Harry C. Blaney III

The first real change is the overt and brutal nature of Putin’s adventurism in his occupation of Crimea. Also, Putin in his speech at the time of the invasion of Crimea laid out, not for the first time, his vision of an extended Russian revanchism and semi- imperial rule over the “near abroad.” This action has been accompanied by a long period of growing authoritarian acts at home over the last few years and a determination to snuff out any remaining democracy or meaningful opposition. In short, a dictatorship that Russia thought it had abandoned with the end if the Soviet Union and the Cold War.

Both acts at home and abroad have thrown a dark shadow over Eastern Europe and beyond. Sadly, it was accompanied by a series of lies to the Ukrainians, the U.S. president and Secretary of State, the leaders of the EU, and the world.

The degree of ruthlessness by Putin is seen in his declared intention to be the protector of Russians in former members of the Soviet Union with the clear threat of using Russian troops rather than the path of diplomacy. Further, we see Putin’s willingness to undertake an aggressive stance towards the West at every opportunity, including more recently in Syria.

We are undoubtedly living in a different context of relations with Russia than we had a decade ago. The global  playing field has changed after Crimea.  It is not quite a cold war of decades ago, but it is as many have said– Russia is no longer a possible responsible “partner,” but rather an aggressive opponent with a twisted logic, a rigid expansionist stance and perspective, and we need to remember nuclear weapons. Putin does not seem to understand that he is playing a dangerous game with a tinderbox filled with mindless miscalculations and nuclear weapons.

Putin seems to believe that the West is inherently weak and cowardly. He sees the West as divided by their narrow economic and desire for profits with little concern for the 46 million in Ukraine and their freedom. Putin’s calculation seems to remain that he has the upper hand. One, perhaps unlikely, outcome of invasion of Ukraine is to bring Russian troops to the border of Poland, a NATO member nation. There is a debate here in Europe about resources for defense. Most nations are reducing such expenses, but many argue that Europe should do more to create a better deterrence to Russian aggression. Obama again said the a military option is not the way to go.

But it is Russia that is the weak party in this tug of war, as I have noted earlier.  In Europe President Obama reaffirmed that while Russia is a regional power, America is a global power, and Putin is exposing this fundamental weakness with his reckless actions. His is a corrosive and corrupt government which enforces a decaying, not vibrant, nation. His action will be costly, in the end, if the West acts with determination, great care, and subtlety. Russia’s strength is in its energy resources exports, but this is also its weakness. In a world of gas fracking, a fickle energy price market, and global diverse energy availability, Putin is more the prisoner of his carbon resources than a master of them. He has very little else.

Putin’s government is, as we have noted, authoritarian, but also unpredictable. The rule of law does not exist. The gap between the very rich and the poor is massive, and much of its rural areas have advanced little beyond the late 19th century. Its GDP is but 15% of that of America. It population has been worn down by oppression, corruption, and the dead hand of official cruelty.

This is sad since its more advanced sectors are at the cutting edge of science and technology. Its creative people represents the seeds of a modern, more democratic nation. They have the ability to travel and have seen the liveliness, creativity and openness of the West, but this group remains a small minority with little real influence on Kremlin policy.

This is a key moment for the West; now, at a place of a possible historic divide again. It is faced with an oppressive adversary willing to act without moral scruple or rational assessment of the real “objective” situation, as they used to say in the old Soviet Union. The blind use of military actions and related threats over weaker countries can entail horrific risks. This is the rule of the jungle not of civilized nations.

We can stop the fruits of aggression and impose costs on Putin greater than any gains he envisioned., but doing so will require sacrifices on the West as well. Clearly Putin has decided that he can inflict greater pain on Europe, and perhaps the U.S., than we can on him. This is wrong. One look on a comparative economic strength between Europe/North America/Japan reinforces that view. If these countries are willing to act to re-order and increase massively their investment in energy infrastructure and create greater independence from Russian energy exports, we would have gained the advantage in the long term, not Putin.

