Putin vs the World

February 16, 2015 OPINION/NEWS




Robert Barrett

Machiavelli would be disgusted by the current leaders of the free world. The question they keep asking is: how do we stop Putin in Ukraine? They would do well to remember that if an injury must be done to a man, it should be of such a kind that you need not fear his retaliation. Putin must be destroyed, at least as a political actor. But how to topple a man as yet untouched by diplomatic sanctions, costly foreign conflicts and, most importantly, a collapsing economy?

Many commentators have explained Putin’s recent action in Ukraine as a desperate flailing of military power in order to maintain Russia’s status as a regional superpower after its economic clout failed to do so: EU membership for Ukraine would damage the assertion of power the Sevastopol naval port gives Russia over the Black Sea for example. Obviously western leaders would condemn the annexation of Crimea under any circumstances, but it would be ridiculous to suggest they would risk destabilising the political world order over an action which Putin has already taken, and with minimal detriment even to EU countries. Damage has been done of course, but angering the Russian bear can only now further destabilise the region. So why are we still so concerned?

Partly, because Putin has loose ends to tie up, and I mean that in the sinister sense that phrase can possibly be interpreted. Putin’s Crimea now neighbours an even more aggressively pro-EU Ukraine: his ports and power in the region are still under threat from EU incursion, if not more so after his blatant provocation. He is too heavily committed, has broken too many diplomatic ties and has produced too much propaganda to change course now without admitting utter defeat in the eyes of both the Russian people and, more crucially, his own party’s elite. Surrender would destroy the tough guy image his personality cult is built on, and his trustworthiness as a safe pair of hands which ensures his oligarchical support would disappear. In short, if Putin backs down, he will almost certainly lose power.

There is only one solution left for Putin then, which EU leaders must see: sooner or later the whole of Ukraine must come under his control. If the west allows Ukraine to fall, little stands between Russia and realising the “Putin Doctine” and regaining the economic, political and geostrategic assets lost by the Soviet Union. This may sound like doom mongering, but with states such as Greece already threatening to develop closer ties to Russia and China rather than the EU, Russia’s continued backing for anti-EU nationalist parties across Europe and its previous track record of using violence to achieve its ends, the extension of Russian influence further into Europe is a very real possibility in the near future.

The west too then seems to be under heavy pressure not to back down. The EU is already facing an existential threat from internal pressures as well as Russian influence, and the US cannot afford to allow Europe to become dominated by Russia, its main geopolitical foe, in the words of one former presidential candidate. Both sides then seem intent on winning this staring competition. Starting to sound familiar? It should: it sounds a lot like an updated Cold War, complete with Mutually Assured Destruction, apart from this time around unstable dictatorships like North Korea can join in the fun.

Much as in the original Cold War, victory for the west relies neither on military force nor diplomacy, but on ripping Putin’s regime apart from the inside. Already, a combination of cheap oil, trade sanctions and a falling rouble due to the bad international press has heavily damaged Russia’s economy, but the internal party structure of United Russia is keeping Putin afloat. This is due to an incredible discovery made by the political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita back in 1999: dictators which are supported by a political party last far longer than others, especially when confronted with an economic crisis such as Russia is facing now. Membership of United Russia invests the elite in the survival of the party and as long as Putin remains an authoritative figurehead it is in their interests to support him, as well as expanding Putin’s coercive powers and creating an air of legitimacy to his regime despite the 2007 elections being deemed neither free nor fair by international observers.

How can such a well organised system to be demolished from outside though? Western leaders have already started down this path by freezing the accounts and investments of many of Putin’s key supporters: it remains to be seen how loyal a hungry dog really is. In any regime, divisions in the elite are the weakness which invites rebellion and although it is impossible to know for sure if these policies have created fractures within Putin’s winning coalition, any advantage they have created can be pressed by going after the industries these oligarchs rely on. This may already be occurring: the sanctions on Russia have reduced the oil supply available to the west which would suggest that from an economic perspective at least, OPEC could force western countries to pay inflated prices.

However, Saudi Arabia, a long-time ally of the US (occasionally labelled one of the US’s “special relationships”), has kept oil prices low allowing the EU to boycott Russian oil, and it is not surprising that at the same time a reluctant and war-weary US has summoned the strength to launch airstrikes against Saudi Arabia’s neighbouring threat ISIS. This might constitute a template on which the western powers can move forward: identify the Russian elites’ key economic interests, then manufacture international co-operation to isolate Russian businesses from the rest of the market. The deepening economic crisis in Russia will inevitably produce public dissatisfaction, but seeing their usually uniform leaders disunited could create just the catalyst for regime change which western leaders need.

So what do we have to fear from Russia? Despite my earlier foreboding warnings about creeping Russian influence in Europe, there is little to be immediately concerned about. The new Cold War, as former Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev terms it, is likely to be much like the last one: cold. Any conflict above the types of proxy wars witnessed during the Cold War would be disastrous for Russian prosperity, and whilst Putin has shown he is willing to sacrifice some economic benefits for the glory of the fatherland, it would be suicide, literally as well as politically, for him to enter a military conflict with the combined powers of the EU and US which he could not hope to win.

The risks are made even greater by the increased proliferation of nuclear arms since the original Cold War, further decreasing the chances of open warfare. No, advanced warfare will be carried out in the boardroom rather than the battlefield, and we need to be on our guard for shady political funding and new diplomatic relationship formations rather than soldiers and bombs.

It is only through these means that Putin will be able to take back any more of what the Soviet Union lost, and it is only through these means that the EU can hope to combat Putin’s advances. Welcome to the next generation of warfare.






Robert Barrett

Robert Barrett is a student of Politics and Philosophy at the London School of Economics and currently President of the LSE SU Philosophy Society. He enjoys analysing national and international politics on both scientific and ethical levels and is interested in the constantly evolving nature of politics across the globe.



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