The Putin problem: Russia holds all the cards, the West has to learn to live with it

U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden to Russian President Vladimir Putin (circa 2011): I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” Putin: “We understand one another.”

We have watched the world’s feckless, fumbling efforts to control Russian President Vladimir Putin drive to control developments in Ukraine and ultimately the “old” Soviet empire. To no avail – nor is there any real expectation of such.

Putin holds the initiative based on the cold calculations by other actors: That confrontation, let alone war, would be more costly than accommodation; That Russian financial interests in major European industrial and energy firms create political leverage militating against serious sanctions; and a recognition that real Russian hostility could scuttle possible solutions to non-Ukraine issues ranging from Syrian chemical weapons to Iranian nukes to U.S. transits to the Space Station. (One Russian official sneeringly suggested we send our astronauts/cargoes up by “slingshot.”)

Consequently, Putin’s opponents have elected to endure, hopefully contain, but not reverse Putin’s seizure of Crimea. Trivial temporizing has been the response.

[ David Kilgour: Sanctions can't stop Putin, the West needs a forceful NATO strategy ]

To date, Putin has out-manoeuvred the rest of the world and particularly the West. The sanctions implemented are risible; they simply have no effect on any elements of Russia’s decision-making hierarchy that could affect Putin. And they have no effect on Russian citizenry that reportedly gives Putin 80 per cent approval ratings and will continue to do so as long as energy sales pump funds into the Russian economy. Russia’s effort to play a “China card” in negotiating arrangements for sales of Russian energy to Beijing is currently negligible in real terms, but indicative of Moscow’s long-range planning should the EU develop serious alternatives to Russian energy.

Still, Putin is a Russian nationalist, not a communist ideologue. Thus Russian agents are not infiltrating African governments. Nor are new Che Guevaras being groomed for a Latin American revolution. The area of confrontation is limited rather than global; Putin wants to reconstitute the Soviet empire and gain acceptance for Russian hegemony in the former Warsaw Pact countries.

Part of the problem in countering Putin is that he is not your classic villain. Unlike Idi Amin, he doesn’t refrigerate his enemies’ body parts for later cannibalism. Unlike Saddam Hussein, he doesn’t run his enemies through wood chippers. He doesn’t harvest their organs for resale or even “gulag” them as did his Soviet predecessors. Indeed, given his approval rating, he could probably win a genuine, League-of-Women-Voters-approved democratic election if he cared to do so (which he doesn’t).

It is harder to raise a hue-and-cry designed to unseat him when dealing with the devil you know is preferable to other conceivable devils that could emerge from Russia. Regime change, like in Libya, doesn’t always benefit the changers.

No, Putin is purely and simply a KGB-honed bureaucrat who can identify objectives and count the costs for obtaining them. Happily, he is sane; we are far better off dealing with a Putin nuclear arsenal, which could still incinerate the West if unleashed, than with any of a variety of Islamic fanatics whose logic train legitimates suicide bombers as mailmen.

Given his approval rating, Putin could probably win a genuine, League-of-Women-Voters-approved democratic election if he cared to do so (which he doesn’t).

We can even hypothesize that Putin regrets the shooting down of Malaysia Air flight MH17. As the sobriquet translates: “It was worse than a crime; it was a stupidity.” Not that he will shed a tear for the 298 dead, but because it is bad public relations and distracts from his objective of destabilizing Ukraine and continuing to pressure former Warsaw Bloc states as well as re-incorporating spinoff elements of the USSR into a new Russian confederation. If Putin were truly Machiavellian, he would have orchestrated identification of some poor Ukranian/Russian separatist sods as “guilty” and incarcerated them for a future show trial.

Instead, he has doubled-down; he has blamed everyone except Men-from-Mars for the killings. And, for-what-it-is-worth reporting charges further shootdowns of Ukranian military jets by Russia-based missiles combined with a steady flow of weapons to the areas held by Russian separatists.

So much for the promises to withdraw Russian military forces from the borders.

Nevertheless, we are countering Putin in the most effective, economical way: a retrained, re-equipped, reconstituted Ukranian army is steadily reclaiming the eastern areas held by separatists. Now largely confined to Donetsk, the Ukranian Army appears poised to defeat the separatists comprehensively. That prospect leaves Putin with unpleasant alternatives direct intervention with Russian forces is certainly possible.

Ultimately, the EU must develop energy alternatives to Russian supply  Natural gas from the U.S., local fracking otherwise, Moscow’s boot remains on European throats.

(Photo courtesy of Reuters)

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as advisor for two Army Chiefs of Staff. He has just published Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.