Apr 21st 2014

Putin’s Perilous Course

by Jeffrey D. Sachs

Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also a Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.
NEW YORK – The dangers of the crisis in Ukraine cannot be exaggerated. Russian President Vladimir Putin is overtly and covertly inciting separatism in eastern Ukraine, and has declared Russia’s unilateral right to intervene there, in complete contravention of international law. Russia’s provocative policies are putting it on a collision course with the West.

Putin explained his point of view in a recent television appearance: Russia’s current international borders are provisional, determined by accidents of history, such as the transfer of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, or the transfer of Russian territories to eastern Ukraine in the 1920’s. Putin claims that it is Russia’s right and duty to defend ethnic Russians in neighboring countries, especially in light of the arbitrariness of the existing borders. 

If ethnic Russians call for a return to Russia, Putin asserts, then Russia must heed their call. Putin pointedly reminded listeners that eastern Ukraine was called “Novorossiya” (New Russia) in Czarist times, clearly implying that it could be Novorossiya again.

Evidently, Putin believes that relentless pressure and claims over neighboring states, designed to undermine their sovereignty and force them to accede to Russian demands, will result in a stronger Russia, better able to confront the West. In the recent past, Russia sharply opposed American and NATO military intervention in Libya, Syria, and Serbia on the grounds that the West was violating those countries’ sovereignty. Now Putin claims the right to ignore neighboring countries’ sovereignty on the pretext that Russia is merely defending the rights of ethnic Russians abroad, up to and including their right to secede and join the Russian homeland.

Putin no doubt hopes to create facts on the ground – as in Crimea – without provoking a severe Western reaction. Even without an invasion, Russia can use threats, displays of military power, secret operations, and heated rhetoric to destabilize its neighbors. That may be enough to achieve Russian foreign-policy aims, including its neighbors’ docility.

But Putin’s adventurism is likely to end very badly for Russia. Though the West is justifiably reticent to be drawn into any military confrontations with Russia beyond NATO’s boundaries, and is even reluctant to apply economic sanctions, Putin’s actions have triggered a strong and growing anti-Russian backlash in the US and Europe. The West’s response will intensify dramatically if Russia deploys forces across its borders, whatever the pretext; should Russia adopt subtler methods of political destabilization, Western pressure will build more gradually, but build it will.

Existing trade, investment, and financial relations between Russia and the West are already becoming severely frayed. New investment projects and joint ventures are being put on hold. Loans from Western investors to Russian entities are being called in. Russian banks and companies will face a growing credit squeeze.

In the short term, Russia has ample foreign-exchange reserves to offset capital outflows; but the reversal of capital flows will begin to bite within a matter of months. Following Russia’s forcible takeover of Crimea, it is almost unimaginable that normal economic relations between Russia and the West could survive Russian intervention, subversion, or annexation elsewhere in Ukraine.

In other words, if Cold War II sets in, as appears increasingly likely, Russia would be the long-term economic loser. The European Union can certainly survive without imports of Russian natural gas, even with a full cutoff. Russia’s gas exports to Europe constitute less than 10% of the EU’s primary energy consumption. Russia, on the other hand, would suffer a major loss of revenues.

Putin seems to believe that Russia can offset any worsening of economic relations with the West by strengthening its economic relations with China. But technologies and business are too globally intertwined to divide the world into economic blocs. China knows that its long-term economic prosperity depends on good economic relations with the US and Europe. Putin seems not to understand this point, or even the fact that the Soviet economy collapsed as a result of its isolation from technologically advanced economies.

Russia’s future economic strength depends on its ability to upgrade technologies in key sectors, including aviation, high-speed rail, automobiles, machinery, and heavy industry. That can be achieved only if Russian companies are more closely integrated into global production networks that knit them together with German, Japanese, American, and Chinese firms that rely on cutting-edge technology and advanced engineering.

Of course, matters could become much worse. A new cold war could all too easily turn hot. Many in the US are already calling for arming Ukraine as a deterrent to Russia. But, while military deterrence sometimes works, the West should emphasize trade and financial retaliation, rather than military responses to Russian provocations. Military responses could provoke disaster, such as turning Ukraine into a Syria-type battlefield, with untold thousands of deaths.

There can be no doubt that NATO will defend its own members if necessary. But Russia’s belligerency and appalling behavior should not permit Western hardliners to gain control of the policy debate. Hardline approaches brought expanded conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, leading to plenty of deaths but not to meaningful political or economic solutions in the affected countries. War is not politics by other means. War is mayhem and suffering.

Putin is no doubt acting in Ukraine with domestic politics very much in mind, using his adventurism abroad to shore up his political base at home. The Russian economy is flagging, and the population is weary of repression, not to mention Russia’s pervasive corruption. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and threat to invade eastern Ukraine appear to be hugely popular. It remains a terrifying reality that politicians often perceive war to be an antidote to internal weakness.

Both Russia and the West have played fast and loose with international law in recent years. The West violated national sovereignty in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Russia is now playing the same card with shocking brazenness in its own neighborhood, often justifying its actions by pointing to Western precedents.

