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Vladimir Putin Does Not Show Weakness by Beating Everyone (Including Us)

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

As Vladimir Putin engages in his latest round of Remind Former Soviet Socialist Republics Who’s The Stud And Who’s The Soap Dropper in Ukraine, the Obama administration is engaged in the relentless honesty, transparency, and self-examination we’ve come to expect from this crowd whenever their policy instincts have departed reality and headed for Planet Zoobily Zooble.

Thus, after castigating Vladimir Putin for living in the nineteenth century (when the Russian Empire Putin so loves reached its greatest size and power) and accusing him of attempting to restart the Soviet Union (the same tyranny the death of which Putin publicly laments as a catastrophe), the Obama administration and its group of lickspittles in the media and elsewhere are trying out a new reason why they’ve been outmatched by a man who rules over a broken petrostate with a life expectancy of 69 years:

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is proof of his weakness.

Now, facially, this is the most absurd thing we’ve heard since the last Obamacare commercial, but the thinking appears to be thus: Putin is so weak, so unable to sway Ukraine and his near abroad through gay pride marches, televised movie award shows, and the strategic use of “um,” that he had no choice but to invade Ukraine to force them to bend to his will.

This only makes sense if you think the outside world only exists when Obama gives a speech there.

But first, let’s give this idiotic spin its due. Russia’s GDP, as of 2012, was about $2.015 trillion, according to the World Bank. US GDP in the same year: $16.24 trillion. While Putin has launched a military revitalization program since taking and holding office, his military was only able to break Georgia’s in 2008 because Georgia’s was so awful; projecting power into his near abroad was so dicey that the Russian army outran its supply lines on the way to Tbilisi.

The Soviet Union, this is not.

Further, lest I be accused of engaging in the sort of nauseating Putin-worship of which a small portion of the Right is guilty (and of which the Left would be guilty if he actually did recreate the Soviet Union), let me add a disclaimer. Vladimir Putin is a moral catastrophe. He is an evil man. That we only gave a damn once he banned gay pride marches and didn’t care about the spontaneous execution and arrest of dissidents and protesters, that we gave more thought to letting men wear peacock feathers in Moscow than to the fact that opposition journalists and activists are routinely murdered, says far more about us than about him. The day he goes to his Maker will be a great day for the world and a pretty awful one for him.

But in a world of midgets in foreign affairs, he’s a dude of at least average height.

Vladimir Putin has set the terms for the world’s conversation in Ukraine because he intrinsically understands something that the group of nimrods running Western foreign policy do not: In real life, away from conferences and meetings and important lunches, foreign affairs is a series of matches of relative strength brought to bear in each conflict.

If you have fifty legions and so fear losing a single centurion that you won’t commit one, you have nothing. If you are the wealthiest nation in the world but run from any conflict in which you might lose a penny, you are the poorest nation of all. Putin picks contests where he is strong and his opponent is weak, and where we cannot or will not bring our much greater power into conflict with his. He works to divide his foreign opponents domestically so that he has a freer hand.

Ukraine is a case in point, and gives the lie to “he’s so weak he had to beat Kiev within an inch of its life.”

About a year ago, Ukraine was hoping to sign agreements with the European Union for visa reform and for a free trade area. (Ukraine’s political class — the entire thing — was behind this, in no small part because its oligarchs wanted European markets and free travel for their family and kids.) This would have brought Ukraine one (small) step closer to Europe, and one (bigger) step away from Russia. Thus, Ukraine was passing laws in parliament that were designed to meet a lengthy list of demands from Brussels before Ukraine could be allowed to do so. (Whether they met those demands is a point for another day.)

Russia’s culture was first made in Kiev. Although the Moscow Patriarchate commands the loyalty of the Orthodox Christians in Eastern Ukraine, it was in the Kievan Rus’ in which that church was born. Russia has controlled Ukraine to some extent for centuries. Suddenly, the West was gaining a real foothold there. So Vladimir Putin pulled out the stops.

