The Avoidable Rise of Vladimir Putin

Uwe Bott

November 12, 2014


Jubilation, Euphoria and Triumphalism

There were three basic reactions in the West to then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika and the events they triggered in the late 1980s: Jubilation, euphoria and triumphalism.

There was clearly a cause for jubilation as hundreds of millions of people were set free in Central and Eastern Europe after decades under Soviet tutelage.

For some in the West, this jubilation also turned into some sort of unjustified euphoria. The "end of history" was declared and war in Europe finally seemed absolutely unthinkable to many, notwithstanding the fact that nationalism had been a staple of Russian policy for far longer than communism.

And then, of course, there were the triumphalists. Capitalism had won, Communism had lost and it was time to enjoy the spoils of victory.

One would have thought that the "jubilants" would have prevailed. But in reviewing the history of the last 25 years, it seems that the "euphorics" and the "triumphalists" in the West had the upper hand.

How else could it be explained that NATO invited a slew of countries which had once been members of the Warsaw Pact to become a part of NATO? In 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined and so did Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania in 2004.

The triumphalists argued that such membership would guarantee peaceful co-existence between the West and Central/Eastern Europe. It was unclear, why such peaceful coexistence would have been impossible without NATO expansion.

And yet, anybody in the West who would have taken the time to look at this from the Russian perspective could have seen that Russian leaders and the Russian people were gravely worried by this massive eastward reach of what constitutes primarily U.S. military power.

From a political cost/benefit calculation there was little to be gained from NATO expansion. By the same token, there was a lot to be lost from such action as it predictably created an environment wherein Russia would feel itself excluded from Europe, just at the beginning of its reform process. Thus, the West needlessly squandered an opportunity to promote better governance standards in Russia.

The Consequences of Unabated Triumphalism

The West's decision to expand the reach of NATO did two things. First, it strengthened nationalist feelings in Russia. The West had added insult to injury. The demise of the Soviet Union, the fall from being one of two superpowers, the loss of control over Central and Eastern Europe were huge shocks to the pride of many Russians. Add to that, the economic incompetence of President Yeltsin, which led to widespread food shortages, and it was no wonder that many of the Russian people cast blame on the "traitors" of the Soviet empire.

That leads us to the second consequence of NATO expansion: The choice of the until-then fairly unknown Mr. Putin as Yeltsin's successor. The Communist Party was still the dominant force in Russia and Putin had slavishly served the ancien regime, particularly as a member of the KGB. Putin's organizational skill and his discipline as well as his authoritarian mindset made him the perfect man to restore order amidst economic chaos and growing external threats. 

Putin did not disappoint. He made quick headways in addressing the most critical shortcoming of the Russian economy, a broken food distribution system which was the key reason for the shortages. The Russian people were hurting from their fall into political obscurity and Putin's success of putting goods on the shelves of grocery stores gave him "street cred" on nationalism as well. If anybody, it would be Putin who could restore Russia's glory.

And so, Russians began to accept Putin's regime-preserving measures such as limitations to the freedom of speech, the elimination of elections for state governors and the re-nationalization of privatized enterprises. Rule of law did not yet have a credible track record in Russia anyway, so Putin's actions to completely erode it made little difference to Russians. In the end, it was a small price to pay for many Russians, if it meant to reemerge as a superpower.

When in a Hole: Dig Deeper

Europe did all it could to help President Putin in his endeavor. It shamelessly wooed Ukraine, which was torn between closer relations to the EU or to Russia. A political crisis brought down Russian-friendly but democratically elected President, Viktor Yanukovych, in early 2014.

For the West, integrating Ukraine was the crown jewel as the country shares the longest Western border with Russia. Once again, Russia felt threatened and in taking advantage of turmoil in Ukraine, it annexed Crimea and sent troops in support of the Russian minority into Ukraine, gravely destabilizing the country.

Underestimating Putin

The West seemed astonished by these developments and at first failed completely to respond firmly to Putin's invasion. This is largely so because Europeans and the United States have continuously failed to understand the complexity and yet simplicity of Vladimir Putin.

U.S. President George W. Bush famously looked into Putin's eyes and saw his soul. Nevertheless, relations with Russia deteriorated during the Bush presidency. In response, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised to press the "reset button" on U.S. - Russia relations in 2009. Without much success.

Germany under the leadership of Chancellor Merkel decided to turn off its nuclear power plants after the Fukushima accident in 2011, creating a close German dependence on gas imports from Russia.  Not to be outdone Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, called Putin a "flawless democrat" in 2004, accepted a role at Gazprom, the Russian oil and gas giant, in 2005 and celebrated his 70th birthday with Putin in April of this year after Putin had just annexed Crimea.   All the while, France has been busy selling military equipment to Russia. At this moment a warship is ready for delivery.

And this delusion about Putin continues until this day. On October 30, a day celebrated in the U.S. as Mischief Day, the EU brokered a deal between Ukraine and Russia to resume gas deliveries. The EU has some self-interest in such deal as its own deliveries from Russia pass through a pipeline that crosses Ukraine. After the deal was struck, then-European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said: "There is now no reason for people in Europe to stay cold this winter.'' Why anybody would think that a Russian agreement under Putin is worth the ink and paper on which it is memorialized, boggles the mind.

Nobody once put it more succinctly than the otherwise largely discredited former U.S. Vice President, Dick Cheney, who scathingly uttered after George W. Bush's "soul" remarks: "When I look in Putin's eyes, all I see is KGB, KGB, KGB." 

