IN MARCH, Russian President Vladimir Putin seized the Crimea from Ukraine, and in the process may have ignited a smaller-scale version of the Cold War. Putin had famously said that the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the Twentieth Century, the implication being that he would make his place in history by reversing it.
No one saw his seizure of parts of Georgia in 2008 as an initial step, and many commentators see the seizure of the Crimea as nothing more than a reversal of the relatively recent (1956) transfer of that territory from Russia to Ukraine by Khrushchev. However, taken together the two seizures suggest a pattern. In each case Putin has used the supposed plight of Russian ethnics in a former Soviet republic as a pretext for military or quasi-military action. As this is written, Putin is simultaneously claiming that he has no further territorial ambitions and roiling the largely Russian Eastern Ukraine. There is a further unpleasant possibility. As part of Ukraine, the Crimea depended on energy and water from other parts of that country. Now they have been cut off, and there is no direct connection to the Russian energy or water grids. Making Russian Crimea viable might seem to demand further annexations.
At least some of the governments of the former Soviet republics understand exactly what is happening. The government of Kazakhstan, for example, has cancelled Russian space launches from its territory.
The case of Ukraine should be particularly painful for us. In 1994 the U.S. Government badly wanted to avert the potential threat posed by ex-Soviet nuclear warheads in the hands of weak governments in the successor states. It convinced the Ukrainian government to turn its rather large stockpile over to the Russians in return for ‘assurances’ (which the Ukrainians read as guarantees) of its borders. The signatories to this Treaty of Budapest were Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Mr. Putin has in effect dismissed this treaty as a worthless scrap of paper. It seems unlikely that the U.S. or British negotiators ever appreciated that they were committing their countries to military action, and now they have been exposed as hopelessly naive. The lesson to the Ukrainians and to other governments is that giving up real power (nuclear weapons) in return for possibly empty promises is potentially fatal. The United States has a real interest in curbing nuclear proliferation. Mr. Putin’s action makes it less believable that a country in jeopardy can bet that the United States will protect it better than its own nuclear weapons might. It seems unlikely that Mr. Putin would have chanced military action against a nuclear-armed Ukraine.
This year is the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, which ushered in the horrors of the last century. Many are asking whether the current globalized world resembles that of 1914, hence is heading for a similar catastrophe. This year is also the seventy-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, and Mr. Putin’s actions are reminiscent of the late 1930s. Hitler’s initial aggression was justified on ethnic grounds, first in the Sudetenland (1938) and then against Poland (Danzig, in 1939).
Some of the parallels are frightening. In both cases, we are watching wounded national pride leading to aggression. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was widespread agreement that there should be no punitive end to the Cold War (like the punitive ending of World War I). Instead, everything possible should be done to welcome the Russians into the world economy. Often that meant ignoring increasingly anti-democratic action by Mr. Putin, who has recently announced further drastic curbs on the Russian Internet. It also meant pointedly ignoring the vicious Russian war against an internal minority in Chechnia. The supposed advantages were Russian assistance in places like Syria. That assistance increasingly seems illusory.
In the 1930s, as Hitler began to move, the Western powers did not resist because they had largely disarmed. They justified non-action on the ground that somehow cooperation would bind Hitler to the international system and thus would solve the problems he supposedly faced. The reality was that there were no great problems Hitler had to resolve peacefully. He wanted war (he is said to have been furious when it was averted at Munich in 1938), and he wanted territory. In effect Mr. Putin’s actions in Ukraine demonstrate that at the least he feels free to follow through on his project of recreating the old Soviet Union — and presumably also the Soviet Empire in Central Europe. In effect he rejects the outcome of the Cold War, the liberation of the slave empire in which he grew up.
The main effect of the attempt to bind Russia into the international system is that it is difficult or impossible to impose effective economic sanctions. The countries of Western Europe are far too dependent on trade with Russia. It is not only that they rely on Russian-supplied natural gas, but also that Russia buys much of what they manufacture. Cutting Putin off will cost jobs, and that is particularly painful in a recession-racked Western Europe. The export-driven German economy undoubtedly relies heavily on sales to Russia, and it should not be surprising that the French intend to deliver the two helicopter carriers they are building for Russia — ships whose main role is probably to further Putin’s ambitions against former Soviet republics.
