“In Another World”?

Russian President Vladimir Putin Attends Military Exercise Near Saint Petersburg

Reading all the grim reports from Ukraine this morning, this quote really stood out. It’s a report of what Angela Merkel reportedly told Barack Obama in a phone-call last night, after speaking with Vladimir Putin:

She was not sure he was in touch with reality, people briefed on the call said. “In another world,” she said.

That is the truly worrying thing. But it is always worth trying to see things from the point of view of our foe, to see if his madness makes some kind of internal sense, and to see if we have any blind-spots that may hinder us from the smartest response. Greg Dejerejian notes:

One need not be a Putin apologist to recognize some salient facts: 1) the Maidan movement included ultra-nationalists and even neo-fascists, 2) the Yanukovych transition deal was crudely scuppered leaving the Russian side caught unawares and looking flat-footed (never appreciated by Vladimir Putin); and 3) this was followed by deeply provocative measures by the new Government in Kiev to move to extinguish Russian minority language rights. More assertiveness was surely on tap, as the mood was manifestly one of triumphalism.

I fell prey to this myself, buoyed by obvious and instinctive support for any country resisting the boot of the Kremlin, and too blithe about the consequences of a revolution that overthrew a democratically elected president. But as we now know only too well, Ukraine is deeply divided between its pro-Western West and its pro-Russian East; any attempt to resolve this underlying tension decisively was bound to risk real rifts within the country and tempt Russia to intervene. Anatol Lieven has a must-read:

President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of the EU offer led to an uprising in Kiev and the western and central parts of Ukraine, and to his own flight from Kiev, together with many of his supporters in the Ukrainian parliament. This marks a very serious geopolitical defeat for Russia. It is now obvious that Ukraine as a whole cannot be brought into the Eurasian Union, reducing that union to a shadow of what the Putin administration hoped. And though Russia continues officially to recognize him, President Yanukovych can only be restored to power in Kiev if Moscow is prepared to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and seize its capital by force. The result would be horrendous bloodshed, a complete collapse of Russia’s relations with the West and of Western investment in Russia, a shattering economic crisis, and Russia’s inevitable economic and geopolitical dependency on China.

It seems vital to me that we see what Putin is doing from his point of view. What seems to us like an unprovoked, Sudetenland-style invasion is both mercifully less than that (so far) and also, critically, a function of Putin’s string of recent setbacks. He has already lost a huge amount. And he is now recklessly and thoughtlessly acting out as a result. Dmitri Trenin describes Moscow’s current worldview thus:

In Moscow, there is a growing fatigue with the west, with the EU and the United States. Their role in Ukraine is believed to be particularly obnoxious: imposing on Ukraine a choice between the EU and Russia that it could not afford; supporting the opposition against an elected government; turning a blind eye to right-wing radical descendants of wartime Nazi collaborators; siding with the opposition to pressure the government into submission; finally, condoning an unconstitutional regime change. The Kremlin is yet again convinced of the truth of the famous maxim of Alexander III, that Russia has only two friends in the world, its army and its navy. Both now defend its interests in Crimea.

How to deal with an authoritarian leader, increasingly paranoid about the West, his greater regional aspirations turned to dust, who is now wielding military power in a manner more reminiscent of the Cold War than of anything since? One obvious response is counter-provocation, of the kind that John McCain and the Washington Post editorial board would instinctively prefer. It seems to me that, given how Putin has reacted to Western pressure so far, this would merely invite more recklessness.

The saner approach is to try and mollify some of Russia’s legitimate concerns about Ukraine – the rights of the pro-Russian Ukrainians in the East, for example, some of which were suspended (and now restored) by the new Kiev government, while persuading him of unstated but profoundly adverse consequences if he ratchets up the use of force even further. David Ignatius – unlike the breathless neocons on the WaPo editorial page – makes the case very effectively this morning. What our goal must be now, above everything, is avoiding any pretext for a Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine.

And the truth is: this is very much in Russia’s actual interests. Its stock market and currency are in free-fall this morning, but a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would mean a mutual bloodbath, effectively destroying Russia’s standing in the world, tearing up its relations with the major powers, including, possibly China, and rendering it a rogue, primitive, paranoid power, whose elites would be cut off from the global trade and financial markets they rely on. There must be some faction in the Kremlin able to see this, even if it only occupies a small part of Putin’s mind.

But it will not be enough. Ukraine has long occupied a powerful place in the Russian imagination. Pride and identity are at stake now, and they make a catastrophe much likelier. And so the West needs both to be firm about military intervention but also cognizant of Russia’s genuine fears and insecurity in the wake of recent events. Djerejian again:

Further aid to Ukraine should likely be made conditional on ensuring minority rights in Eastern and Southern Ukraine are better respected, and critically, that no preemptive military activity by Kiev in those areas take place … By moving to soften the tone and policy in Kiev, better respecting Russia’s historic interests (please let us retire talk of NATO Membership Action Plans and such), and offering honest broker type conflict resolution channels (not bidding up an East-West show-down in Pavlovian fashion as if inevitable) the following goals could possibly be accomplished in the short-term: 1) delaying or ideally preventing formal annexation of Crimea; 2) restraining Putin from invading Eastern Ukraine and 3) most important, helping defuse the specter of a horrible civil war in the heart of Europe’s eastern flank.

These options do not have the emotional satisfaction of McCain’s outrage and Cold War nostalgia. They will not satiate the neoconservative lust for conflict or for simple black-and-white moralism in foreign affairs. They may be politically difficult for the president to sustain. But they might actually be the only way to defuse some of the extremely dangerous dynamics now in play in Euro-Asia. This is all happening, one should recall, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War. I’ll leave the last word to Lieven:

A century ago, two groups of countries whose real common interests vastly outweighed their differences allowed themselves to be drawn into a European war in which more than 10 million of their people died and every country suffered irreparable losses. In the name of those dead, every sane and responsible citizen in the West, Russia, and Ukraine itself should now urge caution and restraint on the part of their respective leaders.

The alternative is unthinkable.

(Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin watches a military exercises at Kamenka polygon on March 3, 2014 near Saint Petersburg, Russia. By Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)