Vladimir Putin may (or may not) enjoy 80 percent public support in Russia for his Ukraine policy; but it has become increasingly clear that he has bitten off more than he can chew. The question is: At what point will his position as president become untenable?
Leave to one side the moral and geopolitical background of the Ukraine imbroglio. Russians are justified, I believe, in their view that the West took advantage of Russia’s post-communist weakness to encroach on their country’s historic space. The Monroe Doctrine may be incompatible with contemporary international law; but all powers strong enough to enforce a strategic sphere of interest do so.
There is merit, I also believe, in Putin’s contention that a multipolar world is better than a unipolar world for advancing the cause of human flourishing. No single power or coalition is wise or disinterested enough to claim universal sovereignty.
So it should be no surprise that Russia and other countries have started to build an institutional structure for multipolarity. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes Russia, China and four ex-Soviet Central Asian states, was established in 2001. Last month, the five BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – established the New Development Bank and a contingent reserve fund to diversify sources of official lending to developing countries.
The BRICS’ “no strings” policy explicitly challenges the conditionality imposed on borrowers by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, though the policy remains untested. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine China’s leaders approving a loan to a country that, say, recognizes Taiwan or accepts Tibetan claims to independence.
But the fact remains that Russia is too weak to challenge the West further, at least in the way that it did in Ukraine. Russia’s GDP is around $2 trillion, and its population of 143 million is falling fast. The United States and the European Union have a combined GDP of about $34 trillion and a population of 822 million, with the U.S. population growing rapidly. This means that the West can inflict much more damage on Russia than Russia can inflict on the West.
Even in its heyday, the Soviet Union was a one-track superpower. With an economy about a quarter of the size of America’s, it was able to maintain rough military parity by spending four times as much of its national income on defense as the U.S. did – to the detriment of the living standards of ordinary citizens.
Today the balance of power is even more unfavorable. Russia’s economy is weaker, and its armaments are rusty. It retains a formidable nuclear capacity, but it is inconceivable that Russia would use it to secure its aims in Ukraine.
So we are left with a looming endgame in which Putin can neither retain his spoils – Crimea and control of Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine – nor back down. Russia will be required to disgorge these acquisitions as a condition of normalizing its relations with the West. But Putin will most likely try to prop up eastern Ukraine’s separatists as long as he can – as events in the last week have shown – and will absolutely refuse to give up Crimea.
This will lead to a further escalation of Western sanctions: restrictions on gas exports, general export restrictions, suspension from the World Trade Organization, withdrawal of the FIFA 2018 World Cup tournament, and so on. This, in conjunction with the tightening of current sanctions, including the exclusion of Russian banks from Western capital markets, is bound to cause serious shortages, declining living standards, and major problems for Russia’s ownership class.
The Russian public’s natural reaction will be to rally to their leader. But support for Putin, though broad, may not be deep. It is support before, not after, the debate about the costs of Putin’s policy has taken place. And that debate is being silenced by state control of media and the suppression of opposition.
It is natural and right to think of possible compromises: Ukraine’s guaranteed neutrality, greater regional autonomy within a federal Ukraine, an interim international administration in Crimea to supervise a referendum on its future, and the like.
The question is not how much of this kind of package Putin would accept, but whether any of it will be offered to him. The West no longer believes anything he says. U.S. President Barack Obama has publicly accused him of lying. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, formerly Putin’s strongest backer in Europe, is reported to have described him as delusional. (The last straw for her apparently was his attempt to blame the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on the Ukrainian government.)
All leaders lie and dissemble to some extent; but the scale of disinformation coming from the Kremlin has been epic. So the question must be asked: Will the West be prepared to make peace with Putin?
Leaders whose foreign-policy adventures end in defeat do not usually survive long in office. Either formal mechanisms are used to dethrone them – as occurred, for example, in the Soviet Union, when the Central Committee forced Nikita Khrushchev out of power in 1964 – or informal mechanisms come into play. Putin’s power elite will start fracturing – indeed, that process may have begun already. Pressure will grow for him to step aside. There is no need, it will be said, for his country to go down with him.
Such a scenario, unimaginable a few months ago, may already be shaping up as the Ukraine drama moves to its endgame. The Putin era may be over sooner than we think.
Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).