Remind Me: How is Putin Winning?

By Seth Studer

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Last week, the Washington Post ran a headline that captures everything wrong about how Russian president Vladimir Putin’s political and military maneuvers in eastern Europe have been covered in the West: “Ukraine ratifies associations with E.U., grants concessions to rebels.” The newly strengthened relationship between Kiev and the E.U. is rightly emphasized, but the small concessions to Russophone rebels in eastern Ukraine is added as an apparently obligatory counterbalance – common throughout what we in America cloyingly call “the mainstream media” – to reinforce the narrative that Russia is somehow on the move. I say “cloyingly” because the sentiment reflects an American Cold War nostalgia that never quite collapsed under the Berlin Wall or the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a nostalgia for three networks, two newspapers, and one Bad Guy. “See! Concessions! This is why Obama is weak and Putin is strong! The West is in retreat and the rebels are getting concessions! Right?! Right?!”

Mr. President, build up that wall!
Mr. President, build up that wall!

Here’s a different perspective:

At this time last year – September 24, 2013 – Ukraine’s president was little more than Putin’s stooge, Moscow’s man in Kiev, a corrupt thug who lived in a Eurotrash mansion (“Opulence: I has it”) and kept two bells on his nightstand: one for vodka, the other for prostitutes. Viktor Yanukovych had spent his political life advocating and advancing close ties to Russia. He became president after his predecessor, a reformer who was poisoned and disfigured in what amounts to hilarious retro-Cold War shenanigans gone terribly wrong, failed to win reelection. Ukraine was leaning toward Russia, and through Yanukovych, Putin effectively determined Ukrainian foreign policy. You might say that Putin was co-president of Ukraine.

Flash forward one year: Yanukovych is gone, ousted by his own people. Instead of enjoying considerable power over Ukrainian policy, Putin now owns Crimea (which has only been Ukrainian since 1954), exerts direct influence over some parts of eastern Ukraine (instead of the whole thing), and finances (though denies any ties to) a ragtag bunch of crypto-fascist Russophones who can’t distinguish between a Ukrainian fighter jet and a passenger plane full of innocent Europeans (they can’t even control their Twitter accounts; at least ISIS has decent PR guys).

Meanwhile, Kiev has never been closer to Europe, and its fate has never seem more intertwined with the EU’s. As a bonus, the Baltic states just got reassurance that NATO benefits will be honored, and Russia is facing several not-insiginificant economic sanctions from many of its ostensible allies.

Am I the only one who sees Putin as the net-loser here? And Obama? He barely had to do a thing to achieve this outcome.

But...but...Obama has a pink backpack and Putin doesn't wear a shirt!
But…but…Obama has a pink backpack and Putin doesn’t wear a shirt!

Twenty-five years ago, Berlin was the primary political border of Europe, where East and West faced off. Today, the border has shifted eastward…all the way to Kiev. Putin (shirtless) is in a helluva fix, and all Obama (mom jeans) had to do was make a couple phone calls. The West is kind of kicking ass, and we’re not even trying that hard. Because while Russian hardliners project a lot of strength, they tend to exert it by beating dogs, shooting tigers, and undermining themselves.

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2 thoughts on “Remind Me: How is Putin Winning?”

  1. Got to disagree with this sentiment. Putin continues to win – whole-heartedly.

    Did the French cancel the two offensive amphibious assault ships under construction for the Russian Navy at St. Nazaire? No way. The good Socialist government has only suspended the delivery, while construction on the second ship and crew training for Russian sailors continues.

    Are the Energiewende Germans divesting themselves of Nord pipeline gas? Not even close – they have a defined feckless response, even with the strongest European economy. They are dramatically more dependent on Russia than any time in history for their economic destiny.

    Italy, Greece or Spain – no action there either but with energy and economic deepening ties to Russia.

    Finland, Sweden and the Baltic Republics have massive dependencies on Russia and speed-bump militiaries. They offer mildly offended statements in public and conciliation otherwise.

    The only western Europeans to offer more than lip service are the Tories. Not the U.K. in general, but those hold-over Thatcherites. Tony Blair’s Labor financed years of deficits with the Oligarchs’ money. The City of London is suffering due loss of Russian financing business which will not help the pound weather the European deflation.

    Poland stands almost alone in offering a vigorous opposition. Of course four Russian invasions in the last 100 years makes you doubtful of Moscow or St. Petersburg’s intentions.

    The U.S. has provided little backbone for the Europeans.

    The weak “targeted” sanctions give Putin cover for the weak Russian economy. State-run media can trumpet that it is not government mismanagement of the Russian economy causing economic disruption, it is the cabal of Western powers.

    The only serious economic blow is a cloud-with-silver lining – the sanctions may force out the U.S. and European-based major oil companies from joint energy production ventures. That creates some financing liquidity issues that the Russian government will have to address. The Western expertise and advanced technology has already been transferred. When the majors are forced to divest, the replacement investors such as Sinopec and the Arabs will get a lower buy-in investment but without the corresponding Western levers to influence the Putin government.

    Russia is also winning the hard currency battle. The only appreciable non-extractive exports from Russia are weapons. Times are very good for the Russian arms industry, with double-digit year-on-year growth in Africa and Asia. The former Soviet arms factories have full order books and recent Putin-engineered consolidation will likely drive efficiency gains. The arms industry is an important support to the Russian economy, providing good jobs and hard currency.

    Putin was challenged to control the Ukrainian separatists in the first months. This was a challenge before the Malaysian jet liner attack, but paradoxically became much easier after the international incident. The on-the-ground evidence all points to a massive Soviet Army “volunteer” force in the separatist zone, supported by significant artillery, air defense, logistics and intelligence support just across the official border. The professional Soviet force is clearly answerable to Putin and is stationed in the eastern Ukraine to exercise control. The last month of ground reversals and a denied airspace for Ukrainian government only underscores the point.

    The battle for the Crimea, if not all of Ukraine, was lost in Syria. When the U.S., sworn to seek a willing global consensus, cannot impose its will on minority-sect dictator who gases his own people, the game is over. Putin saw this and deftly rendered John Kerry into an embarrassment surpassing Madeline Albright and Warren Christopher. Don’t look to the western Europeans for assistance, as they’ve abandoned the field.

    Putin is winning. He may have already won.

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  2. Writing here on 28th October 2015, I’m thinking the author ought to reappraise his assessment on Putin, as it seems to me Putin’s kicking ass and taking names without even breaking sweat or needing to taking his shirt off (for a change).

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