Monday, 3 March 2014

Putin and Nixon: birds of a feather

If you have been confused about what has been happening in Ukraine over the past week and went online or picked up a paper to try and find out, chances are you would come away not much the wiser.

Depending on what you read, Russian President Vladimir Putin is either a strategic genius, playing a long game of chess while the West plays marbles, or a short-sighted opportunist, constantly reacting to events but never able to control them.

Putin is either taking advantage of American weakness to throw Russian weight around, or is threatened by American and Western power pushing further against his borders.

Putin is either a hard-nosed realist, who will only respond to force and understands the importance of a balance-of-power, or an ideological Russian nationalist, prepared to risk Russia's material wellbeing and international standing in order to poke his perceived enemies in the eye.

In reading the multiple accounts and analyses of what is going on in Russia and Ukraine, I couldn't help but think of a comment by Henry Kissinger to TV presenter Dick Cavett, when discussing his former boss, Richard Nixon:
There are so many strands to his personality that almost everything you would say about Richard Nixon is true.

While I am by no means an expert on Russia or its president, I cannot but get the impression that Putin is a man of similar complexity to Nixon.

Both led a country in a period of internal and external conflict.

Both believed that the power of their personality was a key element in a path to national restoration.

Both were paranoid about domestic subversion and enemies within.

Both fretted about the decline of national values.

Both used extra-constitutional measures to try and suppress perceived domestic enemies.

Both felt locked out of the power structures of the national wealthy and elite, and used their political power to challenge and undermine them.

Both projected an image of strength and confidence, while suffering from deep insecurity.

Both saw international politics in terms of power relations, while never fully appreciating the strength of their own ideological impulses.

Both thought little of "incursions" into other countries, justifying them in terms of a larger strategic picture.
And both had confidence in the correctness of their position and authority, backed by the "silent majority" of their populations.

Both place great stock in being able to throw their opponents off guard by their apparent unpredictability - the "madman theory".

So what does that mean for events in Crimea and Ukraine?

One of the great failures of the U.S. intelligence community over the past 60 years has been to constantly misunderstand and underestimate the power of nationalism, particularly when it comes to other "great powers".  Protected by two oceans and friendly neighbours, and fostered by a lack of self-awareness when it comes to America's unique mixture of ideology and nationalism, the US intelligence and foreign policy community always assumes that other actors will behave in what it considers a rational fashion.

Putin, for his part, felt that Washington and Brussels understood the world through a realist lens, respected Russia's security needs and its own sphere of influence, and would not seek to unduly undermine the Russian Federation.  Like Beijing, Moscow looked to Washington to understand and respect that as a "power", if no longer a "super-power", the United States would not attempt to force on Russia conditions that the United States itself would find intolerable if the situation were reversed.

The attempt to enlist Georgia into NATO's security orbit, and the response that prompted from Moscow, was thought to have been enough to teach the Yankees where Russia's line is, and what would happen if it were crossed.

Imagine Putin's surprise then, when the EU, with Poland being the driving force, almost successfully wooed the hitherto "pro-Moscow" president Viktor Yanukovich, into signing an association agreement with the European Union.  This turn of events struck at Putin in strategic, economic, nationalistic and ideological grounds.

These events were undoubtedly provocative for Moscow.   Given all the evidence that has emerged from Ukraine about the manner in which Yanukovich appeared to be setting himself up to rule for life, it also appears to have been hugely naive on the part of the EU.  It appears to me that Yanukovich was playing the EU for a patsy in order to extract the best possible deal from his kindred spirit in Moscow: at $15 billion, he certainly got a good deal.

But Yanukovich appears to have been completely unprepared for the protests that would follow his volte-face, as the maidanniks set up camp, despite the depths of the Ukrainian winter.

Yanukovich stalled from clearing the Maidan protests in order to negotiate with the opposition; EU foreign ministers oversaw an agreement between the two sides, and then stood back as the opposition reneged on it and demanded the president's overthrow.  Putin saw duplicity in the EU's tacit disavowal of an agreement they had helped to broker, and their support for what was effectively a coup in Ukraine.

What would Nixon do?

In some senses, what Putin craves is another Nixon in the White House: a man he can do business with on the basis of realism and national interests.  For a time, he had that, in a way, in George W. Bush.  Putin's goal, in the guise of the Belarus-Russia-Kazhakstan Customs Union, and his longer term vision of a Eurasian Union, is essentially to re-establish the Soviet Union/Russian Empire through soft and economic power.  A realist in the White House would appreciate and understand that.

But, in his eyes, Putin has been ignored by Washington, and double-crossed by Brussels.  Doubly galling is that this double-cross has been over Ukraine, part of Russia that but for a fluke of history and bad decision making by the USSR, would still be in Moscow's embrace.  The Baltics were never really Russian anyway, Moldova another fluke brought about by Stalin's machinations, but Ukraine is the cradle of Russian civilisation; an eastern Slavic people whose language and religion and culture are but a variant of Russia's.

Furthermore, perhaps harking back to the days when Ukraine was the "bread-basket of the Soviet Union", Putin sees Ukraine's participation in his Customs Union as being key to its success.  The economic situation in both countries makes this assertion questionable, but he seems attempts to integrate Ukraine with the EU as an attempt to stymy his attempts to reassert Russian influence in its "near abroad".

What's more, a democratic and pluralistic Ukraine within the EU would fundamentally undermine the assertion of Russia's uniqueness, in terms of culture and values, from the rest of Europe and the West.  In short, it would undermine much of the power structure Putin has been painstakingly building over 15 years to restore Russia from the disaster that was the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Faced with these circumstances, Nixon would certainly have reached out to find a hard-headed realist to do business with, even if, like Mao Zedong, he had appeared to be anything but in the past.  If that hand were to be rebuffed, however, his emotional response would be to re-engage the 'mad-man theory': do something else to throw the West off guard.

Washington and Brussels need to respond firmly to Russia's actions in Crimea.  Putin understands that.  He does not want to escalate things further; he will seek an accommodation of some sort. Obama needs to assert his inner realist.

However, Obama and the West need to respond carefully to Putin's offer of some form of accommodation, otherwise they may find themselves facing a Russian leader who feels forced to deploy his inner "madman".


Tom Nasser said...

Hey man, don't sell yourself short. You are a very informed and intelligent man. So sad that an entry like yours which is an order of magnitude more explanatory than the standard 'expert' analysis we read receives so little attention.
If I were running a policy think tank I'd request to interview you right now. And probably hire you.

Chris Connolly said...

Thanks Mum!