First, he came at the head of a gaggle of Eastern Orthodox bishops to celebrate the 1,025th anniversary of the baptism of the Kievan Rus’, the seminal moment in Slavic Christianity, as an unsubtle reminder of ties of culture and faith. (The 1,000th anniversary was of course a more subdued affair as Ukraine was still part of the atheistic Soviet Union.) Then, he interdicted all Ukrainian imports at the Russian border because of “health and safety concerns.” (Those imports ranged from chocolates to steel to raw materials to factory goods.) Ukraine’s economy ground to a halt. Putin then pointedly noted that if Ukraine entered a free trade agreement with Europe, those inspections would have to be permanent.

He also casually noted that Ukraine was overdue on its natural gas bills (Russia supplies virtually all of Ukraine’s natural gas), and so maybe he would have to cut their gas supplies too.

The world yawned. Ukraine — and Ukraine’s industrial oligarchs — noticed.

In three simple moves, without once weakly moving in armored divisions, Putin managed to disrupt Ukraine’s policymaking and alter the dynamics of what had been a years-long effort to join Europe; to remind Ukraine’s business and ruling classes (same thing) that he owned them at will; and to draw Eastern Ukraine closer to him by reminding them of those ties of faith and blood.

Faced with economic destruction, Ukraine asked the EU, the IMF, anyone, for $15 billion to offset the damage to their economy that years of corruption reaching back to the Nineties, a Russian trade embargo, and the effects of free trade with Europe would deal. The IMF’s response, in brief, was an extended middle finger. (One of its core demands for a loan package was to make natural gas so expensive that Ukrainian industry would shutter and its people would freeze; another was to pay back a prior IMF loan.) The EU’s response was to offer $1 billion. The US response was to pass.

Russia’s response was to offer $15 billion, to lower the cost of natural gas, and to forgive the extensive backlog of Ukrainian natural gas debt. The only string required was that Ukraine had to agree not to sign the agreements on offer from Europe.

Now, let’s stop here and look at what happened. Ukraine’s economy is and has been awful for half a decade and more. Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yanukovich had continued what his predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, had started, and moved Ukraine’s policy into alignment with Europe, despite resistance in the Russian-speaking and often ethnically Russian East. A dying population, a political class noted for ineptitude and corruption no matter the party, a sclerotic business environment (ironically significantly reformed as one of the unalloyed goods of the 2013 reforms), crippling civil service and pension issues, basically all of the classic basket case symptoms had conspired to make Ukraine dependent on some greater power.

Yet Ukraine has 46 million people, a significant industrial base, the gas pipelines on which Europe relies for its natural gas, farmland, and a population at least partly inclined to think of itself as European. Ukraine was there for the taking and in the great power conflicts of the past would have been well worth it. Europe easily has the resources to float Ukraine indefinitely, to bring Kiev into its foreign policy fold, to integrate it by law and norm and policy. Yanukovich and his opposition both practically begged for it.

Europe is wealthier and more dynamic (yes, it’s true) and more populous than Russia. In a straight contest, economically, it wouldn’t be close.

But Europe, tired of bailouts of dysfunctional states, not really committed to the Ukraine project (except for Poland, but they are one voice of many), demurred. It was this that gave Putin his opening, and he saw it and seized it. He offered what Ukraine needed and couldn’t reject. Putin and Yanukovich intensely dislike each other, but Yanukovich and Ukraine were weak, and Europe and the US were not putting their strength in play in Ukraine, so Putin gambled and won.

Putin brought his lesser power fully to bear time and again where Europe would not, and so he won.

But! Yanukovich was overthrown! The protesters and the suddenly ascendant opposition declared that it was Europe or bust (and could they have $35 billion please?)! Moscow lost, right?

Wrong. Kiev’s independence is and always has been illusory. Yushchenko realized it even when Bush was in the White House and the world knew America would shoot people, and Yanukovich realized it when Obama was in the White House and the world knew that Obama would talk people to death. Russia’s military is not first rate. Ukraine’s aspires to fourth-rate. Ukraine relies on Russia for its natural gas, despite clever efforts by Europe to reimport gas to Ukraine on the cheap. Russia is Ukraine’s largest trading partner (unless you count the eurozone as a whole, which is kinda silly), and if you add in the Russian-controlled Customs Union states (Belarus, Kazakhstan, and now Armenia), it’s not even close. Some variation of this has been true since the time of the Czars.

