No-Bluff Putin

Anyone who says Russia is losing in Ukraine doesn’t understand how this game is played.

Who's winning the battle for Ukraine? Despite continued signs of trouble in Ukraine's eastern provinces, some pretty prominent people have recently offered a decidedly upbeat interpretation of events there. The first was U.S. President Barack Obama, who, during his commencement speech at West Point last week, cited the Western response to the crisis as a telling example of successful multilateral diplomacy. In his words, "the mobilization of world opinion and international institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda, Russian troops on the borders, and armed militias." It's not over, he warned, but this effort "has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future."

A second optimistic appraisal came from New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who announced on May 27 that Vladimir Putin had "blinked" and proclaimed that the Russian leader "got pretty much everything wrong." According to Friedman, "Putin's seizure of Crimea has weakened the Russian economy, led to China getting a bargain gas deal, revived NATO, spurred Europe to start ending its addiction to Russian gas and begun a debate across Europe about increasing defense spending." His close-to-gleeful summary: "the country Putin threatens most today is Russia."

There's a grain of truth in these optimistic assessments, in the sense that Russia has paid a price for its recent actions. And Obama and Friedman are correct to remind us that Russia is not the looming geopolitical threat that some hawks tried to conjure up when it seized Crimea. But what both Obama and Friedman miss is the real -- and completely normal -- motivation behind Putin's behavior. It ain't rocket science: Putin was willing to pay a substantial price because Russia's vital interests were at stake. On balance, I'll bet Putin still sees this matter as a net win.

Just consider what Putin has achieved in the past few months.

First, he has put the idea of a further NATO expansion on the back burner for a long time, and maybe forever. Russia has opposed NATO's march eastward ever since it began in the mid-1990s, but Russia was not in a position to do much about it. The brief 2008 war between Russia and Georgia was Putin's first attempt to draw a red line, and that minor skirmish dampened enthusiasm for expansion considerably. This time around, Putin made it abundantly clear that any future attempt to bring Ukraine into NATO or even into EU membership will be met with firm Russian opposition and will probably lead to dismemberment of the country.

Second, Putin has restored Russian control over Crimea, an act that was popular with most Crimean residents and most Russians as well. The takeover entailed some short-term costs (including some rather mild economic sanctions), but it also solidified Russian control over its naval base in Sevastopol and will allow Russia to claim oil and gas reserves in the Black Sea that may be worth trillions of dollars. The United States and Europe can try to block development of these reserves by tightening sanctions even more, but they are more likely to let sanctions ease off once the situation in Ukraine cools. And if Russia eventually decides to start exploiting these areas, is the United States going to send the 6th Fleet to stop it?

Third, Putin has reminded Ukraine's leaders that he has many ways to make their lives difficult. No matter what their own inclinations may be, it is therefore in their interest to maintain at least a cordial relationship with Moscow. And Ukraine's new president, Petro Poroshenko, got the message. As he told Lally Weymouth of the Washington Post before his election, "Without a direct dialogue with Russia, it will be impossible to create security." Since taking office, he has made it clear that he wants to expand Ukraine's economic ties to Europe -- something crucial to any hope of reforming its troubled economy -- but he also intends to improve relations with Russia as well.

Fourth, Friedman's tale of a "revived" NATO is wishful thinking at best and pure fiction at worst. The alliance did deploy a few warplanes to the east to reassure its Baltic members, and Obama offered the usual verbal affirmations and pledged $1 billion in miscellaneous defense measures during his visit to Poland this week. But the Poles seem less than reassured and continue to demand more U.S. protection; what they seem to want is a big NATO military base on their territory. The crisis also reminded observers that NATO expansion was never based on serious calculations of interest and capability: The United States and its allies simply assumed the Article 5 pledge to defend NATO's new members would never have to be honored. I don't think Russia has the slightest intention of expanding anywhere else, but doubts about the wisdom of NATO's earlier expansion have never been greater.

Friedman also says Europeans are now debating increased defense spending, as if these discussions were going to make Putin lose a lot of sleep. In fact, NATO's European members have talked about doing enhanced defense capabilities for years, but the level of actual spending has steadily declined.

