In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine, and in the process may have ignited a smaller-scale version of the Cold War. Putin has famously said that the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th 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 action in Crimea as nothing more than a reversal of the relatively recent (1956) transfer of that territory from Russia to Ukraine by then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
However, taken together the two events 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 another unpleasant possibility. As part of Ukraine, Crimea depended on energy and water from other areas 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 canceled Russian space launches from its territory.
A Scrap of Paper
The case of Ukraine should be particularly painful for the United States. 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. 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. Putin’s actions make it less likely that a country in jeopardy will believe that the United States will protect it better than its own nuclear weapons might. It is doubtful that 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, and hence is heading for a similar catastrophe. This year is also the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, and Putin’s actions are reminiscent of the late 1930s. Adolf Hitler’s initial moves were justified on ethnic grounds, both in the Sudetenland (1938) and then against Poland (Danzig, in 1939).
Some of the parallels are frightening. In both cases, we see wounded national pride lead to aggression. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was widespread agreement that there should be no punitive end to the Cold War (as there was to World War I). Instead, everything possible was done to welcome the Russians into the world economy. Often that meant overlooking increasingly antidemocratic action by 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 Chechnya. The supposed advantages were Russian assistance in places like Syria. That assistance increasingly seems illusory.
In the 1930s, as Hitler began his march, the Western powers did not resist because they had largely disarmed. They justified non-action on the grounds that somehow cooperation would bind Hitler to the international system and thus would solve the problems he supposedly faced. The reality was that Hitler wanted war (and is said to have been furious when it was averted at Munich in 1938), and he wanted territory. In effect, 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.
The problem with attempting to bind Russia to 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-wracked Western Europe. The export-driven German economy 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? He will almost certainly keep moving, at least for a while. The next target is likely to be eastern Ukraine plus other parts of that country. Putin is testing to see how far he can go. At what point will anyone say that he is clearly an unjustified aggressor?
Perhaps it is worth thinking about Putin’s real weaknesses. His economy depends heavily on gas and oil exports. Anything that depresses energy prices reduces his buying power and makes it more difficult for him to maintain his current military, which is nowhere near as powerful as it was in the Soviet era. In this sense moves toward American energy independence are also moves toward reducing energy prices worldwide.
Putin also has to contend with serious potential minority problems within Russia, exemplified by the Chechens. 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 the United States is withdrawing. That may not prove to be a good idea. The potential connection between Afghans and Muslims in what was then Soviet Central Asia justified the previous Soviet operation in Afghanistan. There are also non-Muslim minorities. Under the tsars, 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 Germany was defeated many of them continued the fight against the Soviets. Stalin deported countless 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 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, China accepted that it 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 that Putin cannot afford to grant.
We may 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 gave the Soviets considerable traction in the West. The traction Putin currently enjoys is weak—the unwillingness of Western governments to pay an economic (hence political) price for cutting him 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 do not 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 buildup 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.