Putin’s nervous neighbors: ‘democracy either spreads or recedes’

russias-nervous-neighbors-interactive-map-20140509The countries spun off by the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union have become pawns in the Kremlin leader’s campaign to reassert Russian authority, fend off neighboring countries’ drift into the West’s orbit and to restore pride among Russians who have endured shrinking global clout since the Cold War ended, Carol Williams writes for The LA Times.

“It seems Mr. Putin has decided to test the stability of the international system in a surprisingly resolute manner,” said Igor Lukes, professor of international relations and history at Boston University. “I think his anschluss of Crimea, which appears to be a fait accompli that no one seems to think about reversing, was a serious defeat for international stability and the notion that borders cannot be changed by force.”

The most troubling of the reactions to Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea, destabilization of Ukraine and protestations (“threats”) about his need to defend Russian speaking populations throughout Eastern Europe have been from observers who believe that NATO’s enlargement in the 1990′s was wrongheaded and an immediate cause of Putin’s belligerent actions, according to Kim Davis, chairman of the Baltic American Freedom Foundation and a member of the board of Freedom House:

If the Baltics had not joined NATO, who can doubt that Putin would view them the way he did Crimea – a geographically important piece of real estate that should be under his thumb. Estonia and Latvia have large Russian populations, which would have provided a convenient excuse for Russian aggression. Putin finds the Baltics particularly irksome because their visible success is testimony to the advantages of democratic capitalism relative to his governing philosophy, which is best described as authoritarian kleptocracy.

sovietEMPIRE_COVER_jpg_CROP_original-originalThere are at least two powerful reasons why Estonians — and by now the rest of Europe — should be worried.  Jeffrey Gedmin, a Senior Fellow at Georgetown University and the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue:

“First, Russia has been evolving from gangster state to predator nation,” he writes for The Huffington Post:

“Vladimir Putin was a bully in school and a chose to be a bully in professional life as a KGB man,” says a senior Estonian official. “His behavior should not surprise us now,” he adds. At first, Putin and fellow kleptocrats began to shrink space for free media, independent NGOs, and meaningful political opposition. They have been consistent. It’s a pattern stretching over a decade and a half now. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down because of her reporting on Chechnya. Mikhail Khodorkovsky spent ten years in prison because Putin considered him a political rival. Members of the band Pussy Riot went to jail for impertinence. It’s pretty hideous stuff, but many of us assured ourselves, this was merely a domestic affair.

“But now it’s clear that Russia wants to spreads its brand of illiberalism abroad. Putin’s speeches speak to his ambition,” Gedmin adds. “He derides Euro-Atlantic values, and has no time for rule of law, accountable government, tolerance or diversity. He sees these things as decadent and as signs of weakness.”

In foreign policy, Putin drew lessons from the humiliating experiences of being unable to counter what he saw as the West’s brazen incursions into Russia’s neighborhood, says Lukasz Kulesa, an analyst at the Polish Institute for International Affairs:

The Russian leadership concluded that when playing by the existing rules underpinning the European system, Russia is bound to be defeated every time. Its expectation that the West would accept possession of a privileged sphere of interest in the eastern post-Soviet space quite simply was incompatible with the very foundation of a system built on democratic values and principles. After trying to achieve a “grand bargain” with the US and leading European powers on tacit division of the spheres of interest and proposing reconfiguration of the system itself (remember President Medvedev’s European security treaty initiative?), Russia decided to introduce new game rules through its actions on the ground, first in 2008 in Georgia and then in 2014 in Ukraine.

“Despite attempts to add an ideological twist to its land grab, using the ‘Russian world protector’ narrative and presenting the new Russian policy as a push toward a new polycentric world, at its heart lies the old-fashioned intention to protect its sphere of influence,” he adds.  

A newly-published book suggests that “the history of 1991 is worth revisiting now that Ukraine has reignited an old debate in U.S. foreign policy: whether America’s first priority should be to support the right of national minorities to govern themselves, or whether to support the sovereignty of nations within existing borders,” writes Slate’s Joshua Keating:

While the U.S. has talked a big game about the first ideal dating back at least to Woodrow Wilson, the second has more often than not tended to win out in the name of global security. As Bush’s Ambassador to Ukraine Roman Popadiuk puts it in the book, it’s not so easy “for one superpower to support the dismantlement of another.”

The United States and its democratic allies need a comprehensive diplomatic strategy which makes a long term commitment to counter Putin’s territorial and political ambitions, Freedom House’s Davis argues on CNN’s Public Square:

First, we need to communicate that our position on Ukraine is completely consistent and derivative of our long term interest in promoting freedom and democracy around the world. Our policy is not to oppose Russia but to support freedom.

