Burning Bridges and the Smell of Fresh Blood

Vladimir Putin says he doesn’t "need" eastern Ukraine, but it just might make sense for him to take it anyway.

In his speech to the Duma earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin turned directly to the people of Ukraine, who perhaps he had heard were feeling jittery. "Do not," he said, "believe those who want you to fear Russia, shouting that other regions will follow Crimea. We do not want to divide Ukraine; we do not need that." One imagines that Putin would not offer such an explicit pledge if he planned to violate it. On the other hand, he also noted that, after the Revolution, the Bolsheviks -- "may God judge them" -- transferred historically Russian territory which now constitutes "the southeast of Ukraine."

Logic would dictate that Putin digest the chunk of Ukraine he's bitten off before opening his jaws again. But the smell of fresh blood may simply whet his appetite. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen just told Foreign Policy that he worries that Putin's "next goal will be the eastern provinces of Ukraine" -- the ones that the Bolsheviks inexcusably surrendered. Ukraine can live perfectly well without Crimea, but not without its own industrial heartland. The great question facing the West over the next few weeks is thus not punishment for past misdeeds, but deterrence of future ones.

Before going to the question of whether and by what means Putin is deterrable, we should ask ourselves by what right, exactly, the West is being called upon to punish and prevent. Realists implore us to come down off our high horse. The Ukraine crisis is not about territorial aggression, FP's Gordon Adams admonishes us, but rather "the realities of the interstate system." George Friedman, the Metternich of Stratfor, notes that since "Russia has historically protected itself with its depth.... The loss of Ukraine as a buffer to the West leaves Russia without that depth and hostage to the intentions and capabilities of Europe and the United States."

The reminder that Putin is defending Russia's national interests as he has defined them, and as all great powers defined them in centuries past, is a useful caution against the hysterical moralism which turns Crimea into Munich. But it matters that the West no longer casually annexes neighbors, as the United States did with Texas 150 years ago. States whose definition of national interest posits a zero-sum contest among hostile powers pose a threat to an international order which no longer accepts the logic of balance of power -- and not just a strategic threat, but a moral one as well. You don't have to mistake Putin for Hitler to believe that he must be stopped from seizing Donetsk.

But how? The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on a range of individuals surrounding Putin. President Barack Obama has announced a second set of sanctions targeting Putin's closest allies and financiers. But this may be the kind of pain -- against others -- which Putin welcomes rather than fears. Obama has, however, signed another executive order which authorizes the Treasury Secretary to exact punishments against Russian companies in energy, banking, metals and mining, and other key industrial sectors. Prohibiting Russian oil and gas companies from doing business with American banks and energy firms could do real damage to the Russian economy.

For all the abuse coming his way from the Putin-is-Hitler crowd, Obama has reacted firmly, tightening the screws in response to each new provocation. Unfortunately, Washington cannot, by itself, threaten sufficient harm to deter Putin if he really wants to reverse Lenin's mistake. Since Putin knows full well that NATO would not respond with force to any violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, the only weapon he needs to fear is an economic one. And here Obama can only go just so far. He has been able to cripple the Iranian economy through sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council, forcing Tehran to negotiate over its nuclear program; but of course Russia would veto any such effort. And the United States is not, itself, an important market for Russian products.

The key is Europe, which spends $100 billion a year importing Russian gas. (The oil bill is even higher, but Russia could sell its oil elsewhere more easily than its gas.) Nothing would deter Putin so effectively as the prospect of losing that market, which would wreak havoc on Russia's economy. The idea of a "gas boycott" has been the talk of European capitals. But so far, it's been just talk. I asked Stefan Meister, a Russia expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, what form such a boycott would take, and he said, "There's been no concrete discussion. In Brussels, nobody knows what it would be like."

The reason the discussion has remained so vague is because the prospect is so frightening. While Germany depends on Russia for only 36 percent of its gas -- and has stored up a surplus -- Italy, Poland, and Bulgaria, among others, are more dependent and have little or no storage capacity. Meister points out that Poland could switch to coal -- save that it now imports coal from Russia. While oil producers like Saudi Arabia have surplus capacity which can be tapped in a crunch, the gas market is tight; Qatar, the world's largest source of gas, has no additional capacity. Japan and China buy up whatever is available.

