Walker's World: Putin as carnivore

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  March 12, 2014 at 1:18 AM
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BERLIN, March 12 (UPI) -- The unfolding Ukraine crisis has become a classic example of the complex nature of power in the modern age.

Military, economic, diplomatic forms of power intertwine with geography, energy and political will in unexpected ways that point to the the unpredictable shape of international relations in a future marked by high levels of financial interdependence.

In the classic traditional calculations of power, based largely on military and industrial might, Russia should have been deterred from its aggressive and adventurous policy toward Ukraine. The United States remains far more potent in pure military terms but President Vladimir Putin rightly calculated the Obama administration would not risk any use of force.

Crimea was too far away for an easy deployment of U.S. military might, the stakes seemed to low for the risk involved and the precise nature of political events on the ground too murky for decisive American action. The Crimea is a part of the sovereign state of Ukraine, but the balance of demographic and political forces on the ground appeared complex, and the U.S. was not inclined to match the Kremlin's readiness to take political risks.

The European Union economy is roughly eight times greater, in terms of gross domestic product, than Russia's. The German economy alone is more than half as large again as the Russian, but the Europeans had neither the policy consensus nor the political will to use their economic power.

In part, this is because of the interdependence of the Russian and European economies, the importance of Russian oil and gas supplies and the amount of European investment at risk in Russia if the crisis escalates.

An enlarged photograph of some briefing papers carried by a senior British official to a meeting of the national security council in Downing Street revealed the British government thought it should "not support, for now, trade sanctions ... or close London's financial center to Russians."

Germany, the largest single European economy, is highly dependent on Russian energy, getting about half of its daily consumption of 2.8 billion barrels of oil from Russia mainly via the Druzhba pipeline through Belarus. In 2011, Germany imported around 1.6 trillion cubic feet of gas from Russia, more than 60 percent of its gas imports and some 4 percent of its total gas consumption. But the new Nord Stream pipeline through the Baltic Sea, now bringing nearly 2.1 trillion cubic feet of gas, has sharply increased German dependence.

This means Europe's overall economic power is balanced by Russia's energy power. Just as importantly, the varying levels of dependence on Russian energy supplies makes it more difficult for the 28 EU member states to reach a consensus on policy.

By all the traditions of diplomacy, Russia should have been heavily outgunned. The U.S. and Europe are opposed to an expansion of Russian influence in Ukraine and to what looks like an effective Russia takeover of Crimea. The United Nations is committed to maintaining the territorial integrity of its member states. The United States and Britain signed agreements to guarantee Ukraine's security when Ukraine voluntarily surrendered its nuclear weapons in 1994.

But Putin played a weak hand well. He understood the likely divisions among the Europeans and between Europe and the United States. He also understood the geographic advantage of Russia's proximity to Ukraine and to the power on the ground of Russian naval forces already at their base in Crimea. Putin understands the importance of interdependence, that sanctions on Russia could hurt the British financial industry and German energy supplies.

Putin also understands the power of media in the modern age. Russian TV has overwhelmingly portrayed the demonstrators in Kiev who toppled the government of the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych as neo-Nazis and extreme nationalists threatening the lives and property of ethnic Russians. At the same time, Putin has muddied the waters of media perception, arguing the shadowy pro-Russian groups who now claim power in Crimea are the real representatives of the Crimean population.

Last week, this columnist suggested Russia may have won the political battle of this Ukraine crisis, but was likely to lose the much longer war, which is about deterring Putin's attempt to rebuild a subtler version of the old Soviet Union and recovering as much as he can of the USSR's pre-1991 influence and control.

Putin is a hard power man with authoritarian instincts. He knew what he wanted and set out, craftily and with an acute sense of the levers of power in the modern age, to use his political will and determination to achieve his goal.

But in the long run, he has increased the isolation and suspicion of Russia. Putin is now perceived as a ruthless carnivore in a Europe of soft vegetarians. He is a ruthless rogue running an aggressive rogue state which uses its energy power as a diplomatic weapon (and which also deploys a formidable nuclear arsenal). And that will impose a price on him in the future, both internationally and domestically.

How much that price will be is unclear in these swirling new interplays of economic, military, energy, media and political power. But this is likely to be the confused and complex shape of international crises in the future. We have been warned.

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