In this connection, already today there are moves in Europe with American support towards greater energy resilience. The UK government is now pushing for fracking for gas with talk of building added storage facilities. The EU members will be meeting to devise an energy strategy. They better move swiftly and with application of massive resources. There is also talk of new wind energy “farms” in Europe including the UK.

The second sanctions sector for review is financial and economic, including trade restrictions. Why should France be supplying defense technology to a Russia that has been helping kill civilians in Syria and invading the Ukraine’s Crimea against international law? One Russian said it would respect its territorial integrity. Why should western banks and other financial institutions not be banned from dealing with Russian banks or financing trade and interments in a war making Russia?  Financial sanctions can make a significant economic cost to Putin and his crony Russian oligarchs should Putin go further with his aggressive action. Banks will have to decide to do business with Russia or America. Given the disparity between the two economies I have no doubt that the big banks will choose wisely, especially if we punish foreign banks that do assist the Putin regime in its aggressive behavior. Is it wise to do business with an aggressive kleptocracy run by an irrational dictator bent on making war rather than peace?

That said, the West also needs a longer term perspective and a positive strategy, not just a defensive or offensive set of tools to force rational behavior on a leader that respects force and boldness. We need to need a better use of “smart power.”

Avoiding a direct military confrontation is wise when other tools are at hand and better suited for the strong West. It has been a wise strategy up to now, and the choice of economic sanctions is the strong suit of the West and weak one for Putin’s Russia.

The end game should not just reduce European dependence on Russian energy and act strongly to deter further aggression, but make Russia realize that it made a serious mistake being an aggressor. A key part of a wise long-term strategy is to actively work to make sure we tell the Russian people that we are not their enemy and that we want Russia to be a great power. We should envision a responsible democratic power seeking mutual security, arms control and non-proliferation and addressing climate change and dealing with global poverty, creating at home a democratic and law based society. We need to devise a series of cooperative programs that help the people of Russia in areas like health and civic society whenever possible. We should increase people to people exchanges and above all not close off the avenues of dialogue and understanding, which would be a reward to Putin, who would be happy to shut Russia off from ideas of liberty and democracy found in the West. Above sanctions, such a long term stance would do more harm to dictatorship than any sanctions.

What has not changed is that we need to speak to the Russian people – over the heads of Putin – without ambiguity and soon. Their future best rests with being part of an open global society, not a dark closed society. Fortunately, President Obama understands this, but some Republicans in Congress are acting as if they want a new cold war. They only see military action and useless expensive military hardware as the first tool in their simplistic and myopic perspectives that Russia is an eternal “enemy,” which is counterproductive and foolish while serving the interests and profits of the military- industrial sector that is their paymasters.

We welcome your comments!


  1. Harry C. Blaney III March 28, 2014 / 9:53 AM

    Chuck’s observation that MAD is “alive and well” like those who are calling for a new cold war are off the mark in that we are looking at the Ukraine crisis in a too myopic perspective. And I do share with him the thought of the increased dangers from other actual and potential nuclear powers. But that is also an argument that we need to keep a dialogue open with Russia and also act in ways that other nations as well as Russia see there are real costs to aggression.

    But we differ in the use of sanctions and other tools of diplomacy to create an international landscape that promotes responsible behavior by nations and even encourages them to contribute to global governance in useful ways.

    Here in London the debate remains rather muted and too narrow. There is clearly some moves on the energy font to increase supplies and storage and I hope to build more clean energy. But there is high uncertainty about what Russia will do next.

  2. chuck woolery March 27, 2014 / 7:23 PM

    It looks like MAD (Mutually assured destruction) is alive and well. And a useful strategy for rogue nuclear powers to get what they want.
    Our continued addiction to national sovereignty and the illusion that international law – backed only by sanctions, diplomacy and the threat of force, simply won’t bring us the just, prosperous and sustainable future ‘we the people’ all want.
    Look for more things to get worse and more dangerous as Putin’s impunity tempts China, Israel and any other nuclear powered regimes to abuse the law of force however they see fit.
    The force of international law…just isn’t cutting it. War, diplomacy or sanctions (which can be more deadly than war, and even lead to war) cannot be our only options.

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