Finally, Friedman seems to think Russia signed its new 30-year, $400 billion gas deal with China out of a sense of desperation and that the deal is a losing proposition. Hardly: The price China reportedly agreed to pay is slightly less than what Russia charges its European customers, but it is more than double the price that customers in the Commonwealth of Independent States cough up, and it will still earn Gazprom a tidy profit. More importantly, the deal strengthens Sino-Russian economic relations and diversifies Gazprom's customer base, which will allow it to push for harder bargains elsewhere. Western sanctions may have made Putin somewhat more willing to cut a deal, but it is still a net win for him.

To sum up: Putin's maneuverings look like a failure only if you believe his goal was to dismember Ukraine completely or re-create the old Soviet Union. By contrast, if you think his primary objective was to keep Ukraine from joining a U.S.-led "sphere of influence" in Europe, then his handling of the crisis looks adroit, ruthless, and successful.

In short, Putin's tacit acceptance of the recent Ukrainian election and his other moves to de-escalate the crisis aren't an example of his backing down in the face of coordinated Western pressure. Instead, he is lowering the temperature because he got the most important things he wanted and just about everything he could reasonably expect. Putin didn't "blink"; he just knew when to pocket his gains and cash in.

Photo by YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images


What Russia Could Look Like in 2035, if Putin Gets His Wish

Sorry, Europe: It ain't a pretty picture.

Russia's foreign policy has two intertwined reflexes: Bad things happen when Russia is no longer allowed to protect its neighbors, and worse things happen when those neighbors look elsewhere for protection.

But it may be that Russia has plans for these unruly and ungrateful neighbors. A series of maps -- first published by the Moscow-based newspaper Express Gazeta in July 2012, well before the outbreak of the current Ukrainian crisis -- has recently resurfaced, and the maps appear to reveal Moscow's ultimate designs in Ukraine and Russia's near abroad. By 2035, Russia will not only have annexed Crimea (check!) and the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, currently hotly contested between forces loyal to Kiev and pro-Russian insurgents. The Kremlin will have also absorbed the tsarist-era territories of "New Russia" in southern Ukraine, linking up with Transnistria, the eastern sliver of Moldova loyal to Moscow, and thereby cutting off Kiev's access to the Black Sea.

It's doubtful the map represents Russian President Vladimir Putin's actual game plan. Express Gazeta, probably best described as a sensationalist tabloid, said unnamed "geopolitical experts" drew the map based on "open source" information from research institutes, as well as (oddly) from the works of strategists Alvin Toffler, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Samuel Huntington.

Instead, the map should be read as a cartographic illustration of Russian wish fulfillment, reflecting the hopes and frustrations of at least a small segment of Russian public opinion. Some in Russia, the map seems to say, hope Europe in 2035 looks fragmented, is increasingly Islamized, and suffers under a resurgent Germany. None of this would happen, the article hints, if Russia were still the superpower it was before the 1991 Soviet collapse.

In his 1899 book, The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud defined wish fulfillment as the satisfaction of repressed desires through unconscious thought processes such as dreams, daydreams, and hallucinations. This map is the daydream of a Russia frustrated with its diminished place in the world, exacting satisfaction from its European neighbors by acting out its geopolitical fantasies.

Western Europe

In an attitude that hasn't really changed since communism, and perhaps has been amplified by anti-Western resentment since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia sees Western Europe as morally and economically bankrupt -- decadent and near collapse. Hence the breakup of almost all major European states, starting with Great Britain. After Scotland chooses independence in the 2013 referendum, Northern Ireland feels the pull of the Republic and joins a united Ireland, effectively reducing the United Kingdom to England and Wales.

According to Express Gazeta, the recent economic crisis has sped up the decentralization of Spain, which will see Catalonia and the Basque Country split off, leaving the rest of Spain to cohabitate in a Spanish Confederacy.

Neighboring France loses some territory to the Basques, but the main story is the "multicultural collapse" due to the failure to assimilate the "wild people of color" -- immigrants from France's former colonies. The map suggests that the situation will get worse to the point that the French government will have to deport ethnic minorities to an area in its southeast called "Arab Piedmont" -- an Islamic foothold, presumably with Marseille as its capital. (For good measure, Corsica goes it alone, and Germany reannexes Alsace and Lorraine.)

