach of the United States and the European Union, led by Barack Obama and Angela Merkel.



The primary response by the US and EU to Russia’s incursions into Ukraine has been a series of sanctions. Additionally, Russia was voted out of the G8 economic forum, now the G7, and Crimea continues to be recognized as a part of Ukraine. Sanctions discourage merchant ships from visiting Crimea, although apparently these are being enforced poorly. Sanctions have recently been imposed that make the building of a bridge between Russia and Crimea across the Kerch Strait more difficult. Plunging oil prices have amplified the effect of sanctions.

The Normandy Contact Group was formed to negotiate the situation in the Donbas region of Ukraine, where Russia has encouraged and aided separatist opposition. The group  includes neither the US nor Russia’s proxies in Donetsk and Luhansk, and so neither comparable to Yalta nor allowing Russia disproportionate influence. The group has produced the Minsk Agreements, which have been poorly enforced.

Putin’s great-power idea of protecting Russian speakers wherever they may live has also taken a beating in eastern Ukraine. The incursion into Donbas initially seems to have been based on this assumption, but local Russian speakers had little interest in becoming Russian citizens, which is why Russia had to use its military in the conflict. Putin mentions this idea much less now, but it has not disappeared entirely.

Europe has held to the sanctions, even though they damage European trade. For the longer term, Europe is lessening its dependence on Russian oil and gas. Ukraine has signed agreements with the United States for fuel for its nuclear reactors and with South Korea to complete reactors begun in Soviet times. Russia has used energy supply as part of its geopolitical power, and that power is becoming less.



Russia joined the war in Syria last fall to protect its interests. US and European nations were involved, the Syrian army was looking weak, and Syria is one of Russia’s few allies. Russia wants to maintain its naval rights at Tartus, its only Mediterranean base. Russia’ stated purpose in joining the war was to defeat ISIS and terrorists, but both Russia and Bashar al-Assad define terrorists as anyone fighting against Assad’s regime.

The war was another opportunity for Russia to force great-power negotiations on the United States. With both air forces operating in the same space, negotiations were necessary at minimum to prevent them from damaging each other. The two have now arrived at a limited ceasefire and potential plan against ISIS. Being recognized in this way is a partial success for Russia’s great-power ambitions.

However, Russia will have to restrain its client, Assad, in ways that it has not so far demonstrated. After this latest agreement was announced, Assad declared that he would take back all of Syria and prevented humanitarian aid from reaching Aleppo in violation of the agreement. Today, September 19, there seems to be some movement on allowing aid into besieged cities.

Although Assad’s independence may be a charade between Syria and Russia to allow continued regime military action while Russia appears to pursue an end to hostilities, it may also be a real split. If the latter, Assad is presenting Russia with the same difficulty that Ukraine has: small countries have agency in today’s world. The great power paradigm no longer predominates.

The current agreement, if it holds, is only a first step. Negotiations toward a real peace will have to involve the Assad government and militia groups. Russia may retain its ally and naval base, but the resulting agreement will not be simply between the US and Russia.


Hacking The Election

The United States government has been surprisingly candid about suspicions that the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other hacks relating to the ongoing presidential election campaign are by Russia. Putin has denied involvement, of course, although in careful words and with a smirk. Material about US athletes’ health, emails outlining a prevalent practice of awarding ambassadorships for campaign support, and Colin Powell’s emails seem to have little news value. Journalists have questioned the ethics of publishing such material.

Russia’s purpose is likely to undermine confindence in the US political process. Donald Trump, in his own way, is contributing to this with his recurring suggestion that the system is “rigged.” It is a common theme in Russian propaganda outlets like Sputnik and RT, on which Trump recently appeared.

The forthright US government response is an attempt to damp the influence of the material. It is also pointing out that emails may be modified or created by those releasing them, and at least one email has been found with obvious signs of tampering.

These actions, on all sides, will continue through the election. It’s not possible to predict in more detail than that. Results so far include a strong anti-Trump reaction among communities of eastern European extraction for his lean toward Russia. Julian Assange, who has participated in the release of some of the hacked information, is coming across as a tool and an anti-Clinton crank, damaging whatever credibility he may have left. Articles in major newspapers point out Kremlin propaganda influence. The government’s willingness to pin hacks on Russia has encouraged this kind of reporting.

The administration is trying to avoid a cyber or other war. Putin is flexing his cyber muscles, but, once again, the US is not playing that game.


