Vladimir Putin has developed something of a reputation for adroit political maneuvering. He crushed the nascent democracy movement in Russia and the world didn’t let out a peep. He goaded Georgia into giving Russia an excuse to attack it. He saved Obama and Assad in the same maneuver when he proposed elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. His government violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in a rather obvious manner and the U.S. said nothing for several years. He undertook the first alteration of a European border by force in more than sixty years with the invasion of Crimea without major consequences. Most recently, he has successfully conducted what some have called “ambiguous warfare” against Ukraine, including providing the separatists with advanced weapons, training and direction. Some observers have even characterized the Ukraine campaign as a new art of war.
So why do his recent moves appear so overt, even ham-handed? The Kremlin has done relatively little to hide its involvement in the conflict in Ukraine. 40,000 troops have been massed right over the Ukraine-Russia border for months. Moscow’s assistance to the separatists is blatant. The downing of Malaysian Airline Flight 17 is just one example. It proved fairly easy to trace the SA-11 battery used in the attack back to Russia. Russian artillery has been supporting separatist fighters. There is now almost no effort to hide the presence of Russian soldiers among the separatist forces even if some of them are said to be “on vacation.” Yesterday, columns of Russian armored vehicles and self-propelled artillery were caught on camera moving into Ukraine. The Russians had to know that because of the increased surveillance of Eastern Ukraine such a move would be immediately detected.
Ukraine is not the only area where Russia is acting in a manner similar to that of the Soviet Union. Bear strategic bombers now almost routinely conduct simulated strike missions against U.S. allies in Europe and the Far East. A few months ago, a Russian fighter buzzed a U.S. electronic reconnaissance aircraft operating in international airspace, coming within a few dozen feet of an RC-135. Another fighter forced a U.S. plane to divert into Swedish airspace in order to avoid a collision.
Putin has allowed a lot of additional unnecessary irritants to be injected into the U.S.-Russia and Europe-Russia relationship. There was the decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum, since extended, making it appear that he was acting as a Russian agent. There was the threat by a senior Russian official to cut off America’s access to the International Space Station. How about closing McDonald’s franchises for “health code violations?”
The timing of Russia’s aggressive moves could not be worse for its relation with the West. There is a NATO summit in Wales taking place in September. Whatever else might have been on the agenda, it is now going to be all about the Ukraine crisis. President Obama and the Democratic Party face tough mid-term elections with growing prospect they will suffer a significant Election Day defeat and even loss of control of the U.S. Senate. The latest Russian moves against Ukraine came right on the heels of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s last ditch effort to prevent the deployment eastward of NATO forces. Now even she is calling for tougher EU sanctions.
If Putin is not a fool, perhaps he is a modern day Machiavelli. What if his strategy is to provoke another Cold War with the West? The Russian President has long claimed that the West wanted to keep Russia in an enfeebled state and that NATO posed a serious military threat to his country. He has also repeatedly asserted that it is the West’s intention to destabilize his country, as he claims was done to the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, Syria and even Ukraine. So, it is possible that in his mind, the new Cold War has actually been underway for several years at least and the West started it.
Putin also may have calculated that a Cold War was his best option for solidifying his political position in Russia, setting it in concrete so to speak. Prior to his crackdown on domestic dissent and the move into Crimea, Putin’s popularity was clearly waning and his political prospects were limited, at best. The Russian economy was going nowhere. It was becoming clear that the Kremlin would have insufficient resources with which to make good on Putin’s campaign promises. Now, after the annexation of Crimea and with the war in Ukraine continuing, his popularity is at record levels.
It is not clear that any level of sanctions short of a total embargo on imports of Russian oil and gas would significantly diminish Putin’s domestic position. Nor is such an outcome likely even in a new Cold War. After all, during the last one Germany bought gas from the Soviet Union and the United States shipped it tens of millions of tons of grain annually. Putin could have the best of both worlds: a secure position at home, access to global markets and an adversary conveniently available on whom to blame any problems in his country. Sheer genius.
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