Second, our rhetoric should match the reality of our actions. Strong condemnations of Putin’s actions followed by limited sanctions of limited scope is of limited value. If anything, our actions should be at least as powerful as rhetoric.

Third, we need presidential leadership. If we want to promote democracy in Eastern Europe as an enduring component of our foreign policy, then we need President Obama to use his office to educate the American people and Congress on why Russia’s actions have been dangerous and must be countered.

“Democracy either spreads or recedes,” he adds. “Now is the time to recommit ourselves to the simple ambition of celebrating the end of the Cold War as the moment when the world saw a permanent increase in the number of democratic countries and not simply an interlude between periods of authoritarian repression.”


Russia’s long shadow, Ukraine’s existential threat


Credit: The Spectator

Credit: The Spectator

Since gaining its independence in 1991, Ukraine has been stuck between the allure of the West and a Russia eager to maintain its sphere of influence in the former Soviet space, writes RFE/RL analyst Robert Coase:

Not only is authoritarian Russia unlikely to welcome an example of an overthrown kleptocracy in the post-Soviet space, Moscow also sees vital economic and security interests in Ukraine. Its Black Sea Fleet is based at Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea; much of its natural-gas flows to Europe still pass through Ukrainian pipelines; and Russia’s oligarchs have extensive and lucrative interests in the country, especially its eastern reaches.

“Russia, understanding that without Ukraine it would not be able to take its place in the wider arena of Europe and create a new, powerful structure that could counterbalance the United States and others (and this is Russia’s goal), made the strategic decision to keep Ukraine in its embrace,” Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine’s first post-Soviet president, tells RFE/RL’s Russian Service.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Kyiv Steven Pifer speaks in similar terms: “The Russian have very strong motivations. I think this is a big deal for Vladimir Putin. He wants to build a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. A big part of that would be the customs union. If Ukraine is moving towards the European Union, there’s a big hole in that sphere. And I think it’s also important for Vladimir Putin, for his domestic political constituency. Pulling Ukraine back is popular at home. Losing Ukraine would not be popular.”

Existential Threat?

Ukraine’s importance for Russia is more than merely one of Putin’s popularity ratings, says Andrew Wilson, a European Council on Foreign Relations analyst and author of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. “A real democracy in Ukraine is an existential threat to the entire system that Vladimir Putin has built since 2000,” he contends.

Putin has a coherent and strategic foreign policy, notes Jeffrey Gedmin, a senior fellow at Georgetown University and the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue:

Moscow failed in the 1990s to block NATO and EU accession for most of what once constituted Communist Europe (although Ukraine is still in play and leaning sharply eastward at the moment). Putin will settle now for the Finlandization of Eastern Europe. That’s Cold War-speak for how a large, powerful nation carefully erodes the sovereignty and independence of smaller states.

Part of the strategy, of course, is to use energy as a weapon. Russian energy giant Gazprom serves Kremlin foreign policy goals and can punish, or please, at any given moment. Putin employs trade, including import restrictions, to show pique and apply pressure, recently blocking milk from Lithuania and brandy and wine from Moldova. The Kremlin also knows how to work internal divisions. In Georgia, for example, this means aggravating relations between Abkhazia, Ossetia, and the central Georgian government. As a former KGB hand, Putin must adore every trick of the trade.

Estonia is a case in point of the vulnerability of Russia’s neighbors, Gedmin writes for the Weekly Standard:

Some might have thought that NATO and EU membership settles everything. Courtesy WikiLeaks, we know that at least some U.S. officials have considered Estonia paranoid about Russia. It seems instead that recent events in Ukraine and Russian policy toward this small Baltic nation well might concentrate our minds on Kremlin strategy toward Eastern Europe—and on the sad fact that we don’t seem to have one.

Nadia Diuk of the National Endowment for Democracy provides an analysis of the wider situation in Ukraine in this podcast.

But developments in Ukraine have also highlighted Putin’s weaknesses and the limitations of his “bogus alternative Eurasian project,” says Jan Techau, the director of Carnegie Europe:

Western observers have long interpreted such moves as the outflow of a Russian grand strategy to reestablish a neo-Soviet empire. Those closer to the Kremlin have sought to debunk such imperial talk as nonsense, but they have been largely ignored. It was much more convenient to nurture old Cold War stereotypes than to see through the Kremlin’s scheme. In reality, Putin’s strong-arming of weak neighbors was and is symptomatic of a desperate fight for the survival of a rotten and hollowed-out political system.

Putin’s great strength lies in his tactical skill and ruthlessness. The West has long mistaken that for strategic depth and statesmanship. But Putin’s real power, as German journalist Clemens Wergin has noted, is relative: it depends on how much counterpower the West is willing to apply. With its economy, society, and military in decay, Russia’s strength does not have much of an original source of its own.