Vladimir Putin saw that all the West would do during the protests in Ukraine was to talk, and threaten sanctions, and encourage the opposition protesters. (In fairness to the spin coming out of both sides, the protesters represented a cross-section of Western Ukrainian society, including blood-and-soil nationalists who openly boasted of their small arms caches, fascists worse than that, Ukrainian Catholics, Western Orthodox, academics, civil servants, small businessmen, and so on — but Russia played up the presence of the very real fascists to great effect.) His first move was to announce that the aid package he’d promised before was off the table. This meant that Ukraine’s economy was rocketing to collapse and the gas deal Yanukovich struck is off the table. Winter 2014-2015 is gonna suck and industrial capacity will break.

Then he invaded Crimea.

Now, again, let’s pause and look at the situation. Putin had lost the man that he had distastefully backed in Kiev. The West was jubilant over something in which they had only perfunctorily taken part. Kiev was outlawing membership in the political parties of the East, because they could and the West didn’t notice. The few billions Putin had put into Ukraine by bond-buying were now apparently wasted. The geniuses in Kiev were begging the West for money and announcing proudly that they were free of Moscow’s influence forever. Poland and the EU-crats who had longed for an easy chit to steal from Russia were openly gloating.

This would suggest to a Great Game player a few important points. First, what was left of the political class in Ukraine had either gone completely mad, was encouraging the fascists and non-fascists in dangerous ways, or both. (Again, the fascists while not a majority are very real, and Russia remains averse to fascists other than Putin.) Second, the soft power on which Moscow had relied to this point was no longer effective in the near term. Third, the West was clearly trying to take what Moscow believes to be the very definition of its backyard.

Fourth, the West still would not commit to sending Ukraine $35 billion or $100 billion or anything more than generic promises of aid.

Russia hates instability in its near abroad almost as much as it hates a loss of influence, which it in turn hates almost as much as a loss of influence to the West. It has naval bases in Crimea. So Putin used the next facet of his relatively greater power and activated his military.

The screaming, like unto a group of scalded cats in heat, from the West did not and does not deter him, because it shows that he has won. He put boots on the ground and the West has resorted to lecturing him and threatening mostly bloodless sanctions it won’t or can’t sustain. He put his military, which is strong relative to Ukraine’s and weak relative to America’s, into play, and because the greater power and weaker power both fear to engage him, he won.

Russia is now playing another great power game, where it makes all sorts of excuses for what it’s done and makes unmeetable demands in return for ending it. Bring back Yanukovich and all is well, We are protecting ethnic Russians, The government in Kiev is criminal, all of these things are not intended to defuse the crisis, they are not designed to prolong it, they have exactly as much weight as The purple gigosaur people have taken over the bodies of most Ukrainians and on behalf of the Motherland we must stop them. They are intended to remind Ukraine (and the West) that Russia’s occupation of Crimea is a fait accompli, and that other than the Poles, no Western power is going to stop Putin if he feels like an armored cav stroll to Kiev.

I hesitate to make any predictions here because I don’t want to feel like Blake Hounshell in a few days, but I don’t think Putin is going to press into Eastern Ukraine because he doesn’t need to. The regional governors in the Eastern oblasts understand fully what’s in play here and so they’re going to make Kiev’s life miserable for a while. The government in Kiev understands what’s going on here, so any moves toward Europe will be tentative and after sounding out Russia first. Ukrainians in the East see an escape from the madness of the West, so the upcoming parliamentary elections and presidential elections are going to be even more intense and more likely to sap popular will for a European alignment from Kiev. The West is largely irrelevant in what they think because they keep showing they don’t really care.

If the power of destruction is the power of absolute control*, then after less than a year of intelligent soft power and hard power applications, Vladimir Putin has vividly shown the world that he controls Ukraine. If this is weakness, it is weakness that will recreate the Russian Empire before Putin at last punches his ticket for Hell.

*As my dear friend Moe Lane would say, classical reference.

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