Putin's impatience over Crimea a strategic error

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Appeared in the Okanagan Saturday

Napoleon famously cautioned against interfering with an enemy making a mistake. So why is the West interfering with Vladimir Putin’s massive mistake in Crimea? More puzzling is the West’s unstated goal of legitimizing Putin’s Crimea grab.

Putin’s mistake? Some in the media are lionizing Putin as a strategic genius, running circles around the West. Yet, Putin could have gotten Crimea with a please-and-thank-you and looked like a humanitarian hero. Instead, he’s viewed as a threatening thug, with long-term negative consequences for Russia.

Crimea is about 60 per cent Russian; it is an historic part of Russia (given to the Ukraine only in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev). Putin is popular in the Crimea, and Crimeans are eagerly anticipating Russian pensions and social payments, which are higher than the Ukraine’s.

One of the first acts of the new government in Ukraine, prior to Russia’s invasion of Crimea, gave Russia-sympathizers a big boost. Kiev dropped Russian as an official language, creating fear and alienation in Russian bits of Ukraine. (Imagine the reaction in Quebec if Canada dropped French as an official language.)

Crimea had been semi-autonomous with a pro-Russian parliament. Let’s say Putin did not invade. He could have maneuvered Crimea’s parliament into calling a credible referendum, which Russia would have won fairly, if not by the surrealistic margin of Putin’s stage-managed secession referendum of March 16. Presto, Crimea becomes part of Russia legitimately.

What if the Kiev government tried to block a referendum? Better still, continual turmoil would have furthered Putin’s goal of de-stabilizing Ukraine, frustrating western Ukraine’s desire to move toward Europe.

With public demonstrations in Crimea calling for the referendum, Crimea’s parliament making plans for it, pigheadedness from Kiev, and Ukraine’s own nationalist extremists getting into the act, Crimea’s drive to independence would have gained international legitimacy (as did Kosovo’s) and the referendum would have been unstoppable.

Handled right, Putin’s patience and diplomacy would have made him look like a hero, with Crimea ending up in the Russian camp, Russian dominated eastern parts of Ukraine in turmoil, the Kiev government largely discredited, and the rest of Ukraine perhaps looking east again.

Instead, Putin pushed Ukraine firmly into the Western camp, lost any trust he had in the West, and alarmed eastern and central Europe into an even stronger anti-Russian stance. Sanctions and Putin’s unpredictable actions will scare off Russian investment and increase capital outflow. Most important, this could move Europe towards a sensible energy policy, including fracking, freeing Europe from energy blackmail and devastating Russia’s energy-dependent economy.

So why is the West interfering through sanctions, dropping Russia from the G8 (returning it to the G7), and firming its resolve to do more? The broader world is a more complicated place than Napoleon’s zero-sum battlefield where damage to the enemy is a win for the other side. Leaving Putin to bungle on his own is lose-lose, threatening international order, damaging Europe’s fragile recovery, and creating the danger of much worse down the road.

Yet, Crimea is lost. With Russian annexation popular, the odds of Crimea rejoining Ukraine in the near future are zero.

The best the West can aim for is to legitimize the new reality, bring Russia back into the international order, warn off further bad behavior, and deal itself a stronger hand for the future.

Western leaders hope sanctions and other tools will push Putin to normalize the situation after a few months, perhaps by supporting a legitimate referendum, which Russia would win but with a much-reduced majority—something that Putin will reject at least for now. But this or some other alternative could become an option if the West builds its pressure on Russia’s weak economy.

Behind all this is the long game and that’s about European energy independence. Putin is willing to have the Russian people suffer more than democratic leaders could contemplate. Sanctions that rebound to hurt Europe are politically difficult, though to its credit, Europe is strengthening its response.

Energy independence decreases the pain of European action and intensifies Russian pain until the tipping point may shift, even for an undemocratic leader who does not care about his people but who does care about remaining in power and dampening the threat of popular and elite mutiny.

By applying pressure now, normalizing the situation, and building strength for the future, the West aims to warn off further Russian adventurism which could move the world from lose-lose to disaster-disaster.

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