Belgium is also a goner, split along ethnic-linguistic lines. The Flemish in the north join with the Netherlands in a Dutch Union, but the map ungenerously keeps French-speaking Wallonia out of French hands.

Central Europe

Italy also splits in two, along economic lines: the Northern League controls the country to about the Tuscany-Lazio border. Rome is part of South Italy, which is too poor to prevent the secession of Sardinia and Sicily.

Bosnia-Herzegovina -- a product of U.S. diplomacy -- is wiped out, divided between Croatia and Serbia. In compensation, Turkey obtains the enlargement of (mainly Muslim) Albania with Kosovo, and adjacent parts of Serbia and Macedonia, creating a Greater Albania. Revanchist Hungary is finally able to regain some of the territory it lost after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, and it reannexes Vojvodina from Serbia and part of Transylvania from Romania.

But poor Poland. Once a firm Slavic friend, then a staunch communist ally, now a wannabe Westie, Poland is punished for its disloyalty to Mother Russia by dismemberment. In the west, Germany reclaims coastal Pomerania and inland Silesia. Berlin even reabsorbs East Prussia, forcing Russia itself to abandon the northern half of that territory. It seems strange that Russia would willingly part with its westernmost territory, but the point being made takes precedence over the sacredness of Russia's borders: to drive home to Warsaw the foolishness of stepping out from under Russia's protective umbrella.

Last for this part of Europe -- and also least -- a tiny fragment of western Ukraine declares independence. Once the easternmost part of Czechoslovakia, Subcarpathian Ruthenia had the distinction of being independent for a single day before Hungary overran it in the run-up to World War II. Perhaps this is where Andy Warhol, an ethnic Ruthenian, got his concept of "Fifteen minutes of fame"?

Eastern Europe

A disintegrating European Union enables Russia to wrest control of Russian-majority areas from the Baltic states. Estonia loses the Narva District, an area surrounding the mainly ethnic-Russian town of Narva, and Latvia loses the Dvinsk Region, around the small city of Daugavpils. And Moscow subordinates Belarus into a region of Russia.

Like Poland, Ukraine is punished for its Western sins: Not only does Russia annex its east and south, but its west splits off as independent Galicia (which even manages to grab an eastern corner of Poland).

To compensate for the loss of Transylvania to Hungary, Romania gets Moldova -- except for the part that goes to Russia. Bulgaria, which has been fleeing from its traditional place by Russia's side into the embrace of Brussels -- is punished by Turkey's chomping off of an area around the Bulgarian port city of Burgas, to accommodate Bulgaria's Turkish minority.


What does Russian wish fulfillment look like in the Caucasus? Strangely, the region's northeast sees the emergence of a Caucasian Emirate. Perhaps this is a strategic retreat, minimizing the loss of territory and the spread of Islamist separatism to Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan.

Georgia also pays the price for standing up to Russia and cozying up to the West: Russia straight out annexes the renegade province of Abkhazia -- and that's if the Georgians agree to play nice, because on this map they regain control over South Ossetia, that other Russian protectorate on their soil. But that's not the end of Georgia's troubles. To establish a lifeline to its ally Armenia, Russia extorts a corridor straight across Georgian territory, de facto dividing it into West Georgia and Kakheti.

The Express Gazeta article wisely includes the caveat that "not everything" on this map will happen exactly as predicted. Of course that's true; but it's also a bit disingenuous. Humans are conditioned to trust maps. This cartographic fantasy panders to Russia's foreign-policy frustrations by predicting future defeats for its "enemies" and future victories for itself. If 2035 might seem a long time to wait, that too is par for the course: Predictions gain traction the further into the future they're placed.

Laugh if you want. However ludicrous this map might seem now, compared with the way things looked back in 2012, the situation on the ground sure seems to be moving in this direction.

Photo by DMITRI ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images

Maps via Express Gazetta: www.eg.ru/daily/politics/32691