But Russia’s true long-term interests lie in multilateralism, integration into the world economy, and the international rule of law. Putin’s current path is strewn with grave hazards. He is undermining Russia’s economic prospects, while confronting the world with a growing threat of war. Our only hope is that all sides return to the principles of international law, which they have forsaken for too long.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Dec 5th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe must fend for itself for the first time since the end of World War II. Yet after so many years of strategic dependence the US, Europe is unprepared – not just materially but psychologically – for today’s harsh geopolitical realities. Nowhere is this truer than in Germany."
Nov 23rd 2019
Extdact: "The kind of gratitude expressed by Vindman and my grandfather is not something that would naturally occur to a person who can take his or her nationality for granted, or whose nationality is beyond questioning by others. Some who have never felt the sharp end of discrimination might even find it mildly offensive. Why should anyone be grateful for belonging to a particular nation? Pride, perhaps, but gratitude? In fact, patriotism based on gratitude might be the strongest form there is."
Nov 20th 2019
Extract: "Moody’s, one of the big three credit rating agencies, is not upbeat about the prospects for the world’s debt in 2020 – to put it mildly. If we were to try to capture the agency’s view of where we are heading on a palette of colours, we would be pointing at black – pitch black."
Nov 17th 2019
Extract: "Digital money is already a key battleground in finance, with technology firms, payment processing companies, and banks all vying to become the gateway into the burgeoning platform-based economy. The prizes that await the winners could be huge. In China, Alipay and WeChat Pay already control more than 90% of all mobile payments. And in the last three years, the four largest listed payment firms – Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and PayPal – have increased in value by more than the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google)."
Nov 14th 2019
Extract: "Trump, who understands almost nothing about governing, made a major mistake in attacking career public officials from the outset of his presidency. He underestimated – or just couldn’t fathom – the honor of people who could earn more in the private sector but believe in public service. And he made matters worse for himself as well as for the government by creating a shadow group – headed by the strangely out-of-control Rudy Giuliani, once a much-admired mayor of New York City, and now a freelance troublemaker serving as Trump’s personal attorney – to impose the president’s Ukraine policy over that of “the bureaucrats.” "
Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.
Oct 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "......let’s see what happens when we have less money for all the things we want to do as a country and as individuals. Promises and predictions regarding Brexit will soon be tested against reality. When they are, I wouldn’t want to be one of Johnson’s Brexiteers."
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."
Oct 20th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe also stands to lose from Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. If, in the ongoing chaos, the thousands of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces escape – as some already have – America’s estranged European allies will suffer. Yet Trump is unconcerned. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” he remarked casually at a press conference. “They want to go back to their homes." "
Oct 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress – including the Senate – to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question."
Oct 7th 2019
EXTRACT: "The problem didn't start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like a cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a "take no prisoners" mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of "the other side." Trump didn't create this crisis; he was the result of it.   When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then President Clinton, but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.  "
Oct 4th 2019
EXTRACT: "As the story spreads, it grows darker. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to learn the identity of the whistleblower (who is protected by law), which could expose that person to great danger. And he is accusing some people – including Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee – of treason. My sense is that Trump fears the tough, focused Schiff. Trump has ominously noted that traitors used to be shot or hanged. And he hasn’t helped himself with members of either party by declaring, in one of his hundreds of febrile tweets, that forcing him from office could lead to a “civil war.” Trump has taken the United States somewhere it’s never been before. His presidency may not survive it."
Sep 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "But regardless of whether the Ukraine scandal remains front-page news, it will haunt the US intelligence community, which has been Trump’s bête noire since the day he took office. Trump has relentlessly attacked US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and divulged secrets to foreign officials, potentially burning high-value sources. This behavior had already raised serious concerns about whether Trump can be trusted to receive sensitive intelligence at all. Now, intelligence leaders must ask themselves how far they are willing to go in toeing the White House line."
Sep 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "As Lobaczewski pointed out, pathological leaders tend to attract other people with psychological disorders. At the same time, empathetic and fair-minded people gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them.......As a result, over time pathocracies become more entrenched and extreme. You can see this process in the Nazi takeover of the German government in the 1930s, when Germany moved from democracy to pathocracy in less than two years.......In the US, there has clearly been a movement towards pathocracy under Trump. As Lobaczewski’s theory predicts, the old guard of more moderate White House officials – the “adults in the room” – has fallen away. The president is now surrounded by individuals who share his authoritarian tendencies and lack of empathy and morality. Fortunately, to some extent, the democratic institutions of the US have managed to provide some push back."
Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: "Reminiscent of Don Quixote, Trump is tilting at windmills. His administration is flailing at antiquated perceptions of the Old China that only compound the problems it claims to be addressing. Financial markets are starting to get a sense that something is awry. So, too, is the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the global economy is fraying at the edges. The US has never been an oasis in such treacherous periods. I doubt if this time is any different. 
Aug 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "In fact, with firms in the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia having reined in capital expenditures, the global tech, manufacturing, and industrial sector is already in a recession. The only reason why that hasn’t yet translated into a global slump is that private consumption has remained strong. Should the price of imported goods rise further as a result of any of these negative supply shocks, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable household income growth would take a hit, as would consumer confidence, likely tipping the global economy into a recession."