“The EU’s half-baked neighborhood policy contained enough ideas firepower to inspire Ukrainians to call Russia’s bluff. They put the West to shame,” Techau argues.

“No matter how much Europeans love the narcissistic tale of their own decline, liberal democracy remains an enduring attraction and a formidable foreign policy tool. Much that happens in Ukraine will now depend on the West’s ability to learn that all-important lesson from this astonishing episode.”

Is Putin at risk of recoming a Kerensky? analyst Paul Goble asks.

In the 10 years since, despite the ebb and flow of Ukraine’s political development, the difference between Russia and Ukraine has become only more pronounced, says analyst Masha Gessen.

“Even under Yanukovych, Ukraine was a country with a transitional form of government—not yet a solid democracy by any means, but already half a generation away from an authoritarian state,” she writes for Vanity Fair:

Russia’s authoritarian system, on the other hand, has become entrenched during the past decade. And now, in trying to ensure that he does not fall like Yanukovych, Putin will move his country closer still to a totalitarian state. This is terrible news for Russians who were projecting their hopes onto the Ukrainian opposition: not only does a victory in Ukraine not guarantee a victory for democracy in Russia, it actually promises a crackdown.

Why were Russian liberals so deluded? Many of them wouldn’t want to admit it, but in the quarter century since the breakup of the Soviet Union, they have not learned to think of Ukraine as a separate country. Kiev, is an ancient Russian city. It is an overnight train ride from Moscow—closer than 90 percent of Russia is to the Russian capital. Russian citizens haven’t needed visas or even foreign-travel passports to go to Ukraine—the way U.S. citizens can enter Canada with only a driver’s license. Every store clerk, waiter, and taxi driver in Kiev speaks Russian.

“In reality, though, Ukraine is not just a different country. It is a former colony yearning to be free of Moscow’s yoke,” she contends. “It is precisely this desire that united disparate political forces in opposition to Yanukovych, who incited protest by unilaterally and summarily caving in to the Kremlin.”


Uncertainties and dangers facing new Ukraine

ukraineIf there is one thing that a solid majority of Ukrainians share, it is a loathing of their ousted President Yanukovych, says Carnegie analyst Masha Lipman. Even in Russia, loyalists who until recently defended Yanukovych as Putin’s ally speak about his “inglorious end” and call him “pathetic,” she writes for the New Yorker:

Beyond this consensus, nearly everything is uncertain and precarious. Moving toward normalcy will be a formidable task. Here are but a few of the uncertainties and dangers that lie ahead:

1. The authority of the decision-makers in the Ukrainian parliament is not entirely secure. At least some of their decisions may be questioned by regions in the east of the country that barely took part in the bloody struggle in Kiev. ….

2. “Empty coffers” is not a figure of speech. That’s what the speaker of the Ukrainian parliament said on Sunday, adding that the economic situation in Ukraine is “catastrophic.” …

3. Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s former Prime Minister, who just got out of jail, is a likely candidate in the May Presidential election. …… But she has a mixed political record: her time as Prime Minister was marked by corruption and highly populist policies. In Ukraine, one already hears voices of those who, while congratulating her on finally being set free, raise doubts about whether she is the right person to become the new Ukrainian leader. …..

4. President Putin has suffered a second defeat with Ukraine, and he won’t be happy about that. The first defeat took place during the Orange Revolution…This time, Putin once again relied on Yanukovych to keep Ukraine in Russia’s orbit, but the President let him down again—and drove Ukraine to the brink of a civil war. How will Putin take this setback? He has not spoken yet, but the language of the Russian foreign ministry’s official statement on Monday was one of anger and exasperation….

“Many Ukrainians should be celebrating their hard-won victory over a corrupt, degraded, brutal government. They are duly proud of their resilience and self-sacrifice,” Lipman notes. “But moving toward normalcy, democracy, and prosperity will require the art of statesmanship, and it’s far from clear whether Ukraine can muster the skills this would require.” RTWT

Putin ‘basking in world leadership vacuum’?

The recent events in Kiev should caution us against assessments that put policy over principles and attempts to stand in the path of history for the sake of a more comfortable present, argue Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and Garry Kasparov.

The massive pro-E.U. crowds in Ukraine serve as a perfect example to the Kremlin and its beleaguered subjects that there is no genetic condition called immunity to democracy, they write for Time:

How will the E.U. and the U.S. react to the — probably inevitable — rise of the Russian people? Let us hope they are not too meek to stand up for the universal values on which they were founded.

Zu Guttenberg is a former German Minister of Defense and Minister of Economics, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Kasparov is the leader of the Russian pro-democracy group United Civil Front and chairman of the U.S.-based Human Rights Foundation.