For much the same reason, many in Europe and in the United States prefer not to understand that the same man who dismisses a treaty as a scrap of paper is unlikely to take commercial agreements very seriously (as Putin has already demonstrated by using the supply of natural gas as leverage).
What happens now? Putin will almost certainly keep moving, at least for a while. The next target is likely to be the Eastern Ukraine plus other parts of that country. In each case, Putin is testing to see how far he can go. During the Cold War, this was called ‘salami tactics,’ and it was never entirely clear how they could be countered. At what point would a massive reaction be justified? At what point will anyone say that Putin had swallowed so much of Ukraine that he was clearly an unjustified aggressor?
Perhaps it is worth thinking about Putin’s real weaknesses. His economy depends heavily on gas and oil exports. Anything which depresses energy prices reduces his buying power and makes it more difficult for him to maintain his current military — which is nothing like as powerful as it was in Soviet times. In this sense moves towards American energy independence are also moves towards depressing energy prices worldwide.
Putin has to contend with serious potential minority problems within Russia, exemplified by the Chechen problem. All over southern Russia are Muslims who never identified with the Soviet Union. Reportedly Putin’s Russia is trying to seize influence in Afghanistan, now that we are withdrawing. That may not prove to be a particularly good idea for him. The potential connection between Afghans and Muslims in what was then Soviet Central Asia justified the previous Soviet operation in Afghanistan, which ultimately had very unhappy consequences for the Soviet Union. There are also non-Muslim minorities. Under the Czars, Russia was often called the ‘prison of nations,’ and that is still true. To make matters more interesting, for decades the birth rates of non-Russian ethnics have dwarfed those of Russians.
All over the former Soviet Union there are substantial Russian minorities who moved out of the Russian Federated Republic, and who are more or less stranded in what Russians call the ‘near abroad.’ If Putin’s real project is to reconstitute the Soviet Union, these minorities stand ready to justify it — to the extent that the supposed misery of Russians in Ukraine justifies Russian military action there.
To many of those in the former Soviet republics, the dissolution of the Soviet Union may not have seemed particularly tragic. To a Ukrainian, for example, the great gift offered by the Soviet Union was a massive man-made famine which killed 5 to 7 million Ukrainians in the 1930s. The Ukrainians welcomed the Germans when they invaded in 1941, and after the Germans were defeated many of them continued the fight against the Soviets. Stalin deported many Ukrainians, including Crimean Tartars, to Siberia. They later returned, and they, too, are unlikely to see Putin as a liberator.
Above all, Putin faces China. Right now Siberia is a major potential Chinese energy source, but the Chinese have said that they consider the Russians unreliable suppliers. As more and more Chinese move into Siberia, Putin may have reason to observe that the Chinese have long included Siberia in the list of territories taken from them under humiliating unequal treaties. In the past, the Chinese accepted that they had no current claim on Siberia because no ethnic Chinese still lived there. That is no longer the case. At the very least, the large number of Chinese now living in Siberia are likely to demand a measure of autonomy which Putin cannot afford to grant.
We seem to be facing a prolonged period of hostility. It is not quite the Cold War, because Putin has no ideological weapon comparable to the Communism deployed by the old Soviet Union. That weapon gave the Soviets considerable traction in the West. The traction Putin currently enjoys is weaker, the unwillingness of Western governments to pay an economic (hence political) price for cutting Putin off. To the extent that the West recovers from recession, this traction weakens. Putin’s Russia is far less self-sufficient than its Soviet predecessor. The post-Soviet crash badly damaged its defense industry. There is a reason why Russian displays at defense shows seem not to include much that is post-Soviet, let alone truly new. Relative Russian poverty means that it is much more difficult for Putin to expand his military, including nuclear, capabilities than it was for his predecessors.
That matters. Putin finds himself relying far more than the Soviets on nuclear threats. During the build-up to the present crisis, one of his cronies commented that Russia was the only country that could destroy the United States (with nuclear weapons). He omitted to point out that the United States could do the same to Russia. Perhaps it is time to ask whether Putin’s antiquated arsenal really still works — and to take our own a lot more seriously.
*Norman Friedman’s columns are reproduced by kind permission of the Editor of Proceedings the Journal of the United States Naval Institute.