The good news is that, as Jason Bordoff, a former White House advisor on energy and climate, points out, "in four or five years there will be a lot more supply," thanks to the growing use of fracking technology in Europe as well as increased supplies of liquefied natural gas from the United States and elsewhere. The crisis with Russia has already begun to concentrate European minds on the issue of energy independence.

The bad news, however, is that Putin isn't thinking about five years from now; if he were, he wouldn't have invaded Crimea in the first place. If anything, the prospect of long-term economic decline may prompt him to seize eastern Ukraine's economic assets right now -- while he has an opening. He might hesitate if the cost were crippling Gazprom, the most formidable weapon he has. But Putin knows that Europe can't afford to stop buying Russian gas for the next several years. If the cost for eastern Ukraine is burning his bridges to the West and having his own and all his cronies' assets frozen, Putin just may consider that a price worth paying.

I could not find an energy expert who believes that Europe could do without Russian gas in the short term. Meister points out that even as the rhetoric of German Chancellor Angela Merkel grows harsher, she remains studiously vague on sanctions. When I observed that the situation sounded hopeless, he turned glum: "Yes, this is what I was discussing with my colleagues in Warsaw yesterday. We started drinking vodka." First Russian, he said, then Ukrainian.

In short, the only force that can keep Russian troops from drinking vodka in Donetsk is Vladimir Putin himself. Putin has so many lower-cost options available to him that a large-scale invasion -- even one limited to border areas -- still seems unlikely. Putin may calculate that he can destabilize Ukraine, and thus turn its dalliance with the West into a failure, by using Russia's immense economic power to squeeze Ukraine, by blanketing the east with propaganda from Russian media and by sending agents provocateurs to whip up popular discontent. Putin doesn't "need," as he put it, to divide Ukraine by force; he just needs to keep it out of the Western orbit.

It is a very, very unsettling thought that Ukraine's fate now depends on Putin's calculations of self-interest, or even his whims. The ringmaster of Sochi seems still to be glorying in the vast powers at his disposal. We can only hope that the vapors start to disperse in the harsh light of day.



Tupac in the Kremlin

How the martyred king of gangsta rap, a bisexual LSD-touting beat poet, and a reclusive alcoholic painter inspire a Moscow apparatchik.

When Putin's senior advisor Vladislav Surkov learned of the U.S. sanctions being levied against him in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea, he responded: "The U.S. I am interested in is Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don't need a visa to access their work. So I lose nothing."  

A Kremlin veteran and possibly a chief architect of Russia's Ukraine policy, Surkov made the comment as a snarky dismissal of the American reaction to Russia's bold land grab. But it was also a striking list of cultural references for a Kremlin apparatchik: the martyred king of gangsta rap; a bisexual, anti-war, LSD-touting beat poet; and a reclusive alcoholic painter known for upending the mores of mid-century art through the advent of abstract expressionism.

It's certainly possible that these figures -- some of the dearest and most progressive in American history -- simply reflect Surkov's eccentric (and in my book, excellent) tastes. He is known to have written lyrics for a Russian rock band and is believed to be the pseudonymous author of a satirical novel. His penchant for Tupac has also been widely reported by past visitors to his Kremlin office, which is graced with the dead rapper's portrait. Off-handed or not, however, Surkov's three Americans each represents a strong counter-cultural thread in 20th-century American society, and provides ample clues about Russia's self-perception as the aggrieved anti-hero of the post-Cold War order.

Tupac. Surkov's affinity for Tupac Shakur, the California rapper killed in a drive-by shooting in 1996, is perhaps the easiest to understand, given Tupac's unvarnished disdain for the rules of society, in addition to almost everything outside of guns, marijuana, and women. With Tupac songs such as "F*ck the World" and "Me Against the World," it's not hard to see how Surkov's -- and in turn, President Putin's -- recent affronts to the international order might align with the dead rapper's ethos. But those of us who grew up in the golden age of hip hop -- and especially those who did so on the West Coast -- know that Tupac was far from an angry and ignorant thug.

