Burning Bridges and the Smell of Fresh Blood

Vladimir Putin says he doesn’t "need" eastern Ukraine, but it just might make sense for him to take it anyway.


In his speech to the Duma earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin turned directly to the people of Ukraine, who perhaps he had heard were feeling jittery. "Do not," he said, "believe those who want you to fear Russia, shouting that other regions will follow Crimea. We do not want to divide Ukraine; we do not need that." One imagines that Putin would not offer such an explicit pledge if he planned to violate it. On the other hand, he also noted that, after the Revolution, the Bolsheviks — "may God judge them" — transferred historically Russian territory which now constitutes "the southeast of Ukraine."

Logic would dictate that Putin digest the chunk of Ukraine he’s bitten off before opening his jaws again. But the smell of fresh blood may simply whet his appetite. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen just told Foreign Policy that he worries that Putin’s "next goal will be the eastern provinces of Ukraine" — the ones that the Bolsheviks inexcusably surrendered. Ukraine can live perfectly well without Crimea, but not without its own industrial heartland. The great question facing the West over the next few weeks is thus not punishment for past misdeeds, but deterrence of future ones.

Before going to the question of whether and by what means Putin is deterrable, we should ask ourselves by what right, exactly, the West is being called upon to punish and prevent. Realists implore us to come down off our high horse. The Ukraine crisis is not about territorial aggression, FP‘s Gordon Adams admonishes us, but rather "the realities of the interstate system." George Friedman, the Metternich of Stratfor, notes that since "Russia has historically protected itself with its depth…. The loss of Ukraine as a buffer to the West leaves Russia without that depth and hostage to the intentions and capabilities of Europe and the United States."

The reminder that Putin is defending Russia’s national interests as he has defined them, and as all great powers defined them in centuries past, is a useful caution against the hysterical moralism which turns Crimea into Munich. But it matters that the West no longer casually annexes neighbors, as the United States did with Texas 150 years ago. States whose definition of national interest posits a zero-sum contest among hostile powers pose a threat to an international order which no longer accepts the logic of balance of power — and not just a strategic threat, but a moral one as well. You don’t have to mistake Putin for Hitler to believe that he must be stopped from seizing Donetsk.

But how? The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on a range of individuals surrounding Putin. President Barack Obama has announced a second set of sanctions targeting Putin’s closest allies and financiers. But this may be the kind of pain — against others — which Putin welcomes rather than fears. Obama has, however, signed another executive order which authorizes the Treasury Secretary to exact punishments against Russian companies in energy, banking, metals and mining, and other key industrial sectors. Prohibiting Russian oil and gas companies from doing business with American banks and energy firms could do real damage to the Russian economy.

For all the abuse coming his way from the Putin-is-Hitler crowd, Obama has reacted firmly, tightening the screws in response to each new provocation. Unfortunately, Washington cannot, by itself, threaten sufficient harm to deter Putin if he really wants to reverse Lenin’s mistake. Since Putin knows full well that NATO would not respond with force to any violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, the only weapon he needs to fear is an economic one. And here Obama can only go just so far. He has been able to cripple the Iranian economy through sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council, forcing Tehran to negotiate over its nuclear program; but of course Russia would veto any such effort. And the United States is not, itself, an important market for Russian products.

The key is Europe, which spends $100 billion a year importing Russian gas. (The oil bill is even higher, but Russia could sell its oil elsewhere more easily than its gas.) Nothing would deter Putin so effectively as the prospect of losing that market, which would wreak havoc on Russia’s economy. The idea of a "gas boycott" has been the talk of European capitals. But so far, it’s been just talk. I asked Stefan Meister, a Russia expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, what form such a boycott would take, and he said, "There’s been no concrete discussion. In Brussels, nobody knows what it would be like."

The reason the discussion has remained so vague is because the prospect is so frightening. While Germany depends on Russia for only 36 percent of its gas — and has stored up a surplus — Italy, Poland, and Bulgaria, among others, are more dependent and have little or no storage capacity. Meister points out that Poland could switch to coal — save that it now imports coal from Russia. While oil producers like Saudi Arabia have surplus capacity which can be tapped in a crunch, the gas market is tight; Qatar, the world’s largest source of gas, has no additional capacity. Japan and China buy up whatever is available.

The good news is that, as Jason Bordoff, a former White House advisor on energy and climate, points out, "in four or five years there will be a lot more supply," thanks to the growing use of fracking technology in Europe as well as increased supplies of liquefied natural gas from the United States and elsewhere. The crisis with Russia has already begun to concentrate European minds on the issue of energy independence.

The bad news, however, is that Putin isn’t thinking about five years from now; if he were, he wouldn’t have invaded Crimea in the first place. If anything, the prospect of long-term economic decline may prompt him to seize eastern Ukraine’s economic assets right now — while he has an opening. He might hesitate if the cost were crippling Gazprom, the most formidable weapon he has. But Putin knows that Europe can’t afford to stop buying Russian gas for the next several years. If the cost for eastern Ukraine is burning his bridges to the West and having his own and all his cronies’ assets frozen, Putin just may consider that a price worth paying.

I could not find an energy expert who believes that Europe could do without Russian gas in the short term. Meister points out that even as the rhetoric of German Chancellor Angela Merkel grows harsher, she remains studiously vague on sanctions. When I observed that the situation sounded hopeless, he turned glum: "Yes, this is what I was discussing with my colleagues in Warsaw yesterday. We started drinking vodka." First Russian, he said, then Ukrainian.

In short, the only force that can keep Russian troops from drinking vodka in Donetsk is Vladimir Putin himself. Putin has so many lower-cost options available to him that a large-scale invasion — even one limited to border areas — still seems unlikely. Putin may calculate that he can destabilize Ukraine, and thus turn its dalliance with the West into a failure, by using Russia’s immense economic power to squeeze Ukraine, by blanketing the east with propaganda from Russian media and by sending agents provocateurs to whip up popular discontent. Putin doesn’t "need," as he put it, to divide Ukraine by force; he just needs to keep it out of the Western orbit.

It is a very, very unsettling thought that Ukraine’s fate now depends on Putin’s calculations of self-interest, or even his whims. The ringmaster of Sochi seems still to be glorying in the vast powers at his disposal. We can only hope that the vapors start to disperse in the harsh light of day.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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