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Putin’s game: Europe’s death by a thousand cuts

Written By | Feb 17, 2015

WASHINGTON, February 17, 2015 – The peace deal signed by Russia and Ukraine last week is not a good deal for Ukraine. Russia got the best outcome it could have hoped for, a continuation of the status quo. It remains in a position to arm pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine and to stir up trouble for Kyiv whenever Ukrainian leaders step out of line.

The chances for Ukraine to move further to the West are nearly scrubbed. The constant uncertainty in the East and the constant threat of violence will make it much harder for Ukraine to strengthen its democracy or its economy, making closer political, economic and military ties to the EU and NATO almost impossible.

Russia has no need to invade Ukraine or formally annex Ukrainian territory. Those moves would come with a high economic and political cost, and it’s a cost that Russia now has no need to pay.

The costs will be borne by the West. The peace agreement was brokered mainly by Germany, with France at its side to avoid the appearance of a German-Russian pact. England stayed home, and given the badness of the deal, Prime Minister Cameron is certainly pleased that his hand wasn’t in it. The United States also had no hand in it, having given its proxy to Angela Merkel.

The result is that the Atlantic alliance looks weak and fractured. President Obama has made it clear that NATO won’t fight Russia in Ukraine, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is probably convinced that it can’t. The U.S. and Europe can’t even bring themselves to arm Ukraine with defensive weaponry. Merkel wondered out loud about the difference between defensive and offensive weapons, and the U.S. has restricted itself so far to providing Ukraine with only nonlethal assistance.

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Congress approved $350 million in military assistance to Ukraine in December, and Obama signed it. However, he has so far refused to provide the assistance, which in any event would be distributed over a period of several years and would be almost nothing in the face of Russian aid to the separatists. Ukraine is effectively on its own, with only the kind wishes and moral support of the West.

Putin is flying high, and is strengthening Russian ties with other countries around the world. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un will be in Moscow for the May 9 celebrations of victory over fascism (WWII). Putin wants Kim to know that as long as he stands against America, he will always have a friend in Moscow.

Russia remains the biggest supporter of Bashir al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and continues to provide Venezuela with military equipment and oil investment. Moscow has made overture’s to Greece’s Syriza, and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipris announced his country’s opposition to further sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. On Tuesday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban welcomed Putin to Budapest for a bilateral summit, in defiance of an EU ban on bilateral summits with Putin. Hungary is heavily reliant on Russia for its hydrocarbons, and Orban has been actively seeking closer ties with Russia.

A danger in intelligence and politics is to see false mirror images. If you believe that your adversary is just like you — will think as you would and respond as you would if you were in his shoes — then you will be surprised when he acts in unexpected ways.

Putin, a former intelligence officer, knows that. In his game with the West, he has avoided Obama’s error of thinking that we all would want the same thing, if only we understood each other sufficiently well, or that at least we will all play rationally. Obama thinks that the international game is chess, but Putin knows that it is not. It is poker.

In chess, what matters is the reality of the board, which all sides can see, and the relative skills of the players. In poker, reality — the cards — matters, but more important than reality are the perceptions of reality and the luck of the draw. Neither side has full information about the cards held by the other, and much hinges on what each side believes the other side will do as new cards are drawn.

Putin has constructed his own image of the West, but it isn’t clear that he really understands us. Many of our cards are vastly superior to his — our economic, technological, and political resources are far greater than his, for instance — yet he doesn’t believe that we have the will or the ability to play them to our advantage.

If Putin is right, it doesn’t matter whether NATO and the EU have the power to thwart him in Ukraine and in Eastern Europe; we won’t. “Won’t” and “can’t” might as well be the same thing. If Putin is right, NATO will never summon up the will to hold together, and the EU will never summon up the courage. And even if we start to assert the will and the courage to act, he believes that he can ratchet up the heat in Ukraine or elsewhere and watch us fragment again.

The West suffers from an inability to form binding, credible commitments. That, anyway, is what Putin believes. The only way to force him to change his game is to change those beliefs.

One approach is relatively simple: Start giving Ukraine the economic assistance and weapons it needs to defend itself. The West has the resources to remain engaged in Ukraine for longer than Russia does, and a commitment to help Ukraine’s economic and political development along will counter Putin’s attempts to turn Ukraine into another South Ossetia, a destabilized state plagued with secessionists and incapable of making the economic and political reforms it needs to move westward.

That will only happen if the United States takes the lead in a policy that is much less ambiguous than it is now. Merkel wants a no-military solution in Ukraine, but a no-military solution can’t work if it doesn’t come with a threat of force.

This implies the need for a second approach: institutional commitment. Any coalition the U.S. and Europe form against Putin must be institutionalized, so that Putin cannot believe that it will fracture when he starts rattling chains.

Two useful institutions in this regard would be TTIP and CoCom. TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, would provide a jolt to Europe’s languishing economies, which are ultimately far more dangerous to Russia than anything else we can do. If countries like Hungary are pulled by economic forces into Europe, they won’t form dalliances with Putin.

CoCom, the Coordinating Committee, was the economic counterpart of NATO during the Cold War. It managed strategic economic actions against the USSR. A revived CoCom could manage current sanctions against Russia and implement new ones, and it would mean that a coordinated process would be required to lift them. Sanctions wouldn’t just go away on a nice Spring day because the West lost interest.

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Another necessary institution is NATO. Some Europeans, like Sueddeutsche Zeitung’s chief editor Kurt Kister, have suggested that the U.S. is no longer necessary to European security, that it is time for Europe to “emancipate” itself from America, and that Europe should create its own European Treaty Organization, “EUTO.”

That’s insane. Europe on its own has no credible military deterrent to Russia. There is no substitute for NATO, which instead of being superseded should be expanded. One obvious candidate for expansion is Finland, which with Sweden has taken steps to closer cooperation with NATO in the last year. A Finnish move toward NATO would slap Putin on the back of the head, giving him something to worry about in the other direction from Ukraine.

The German-French-brokered peace deal is a bad deal, but primarily because it has presented Putin with a fractured, half-hearted West that won’t oppose him. But we can oppose him, at far less cost than going along with whatever facts he creates on the ground. We must change his perceptions, and thus ruin his game.


Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.