Playing Putin’s Game
It’s time to start thinking strategically about how to deal with Vladimir Putin in a post-Crimea world.
Whatever the ultimate outcome of Vladimir Putin’s Crimean Gambit, now threatening to become a Donbas Gambit, it reminds us that the United States still has some unfinished business in Europe. Putin’s dramatic move into Crimea, and his subsequent sporting with Ukraine like a cat playing with a wounded mouse, is devastating to liberal aspirations about the kind of Europe, and world, we would like to live in. It affronts our moral and political sensibilities, and it raises the specter of a serious and unfavorable shift in the regional balance of power. But so far, Western leaders have signally failed to develop an effective response to this, to them, an utterly unexpected and shocking challenge.
Since the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union, successor state to the old Tsarist empire, fell apart, the former Russian empire has been divided into eleven separate republics. The closest parallel, an ominous one to many of these states, would be to what happened the last time the Russian state collapsed, in 1917-1919. Then as in 1990, the former empire splintered into a collection of separate republics. Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the Central Asian states and the Baltic republics set out on an independent existence. Then, as Lenin and his heirs consolidated power in Moscow, the various breakaway republics returned (in some cases more willingly than others) to the fold. By 1939, when Soviet troops invaded the Baltic Republics, from Central Asia to the Baltic Sea, almost all of the far-flung dominions of the Romanovs were once more under a single flag. Only Poland and Finland were able to resist incorporation into the Soviet Union, and the Poles were forced into the Warsaw Pact.
Lenin and Stalin were able to rebuild the tsarist empire first because they succeeded in creating a strong state in Russia, second because many of the breakaway states were divided and weak, and finally because a permissive international environment posed few effective barriers to the reassertion of Moscow’s power.
There should be little doubt in anyone’s mind today that the Kremlin aims to repeat the process, and from President Putin’s desk it must look as if many of the pieces for a second restoration are in place. Many of the ex-Soviet republics are weak, divided and badly governed. Many are locked in conflicts over territory or torn by ethnic strife. President Putin, whatever one may think of his methods or of the long-term prognosis, has rebuilt a strong Russian state that is able to mobilize the nation’s resources in the service of a revisionist foreign policy. And the international environment, while not perhaps as permissive as in the immediate aftermath of World War One (when Lenin gathered many of the straying republics back to Russia’s bosom) or the prelude to World War Two (when Stalin completed the project), nevertheless affords President Putin some hopes of success.