The son of Black Panthers and a talented poet and lyricist, Tupac channeled his frustration with police brutality and racism into music that moved generations and challenged the status quo in the early 1990s, an era that saw both the L.A. riots and the fall of the Soviet Union. As one of the architects of the Kremlin's domestic and foreign policy under Putin, one might surmise that Surkov fancies today's Russia to be something similar: a misunderstood rebel who sees that the emperor has no clothes; a speaker of truth to power; and a savior for those left behind by the power structure, namely, today's U.S.-dominated world.

Ginsberg. Along with Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg is one of the most celebrated beat poets and is a whole other kind of rebel -- though similarly thoughtful and incendiary in his critiques of mainstream America. Writing in the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of the Cold War and Vietnam -- not to mention McCarthyism and the American cultural revolution -- Ginsberg was a strong voice for the anti-war and pro-drug movements, as well as for gay rights. (The latter, of course, is rather incongruous given the Kremlin's continued attacks on gay rights in Russia; my guess is the contradiction is not lost on Surkov, though likely conveniently overlooked.)

Ginsberg flirted with communism but stated he wasn't a party member. His work did, however, focus largely on what he perceived as the absurdities of American politics and culture. His 1956 epic poem, America, talks specifically of the Cold War, mocking the anti-Russian rhetoric of the day:

America it's them bad Russians. 
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians. 
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia's power mad. She wants to take 
our cars from out our garages ...

Like Tupac, Ginsberg was no cut-and-dry soapbox critic of the U.S. government or mainstream American culture. He often wrote of mental illness, homosexuality, and drug use, resulting in his most famous poem, Howl, being nearly banned for obscenity. Each of these topics, I might add, was by any account more scandalous than anything even considered by the banned Russian feminist punk outfit, Pussy Riot. Ginsberg also wrote often of those who had been seemingly left behind, painting disenfranchisement as a quiet source of strength.

Pollack. Perhaps Jackson Pollack is the most difficult reference to decipher, since his mode of expression was not only visual, but completely abstract. This made him an anti-hero of the art world, of course, but a tinge more opaque as an influence on Russian foreign policy. But looking closely at what Pollock represents does draw a clear line back to the subversive natures of Tupac and Ginsberg. Pollock abandoned form -- then the dominant, if not only, acceptable mode of artistic expression -- in order to more clearly convey an emotional state or moment. The results were explosive, complex, and mystifying to many; apt words, in fact, for Russia's recent behavior, at least on the surface.

Pollock's historical significance is also a good parallel, and perhaps even more concrete than Ginsberg's brushes with communism and critiques of Cold War paranoia. According to a series of revelations made in the early 1990s, the CIA actually sponsored and promoted the work of abstract expressionist artists, including Pollock, as part of the agency's covert cultural war against the Soviet Union. Its aim was to demonstrate that the United States was a bastion of creative expression, unlike the rigid USSR, where Soviet realism was the only acceptable form of artistic work.

According to those who worked for the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CIA front for this type of promotion, the agency was acutely aware that the artists whom they were promoting were often quite left wing and anti-government. In fact, the CIA deliberately harnessed the avant-garde's association with the left to make even more clearly their point about American artistic liberty.

This may in fact be the most subtle, and yet most telling message to be found in Surkov's admission. That is to say, the best part of America is its own counter-culture. The sense of rebellion, the anger at being left behind by an all-powerful but corrupt system, has had its greatest expressions in American artists, musicians, and poets. We may not always realize it, but, as seen through Surkov's eyes, America is the original avant-garde.

As absurd as it may seem to us, today Surkov is claiming this rebellious anger for Russia, co-opting the need to buck the system, go for broke, get rich, or die trying. We see it in the bold annexation of Crimea, in Putin's defiant address, and in Russia's continued defense of rogue states like Syria and North Korea. Fortunately, Vladimir Surkov is far from the only one whispering in Putin's ear, and more cautious strains of Russian thinking also have their place. But we would be wise to take note of Surkov's clear influence on the president -- and our own cultural anti-heroes' influence on him.