by Ken Feltman
Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.
– Vladimir Putin
My comments about Vladimir Putin in last month’s Radnor Geopolitical Report drew many positive and a few sharply negative comments. Yes, comparing Putin to a boy who pulls the legs off spiders is a bit much. That remark was taken by some Russians as a slur against their country. Please know that the comment was about Putin, not Russia or Russians in general.
Invariably, Russians have treated me with friendliness, kindness, efficiency and courtesy. The Russian people are generous hosts and delightful guests. They have made significant contributions to many fields and have more to contribute, but they are held back by difficult demographics and geography – and by a government that values its security above all else.Comments from Russians were a bit guarded or defensive: “Your government is always opposing us.” “We are not accorded the respect that we deserve.” “Who are you to judge?” “Only Putin could have stopped the eastward assault by NATO.”
Comments from Russians abroad were generally in agreement: “The best summing up of Putin I have read. You see what I saw.” “That’s it, Putin captured.” “Savory.” “The word picture fits exactly.” “Will you dare return to Russia while Putin runs things? People vanish.”Americans were generally in agreement: “Such a perfect way to describe Putin.” “Yes!” “Now I understand his personality better.
“Europeans were guarded: “I should hope that you will not bait the bear. He lives in our neighborhood, not yours.” “You Americans cannot understand him as we do.” “He may be more dangerous because we underestimate him, as you do.”In these and other comments, we have many of the shades and tints of the world’s ambivalent view of Putin and of Russia. Whatever we think of Putin, we should admit that he puts Russia first. He will do what he believes is best for Russia. If Belgians get cold when gas supplies from Russia are cut off, so be it as long as Russia benefits. He has taken a country in a shambles and made it more formidable than at any time since the Berlin Wall fell. He has stopped the eastward advance of NATO and – with the recent voting in Ukraine – he may have assured the reunification of Russia with the country that gave Russia her very identity.
But when Putin dreams of returning Russia to her former glory, he steps away from practical and realistic politics and into a more emotional sphere. The task is not so easy. Russia’s population is shrinking and aging. Arguably, no national leader has ever been able to return his country to past glories. But many leaders have used the memory of past glories, both real and perhaps not so real, as a rallying point. The trick for observers is to know how much of a leader’s call to past glories is cunning exploitation.
What are Putin’s goals?
Russia started the new year by intimidating another former Soviet republic over energy supplies. This happens almost every January. Belarus was formerly considered as close to a Russian client state as any of the former republics, but in the past few years, things have changed. Belarus released a few political prisoners as part of negotiations to join the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program. President Aleksandr Lukashenko has also embarrassed Putin by refusing to recognize the two puppet states that Moscow is backing in Georgia.
Small wonder that as this winter got cold, Putin singled out Belarus for attention. On New Year’s Day Russia cut off part, not all, of its oil supplies to Belarus. Western Europe receives large quantities of Russian oil through a pipeline that transits Belarus. This year, the supply returned to normal in a few days, but Putin continued to pressure Belarus to accept a new contract that could force Belarus to devote 10 percent of its gross domestic product to Russian energy.
Of course, Putin and his spokesmen insist that this is merely a commercial dispute that involves ending Russian subsidies. They said that last January, when Russia shut down gas supplies to Ukraine and then to all of Europe; and in January 2007, when the pipeline to Belarus was closed down; and in January 2006, when there was a previous interruption in gas supplies to and through Ukraine. Putin again this year made a show of concern for Western Europeans who might get cold because a former Soviet republic would not accept reasonable contract terms.
Western European countries that depend on Russia for energy supplies have received their winter wake-up call. Germany, for example, imports 35 percent of its oil through the Belarus pipeline. The German government has been very wary of seeming to take sides in any disputes between Russia and her former republics. This is cited as a possible reason that Germany declined to intervene aggressively to support Eastern Europe in the economic meltdown. Can anyone in Berlin believe that Russia will not stop the oil from flowing again? Intimidation is Putin’s most effective weapon.
