BEFORE you walk onto the playing field of any international power struggle, you better have a highly developed understanding of who your competition is, and a coherent strategy for battle. And so it is with the Crimea and Ukraine.
It has been said lately that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a world-class chess player. However, it may well turn out that he made a few seemingly smart tactical moves at the outset of the conflict, but failed to adequately consider the long-term implications of his strategy.
To many, his recent tactical moves appear to have been spot-on, gaining him additional territory at little cost. By annexing the Crimea, he rallied Russian nationalism, raised his image as a strongman leader at home and maintained the long-valued Russian access to warm-water seas. Moreover, he raised his stature as a world leader outside of the U.S. and Western Europe and deflected internal concerns away from Russian’s sagging economy and political discontent.
But let’s step back for a minute and ask ourselves just how long-lasting and valuable these gains will be in comparison to the huge, longer-term downside of his actions. By seizing the Crimea, Putin has drawn a boundary that has irrevocably pushed Western and Southern Ukraine into the NATO and U.S. orbit. Moreover, the most probable outcome he should expect in Eastern Ukraine, after considerable posturing by both sides, is an agreement that ethnic Russians will be respected and Russian interests not ignored.
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If he had not intervened, he might well have had his cake and eaten it, too. Looking in the rearview mirror, Putin someday might realize that an independent Ukraine with heavy Russian influence, which was still in his grasp when Viktor Yanukovych’s government collapsed, would have been a far more preferable outcome.
He could have expected through overt and covert strength to maintain a powerful influence in the Ukraine, and the Crimea would be virtually controlled by Russia no matter what. A relatively independent Ukraine really would not have impacted on Russia’s access to the sea.
Putin, along with his military and intelligence team, appear to have read too much old history about the 18th century czarist designs on Crimea, and given too much weight to Captain Alfred Mahan’s 19th-century strategic naval writings.
Mahan’s writings were the rage in the 1890s, and they still seem to be in vogue in mother Russia, where leaders continue to cling to Mahan’s view that the stronger a country’s navy and the greater its access to warm-water ports, the more impact that country will have on world affairs.
But who in the nuclear age really foresees naval battles in the Mediterranean or limitations being placed on access to the Mediterranean? Clearly, this concept is so ingrained in Russian military thinking that the country’s leaders could not just settle for a political formula that would have provided them with what they needed. Surely, after the collapse of the Yanukovych government, the follow-on government would have accommodated Russia’s realistic naval requirements.
As it stands now, Putin has placed Russia into the category of a thug nation — a nation with imperialistic tendencies that will certainly inhibit economic cooperation and growth with the Western world.
This all happens at a time when Russia’s long-term economic footing is uncertain, but clearly on a downward trajectory due to stagflation, a destructive mix of stagnant growth and high inflation. This does not take into account Russia’s economic overreliance on oil and gas income, which faces a major challenge from shale-produced energy around the world in the very near future.
Eventually, Putin will have to face increasing political agitation at home as the ephemeral bloom fades off his Ukraine adventure. He should recognize that the temporary spike in popularity will turn downward even more sharply as economic sanctions and political isolation set in.
Soon enough, the Russian leadership will have to win back the economic and political support of the West. Hopefully, Putin and his economic team are sufficiently realistic to understand the grave consequences of starting another Cold War and isolating Russia from Western economic cooperation. The sanctions likely to be imposed on Russia and its rather fragile economic and political system (perceptions aside), should continue to push the envelope in Eastern Ukraine. The sanctions will cause considerable instability in the Russian economy, especially if oil prices lag.
Putin could well find himself far less powerful and vulnerable to internal pressure. Like every other autocrat today, he is extremely susceptible to the vagaries of social discontent and the power of social networking.
Should Putin choose to maintain his current path, using extensive overt and covert force to bend Ukraine into a satellite state, the U.S. and its allies should use all of their overt and covert political, financial, economic and military assistance to strengthen the Kiev government and fend off Putin’s imperial designs.
America’s ability to outmaneuver the Russians in these subtler ways, from covert action against their forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s to winning the war of ideas through influence campaigns and public diplomacy, has proved effective in the past.
If Putin wants to put Russia back on the wrong side of history, the U.S. and Europe have all the tools to push him back, if we have the will to do so.
Jack Devine, former head of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations and president of the Arkin Group in New York, is author of the new book “Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story,” published by Sarah Crichton Books/FSG in June.