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Monday, April 7, 2014

Can Putin’s Ukrainian Strategy Be Countered? -- Walter Russell Mead, The American Interest

President of Russia Vladimir Putin (Valery Sharifulin/ZUMA Press/Newscom)
Putin is in a far better position than many Western policymakers and pundits seem to realize. And turning the tables on him won’t be easy.

The dust has settled a bit following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the seizure of the Crimea, and it’s now possible to discern the new landscape and to start thinking seriously about what the US and the EU should do next. The next steps won’t be easy; from a western point of view the options are not great. The usual cheerleaders and White House boosters have been banging on about Putin falling into a trap, but it the West that was caught. Whether by design or by luck, Vladimir Putin has American and European leaders in an comfortable spot.

This is partly because in one sense, the West “won” the lion’s share of Ukraine. This was the point that the administration’s press acolytes were quick to point to as proof that our “smart diplomacy” still had the upper hand, but the cost of this “success” will be high. Russia sliced off Crimea, but has so far refrained from any more land grabs; that leaves the EU and the US holding the bag for the rest of the country. The weak and corrupt Ukrainian state, its inexperienced revolutionary leaders, its failing economy and its deeply divided population now turn to the West with hopes high and hands out. The West has two choices and neither one is particularly pleasant. Option one: it can turn its back on Ukraine while the country flounders further, turns bitter at western failure and inevitably slips into orbit around Moscow.  Option two: it can embark on an expensive, difficult and quite possibly doomed exercise in nation-building, with Putin able to deploy a formidable array of policy tools against us whenever and however he chooses. Quite possibly, option two will turn out to be a longer, more humiliating, more painful and more expensive way of getting the same ultimate result as option one.

Given the state of leadership on both sides of the Atlantic, we will probably try to split the difference: giving enough aid to Ukraine so our leaders won’t be accused in the press of abandoning it, but not doing enough to make a lasting difference on the ground. Putin could not ask for a better policy mix from his point of view; the West appears determined to fulfill his dreams.

The West is not likely to behave very well or enjoy much success in Ukraine. The EU has a deeply dysfunctional policy making system (which is one reason it landed in this mess to begin with), it is riven by profound internal dissension between debtor and creditor countries and between Germany and its unwilling partners in austerity, and it lacks both military strength and money at the moment. As for the United States, it is hard to choose between the reflexive hawks who want to go back to the Cold War playbooks or the feckless liberals who thought we’d transcended all that messy geopolitical rivalry stuff and could go focus on the really interesting issues, like the role of women in development and improving the governance of Uzz-beki-bekistan. Like the European Union, the United States is not possessed of large quantities of free cash, and the voters are not looking to support major transfers of money to a government that Transparency International ranks calls one of the world’s most corrupt, ranking it 144 out of 177 countries. There are few prospects for helping Ukraine’s uncompetitive, Russia-focused manufacturers win bigger market share in the west, and nothing about the country’s situation or prospects suggests that large infusions of private investment will be headed its way anytime soon.
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