Your live journal ...

Ukraine is only part of Putin’s game plan

A collapsing oil price and the impact of sanctions have made him more dangerous

urope thinks it has a Ukraine problem. In truth, it has a Russia, or more precisely, a Vladimir Putin problem. Moscow’s war against Kiev is a fragment of a bigger picture. The Russian president’s revanchism reaches well beyond Ukraine. The bigger goal is to tear up the continent’s post-communist settlement.

European hesitation about confronting Russia is readily explained. Economic self-interest, history, cultural affinity, and latent anti-Americanism have persuaded many Europeans to look at Mr Putin as the leader they hoped for rather than the one who saw the fall of the Soviet Union as the geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.There is a seductive narrative for a west chastened by bungled interventions in the Middle East. If Mr Putin’s demands are sometimes provocative — and, as in Georgia as well as Ukraine, can turn into outright aggression — the west should be mindful of the circumstances. Perhaps NATO had indeed broken promises about admitting former Soviet satellites? Maybe it had bent the rules when it bombed Serbia? As for the Iraq war, well, enough said.

The annexation of Crimea and the march into Ukraine’s Donbass region should have dispelled the doubts. In the case of Angela Merkel this is what seems to have happened. Not a politician to prefer confrontation over negotiation, the German chancellor has been offered too many lies and broken promises.

The argument within Europe, though, has not ended. Much has been made of the sympathy towards Moscowshown by the Syriza government in Greece. It is not alone. Italy’s prime minister Matteo Renzi has been outdoing Silvio Berlusconi in his fealty to Mr Putin. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán publicly disdains liberal democracy. Cyprus always speaks up for Russia, while French consent to the sanctions regime is halfhearted. So no one should be surprised by the latest Russian offensive: there is no more powerful a provocation to the Kremlin than appeasement.

Mr Putin’s litany of grievances — Nato’s “encirclement” of Russia, a plan to humiliate Moscow, broken international rules — have been heard over and over. Occasionally there is a small truth hidden in the big lie, but the essential storyline never deviates. The west wants to destroy the power and dignity of Russia. So familiar are the charges that the implications are often discounted. Everyone has heard Mr Putin pledge to roll back the frontiers, but few have really been listening.

The annexation of Crimea and the push into eastern Ukraine were in one dimension opportunistic. Mr Putin had misread the Maidan protests and failed to anticipate the fall of former president Viktor Yanukovich. So he grabbed what he could. Expedient as the war may have been, it fitted the game plan to restore suzerainty over much of the former Soviet empire.

General Yury Baluyevsky, the former chief of staff of the Russian armed forces, says the confrontation with the west is a continuation of the cold war. The methods, though, are now more sophisticated. Military force, he says, is “the final stage of the process”. Moscow has mastered the art of hybrid warfare, including “information and psychological pressure”. To paraphrase the general, Mr Putin will divide and weaken his enemies before deploying force.

In its softest form, this means presenting rolling propaganda as rolling news with the rapid expansion of the Kremlin-controlled Russia Today news network. Then there is the funding of populist parties of left and right in western European capitals. Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France has taken a Russian loan. Nigel Farage, the leader of the anti-immigrant UK Independence party, counts himself an admirer of the Russian leader.

Further along the spectrum there are the bribes paid to politicians and business leaders and the stakes taken in vulnerable financial institutions in south eastern Europe and the Balkans. There is a none-too-subtle campaign to destabilize pro-western governments in the former Soviet space — Bulgaria is a recent victim — by exploiting their dependence on Russian energy. Add in the testing of NATO defenses by Russian fighter planes, cyber attacks and kidnappings in the Baltic, and the incursions of nuclear bombers, and you can see what the general was talking about.

Ms Merkel has recognized the danger, publicly warning about subversion in Moldova and attempts to pull Serbia back into the Russian orbit. The US has been working with the European Commission to ease some of the vulnerabilities of energy-dependent governments in southeastern Europe. But in western Europe there is widespread reluctance still to recognize the big picture — to set the Ukraine crisis in the context of Mr Putin’s broader aims.

Mr Putin is not the creation of western perfidy. Throughout his career, from the office of the mayor of St Petersburg to the top job in the Kremlin, he has been remarkably constant in his ambitions and in the ruthlessness he will deploy to achieve them.

A collapsing oil price and the impact of sanctions have made him more dangerous: without oil and gas revenues, his domestic support now rests on his capacity to mobilize nationalist anger against the alleged attempt by NATO and the EU to subjugate “mother Russia”. The west’s options are limited, but the beginning of wisdom is to understand that this is not just about Ukraine.

Article at Financial Times