Intimidation is wearing
Putin’s dream is not to restore Russia to the glorious days when Catherine the Great and Peter the Great were assembling what became the Soviet Union. Those were years of deprivation for most Russians. Putin wants to reverse Russia’s recent decline and restore Moscow’s dominion over the countries of the former Soviet Union – even as the man he installed as Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, has recently denounced Putin’s “chaotic” foreign policies “dictated by nostalgia and prejudice.”
Putin has finally achieved an important victory. The new leader of Ukraine (likely to be Viktor Yanukovych, a Russian sympathizer, once charges of vote fraud by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko are resolved) will be decidedly friendlier to Moscow. The election may mark the beginning of a new chapter in Russian assertiveness.
Russia’s military is being strengthened and new weapons are being deployed. The French government’s recent sale to Russia of an advanced carrier-based weapons system is chilling news to former Russian republics with dreams of joining the West. In fact, last year the commander of the Russian navy boasted that with the Mistral class destroyer in his fleet, he could have subdued Georgia in 40 minutes instead of 26 hours.
With the break-up of the Soviet Union, most of the former Soviet republics were cast adrift. Those former republics closest to Western Europe – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the former Czechoslovakia – slipped free of Moscow’s grasp and attached themselves to the European Union and NATO. Others – Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine – attempted to align with the West but the EU was busy absorbing the closer states. Beside, the German chancellor at critical times for EU or NATO overtures – Gerhard Schröder – was advising his Western neighbors to avoid confrontations with Russia because Russia was a key source of European energy. When he left office, Schröder became an official of the Russian natural gas colossus, Gazprom.
Ukraine is critical to Putin’s plans. The most populous of Russia’s former possessions (15 million ethnic Russians live in Ukraine, the largest concentration of Russians outside Russia), Ukraine is the birthplace of Russian ethnicity. Ukraine is Russia’s breadbasket. Ukraine, not Georgia, is the key to Eurasia because Ukraine is the location of nearly all of Russia’s infrastructure linking not only to Europe but to the Caucasus, making it critical for both trade and internal commerce. The Ukrainian port of Sevastopol is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Ukrainian ports are the only large warm-water ports Russia has ever developed. In contrast, Belarus’ waterborne exports traverse the Dnieper River, which flows through Ukraine and spills into the Black Sea.
Is Ukraine Russia’s true heart?
Ukraine was the only former Russian imperial territory that was both commercially viable and had a natural barrier for protection – the Carpathian Mountains to the west. Belarus is on the Northern European Plain, long a highway for invaders – Napoleon, Hitler and countless tribal chiefs. The Viking Rus long ago gave their name to Russia and Vikings founded Moscow and Kiev, among other cities along the waterways leading to the Black Sea and beyond to the Mediterranean. The Baltics are easily accessible by sea. The Caucasian states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are on the wrong side of the Caucasus Mountains with rebellious Russian provinces such as Chechya across the mountains to the north.Without Ukraine, Russia has no natural defenses except vast distances and frigid northern seas. Russia lacks natural internal transportation. Its rivers do not interconnect. Most flow to ports that are frozen much of the year. Throughout Russian history, the burden of paying for defenses against invasion from Europe, Eurasia and China, plus the cost of transporting goods and munitions to and from the Black Sea and, beyond, to the Mediterranean, stressed the treasury. Thus, the ancient Russian fear has not abated in the era of air travel: Without Ukraine, Russians insist, the Europeans will pressure Russia in the west, the Islamic world will pressure Russia in the south, the Chinese will pressure Russia in the southeast and the Americans will pressure Russia wherever opportunity presents itself.
Events of the past two decades show that this fear is valid. When it came to geography, Russians got a vast, cold and indefensible territory. Paranoia about her neighbors is natural. One wonders: What might the hard-working, intelligent and creative Russians have done with South Africa or North America? Geography is history.
Now, Putin may have Ukraine back. A timid West did not integrate Ukraine into western institutions when the opportunity presented itself, just as Georgian blundering ended Georgia’s recent opportunities to cement ties with the West. Will the subjugation of these two keystone countries embolden Putin? If so, he may press on to greater glories. He may go beyond the practical and necessary. If he does, more than gas shut-offs will trouble Europe.