The Counterstrategy

Obama and Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel have been the primary practitioners of the counterstrategy against Putin’s attempts at restoring great-power geopolitics. Their objective is to maintain the post-WWII settlement and deny Putin his objective of great-power status for Russia.

So far, they are holding, but success cannot be measured short-term.  It will be some time before Crimea is returned to Ukraine, but meanwhile it will not be recognized as part of Russia by most of the world. The desirable long-term outcome is that Russia give up starting frozen conflicts in attempts to subordinate its neighbors. The sanctions are intended to pressure Russia toward joining the post-WWII settlement.

Jeffrey Goldberg’s long article in the April 2016 Atlantic is the fullest available exposition of Obama’s strategy. My summary of the salient points, using some of Obama’s and Goldberg’s words:

  • Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence.
  • Diplomacy and technocrats and bureaucrats help to keep America safe and secure.
  • When we deploy troops, there’s always a sense on the part of other countries that, even where necessary, sovereignty is being violated.
  • Putin wants to be seen as the US’s peer and as working with us. He knows that Russia’s position in the world is diminished.
  • Countries respond based on their interests; talking tough or military action elsewhere has little, if any effect.
  • Russia is overextended in Syria, the Russian economy is bleeding, so time is on America’s side.

A couple of quotes from Obama:

I believe that we have to avoid being simplistic. I think we have to build resilience and make sure that our political debates are grounded in reality. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of theater in political communications; it’s that the habits we—the media, politicians—have gotten into, and how we talk about these issues, are so detached so often from what we need to be doing that.

[F]or me to satisfy the cable news hype-fest would lead to us making worse and worse decisions over time.

Goldberg displays what Obama seems to be talking about.

The president’s unwillingness to counter the baiting by American adversaries can feel emotionally unsatisfying, I said, and I told him that every so often, I’d like to see him give Vladimir Putin the finger. It’s atavistic, I said, understanding my audience.

“It is,” the president responded coolly. “This is what they’re looking for.”

All this is consistent with my analysis above and in the earlier post.

Putin has not been able to set up a great-power agreement on spheres of influence in Ukraine. Russian military intervention in Syria has become more complicated than he likely expected. There is an agreement with the United States on a way forward, but it is rapidly fraying. Even if the current agreement holds, a peace can only be assured by many participants’ agreement.

What more might Putin do? He has been projecting military force into the South China Sea, a potential hotspot. A closer alliance with China would gain a significant ally, but Russia would unambiguously be the junior partner. The greatest danger is that he will escalate military force in Ukraine or somewhere in Europe. Obama:

The path that Putin is taking is not going to help them overcome those challenges. But in that environment, the temptation to project military force to show greatness is strong, and that’s what Putin’s inclination is. So I don’t underestimate the dangers there.

There is still room to meet Russian escalations by other than force. New sanctions are added regularly to those existing. The “nuclear option” would be exclusion from SWIFT, the interbank transfer organization. That would devastate the Russian economy.

Events now in motion may take their toll. Russia may exhaust one of its sovereign wealth funds by 2017 if low oil prices continue. Its military is spread thinner with each intervention. Russia must defend its long border with China, and it is expanding operations in the Arctic. Its system of drafting young men for the military is inefficient and requires large personnel changes in the fall. At some point, Moscow will reach a limit in what military interventions it can support.

For those who favor military action to counter Putin’s aggression, this strategy of sanctions, exclusion from decision-making bodies, maintaining the rights of smaller countries where negotiation is necessary, and taking advantage of time may seem the same as inaction. But it’s  not at all clear that military action will provide results, as Putin may be learning in Syria.

The greatest weakness of military actions, however is that they would go far to ending the post-WWII settlement and bringing the world into something that looks much more like it did before World War I. It would be a shame to recreate the half-century that followed.


Photo credit: Politico


  1. The Blog Fodder · September 19, 2016

    Excellent article. Thank you. Sharing it on FB.


  2. John Coster-Mullen · September 19, 2016

    Excellent article, as usual! After the complete collapse of the old Sovietski Soyuz, they reverted back to what they have always been, the largest “Third World” country on this planet. Except for most excellent vodka, what else do they make? No electronics, no consumer goods, no automobiles, etc…in short, nothing the rest of the world wants to buy except lots of oil. After that runs out, what will they do?


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