Regaining Parts of the Soviet Empire

Once Putin had consolidated his leadership of Russia he made no secret of his nationalist ambitions. In 2011, Putin launched the initiative of the Eurasian Economic Union and stated in his accompanying speech that it would be built on "the best values of the Soviet Union". All of this resonates well with many Russians which explains his popularity.

But Putin is not only looking towards Asia to bring back the "best Soviet values", his grab of Crimea and his destabilization of Ukraine hint at a much bigger aim. Putin wants to expand westward and in the process destroy NATO in retaliation for, what he considers the alliance's threat towards Russia. Hence, he has set his eyes on the Baltics next.

During the Stalinist period, there was the intentional policy of moving as many ethnic Russians to non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union as possible in order to dilute the power of their indigenous populations.

As a result, the tiny nations of Latvia (2.2 million people) and Estonia (1.2 million people) have large Russian populations of 26% and 25%, respectively. In both cases, these large Russian minorities often feel discriminated against.

It is not difficult to imagine, how Putin might devise a plan to "protect" the rights of Russian minorities in those two countries. Already, Russian warplanes are flying dangerously close to NATO airspace. In fact, more than 100 hundred such flights have been intercepted by NATO in 2014, triple the amount of 2013.

Any direct or indirect encouragement of uprisings by Russians in Latvia and Estonia could call NATO's bluff. Under Article 5 of the NATO Treaty any military attack on anyone of the member countries is to be considered as an attack on all. 

NATO would have to decide whether it would really take actions on behalf of two countries with a combined 3.4 million of inhabitants risking a broader military conflict with Russia. If intelligence reports showed active Russian involvement in stirring up conflict in these small countries, failure to intervene on behalf of these new allies would likely destroy NATO's foundation. 

Raising the Threat Level 

What's more, Russia has already shown that it does not need to use its nuclear arsenal to materially harm the West. European dependence on Russian gas is a serious weapon. As winter is approaching, it only takes Putin's order to turn off the supply to cause serious hardship in Western Europe and especially in Germany. Russian gas cannot be suddenly replaced with other sources of energy. For that, the dependence is too large. Russia has a solid track record in using this weapon, just ask Georgians.

Russia has also all but declared cyber war on the West. Again, in retaliation for Western sanctions after its annexation of Crimea, it is assumed that state-sponsored Russian hackers got access to confidential information of 76 million households with accounts at JP Morgan Chase, but they also supposedly penetrated the security systems of thirteen other banks. Interestingly, no fraud appears to have been committed using this trove of information suggesting that this is a warning telling the U.S. and its allies: "Watch your step. We can hurt you and we will."

On October 29th, it was also reported that hackers had broken into a computer network at the White House used by some of President Obama's closest advisors. In fact, Russia is not new to this game at all. In 2007, the Russian government allegedly brought the Estonian government to a standstill through a series of cyber-attacks. Unsurprisingly, the attacks occurred as a result of tensions between Estonia and its Russian minority and also not-surprisingly it was discussed at the time, whether such attacks were indeed covered by the above-mentioned Article 5 of the NATO Treaty.

Cyber war can be just as devastating as bombing another nation and Russia has the capabilities. Over the next few months, President Putin will continue to test the limits of his "superpowers" in energy, warplane maneuvers and through cyber-attacks.

What can be done about it?

Well, there is a chance that the problem may fix itself, because President Putin also has had some luck since he took over in 2000 and that luck is turning.  The Russian economy grew rapidly in the first decade of this century due to the country's wealth in oil and gas and ever-higher prices for these commodities. And yet, Putin paid no attention to deepening a very shallow economy.

But this boom has come to a sudden end as oil and gas prices have fallen dramatically. There are several reasons for that. First, global demand remains fairly depressed. Second, renewables are gaining market share. And third and most importantly, the development of shale oil and gas exploration in the United States has revolutionized the hydrocarbon sector, already making the U.S. the largest producer of hydrocarbons surpassing Saudi Arabia.

At the same time, Putin's domestic economic policy, the lack of rule of law as well as his latest foreign policy excursions have led to capital flight accumulating to $85 billion so far in 2014. As a result of these combined factors and given the inherent weakness of the Russian economic structure, Russia is on the brink of a recession. At some point, a severe deterioration of economic fundamentals will also be reflected in lagging support for Putin, although it must be said that he has built a system that makes any democratic opposition fairly meaningless.

Also, the West cannot rely on such a perfect storm alone. Instead, it must act more aggressively. First, the EU must wean itself off Russian oil and especially gas. Of course, renewables are part of such strategy, but renewables just do not have the potential to fill the gap. Germany should reconsider its nuclear power policy. In addition, more facilities and infrastructure must be built to replace pipeline gas from Russia with LNG delivered to Europe's ports. In that regard, Europe must seek a diversified portfolio of suppliers.

Germany, in particular, must aggressively seek to exploit its own shale gas potential, notwithstanding environmental concerns. Taking some environmental risk is a price Germany must pay in the interest of its own national security.

Second, whatever the miscalculations of expansion, NATO must now unmistakably clarify that it will honor Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. This must be done publicly, privately and repeatedly. Russia and Putin should be under no illusion that NATO will protect even its smallest of allies.

Europe and the United States must build firewalls around their key infrastructures not only in defense of Russian cyber-attacks, but to protect against any foreign enemy. The EU and the U.S. must also stop all arms sales to Russia. At the same time, the EU and especially Germany must heavily increase defense spending. Western Europe has been allowed for far too long to cheaply ride on the coattails of the United States.

Finally, the Western alliance has to come to grips with reality. Russia under Putin is an enemy not to be underestimated. The West succeeded in the past to contain the Soviet Union, it must now do the same with Russia.  

The Courage of Our Convictions Carries the Day