By Harry C. Blaney III
There are out in our global landscape so many crises, conflicts, and challenges that it is hard to know which need the most attention and what can be done to deal effectively with each issue we face. One might surmise that America is in a “hard place” in these times of upheavals around the world. I would suggest our readers look first at Russia and ask if they are not in an even harder place in almost every category.
The cause of this can be pointed to only one man, namely President Vladimir Putin, who with reckless abandon has positioned his country into the worst possible situation both at home and abroad. For Putin, this has been a time of the “perfect storm,” largely by adherence to an impossible ideology, narrow xenophobic and nationalistic, yes, even fascist policies, and stupid economic policies. He has isolated his country from much of the world and imperiled the security of his nation and that of neighboring countries for little real gain. It is likely that this year and almost surely next will see flat growth or even a real decline in the Russian economy.
In Ukraine, he gained Crimea by force of arms when most of that region had not pushed for joining Russia before the invasion of Putin’s thugs. That win will be costly as he must now support a poor region. He invaded Eastern Ukraine and supported hostilities by arming and paying “Russian” forces and separatists who now remain entrenched in battle to this day. This resulted in reinforced sanctions which it is acknowledged even in Russia has hurt key sectors of the Russian economy.
All of this could have been avoided as Russia was NOT under any threat from the West. The real danger to Putin was the influence of the Western ideas of democracy, freedom to participate in politics, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech. It was these he feared rather than any invasion or encirclement by the West. Some apologists for Putin think the West caused these acts of aggression by Putin. This is false, rather Putin used and continues to use today this idea along with the lie that the West was “out to get” Russia and hurt it. His real aim was to isolate his citizens from contact with the outside world and real democracy.
In fact the idea of the Obama administration of “resetting” our relations was to work with Russia, the opposite of what Putin said the West was trying to do. The initial result was in some cases positive with a series of successful joint assistance and cooperation efforts like the New START treaty, access to transit to Afghanistan, membership in the World Trade Organization, and joint anti-terrorism activities. This should have proved to anyone with an objective view that we were trying the “smart power” and long-term objective of drawing Russia into the wider community of responsible nations. Not to harm it. But this must have been just what Putin feared most.
The result now is the disaster zone that is the Russian ruble that recently reached as low as 60 rubles to the dollar and so far an ineffective increase in the bank interest rate up to 17 percent to stop the ruble’s rapid fall. Russian banks closed on Monday, December 15th. Money is flowing out of the country and people are trying to exchange their rubles for dollars or Euros as swiftly as they can. Putin’s actions have led to a decline in Western investment in an economy seen by many as too dangerous and unpredictable. The final blow, which is not Putin’s fault, but which he did not see as a very real possibility was the impact of excess supplies of oil on the global market and a major fall of price, which brought a major decline in income for the Russian state and thereby a lowering of the living standards of the average Russian citizen.
So we are now seeing an already marginal economy in a downward spin and impacting the health, education, infrastructure, and investment of the entire nation, but impacting most those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
For the West, this is not completely a blessing, but is a mixed outcome. So long as Russian troops remain in Ukraine, sanctions should remain or be selectively reinforced. But we need a long-term strategy to work for a broader engagement with Russia.
We need to be seen by the Russian population as being on their side. This positive effort is seen in the recent meeting of Secretary Kerry with the Russian Foreign Minister to discuss relations and cooperation. Western nations are still looking for some kind of “off ramp” for Russia, but two must play this game and not just one. One problem is that Putin seems, as he grows more desperate and angry, to up the level of confrontation with the West, such as, the many provocative and dangerous military missions of planes and ships into Western borders and nations. Also, Russian military movement along the Baltic region also indicates weakness not strength, in risking for little gain added military confrontation with uncalculated danger of missteps and of escalation.
There may come a point when Putin or a successor sees the futility of a pure confrontation approach and finally comes to see Russia’s future as part of an integrated, prosperous, and responsible community. The Russian people and its leaders will at some point need to realize that Putin has put them into a very dark and confined box and will want to break out of that cold and ruthless authoritarian place he has put them in. America and the West need to be prepared for that day and start now to show our concern and hold out some carrots as well as sticks.
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