Putin's calculations make Ukraine escalation all too likely

 
John Hulsman

GETTING inside the thinking of Vladimir Putin is a daunting prospect at the best of times; and these aren’t the best of times. Yet doing so shows why a worst-case outcome just a few days ago suddenly seems entirely plausible. After the Crimean referendum, the thoughts ringing around Putin’s head go something like this:

“I cannot believe the lack of push back by the West. I would have been content to knobble Ukraine, only encouraging separatists in Crimea and east Ukraine to demand substantial autonomy, thereby castrating the new pro-Western government. Little did I know I was moving into a geopolitical vacuum, where no one was going to do much of anything to stop me.

“And the coming Western counter-moves seem manageable. Sanctions are bound to be underwhelming. The US Congress did not even stay in session long enough to pass something ahead of its spring break, hardly a signal of serious intent. Likewise, the Europeans will indulge in their usual finger-wagging, but many of them (particularly the pivotal Germans) are dependent on our oil and gas exports. While an inconvenience, elite asset freezes and visa bans I can live with.

“Of course, in the longer run, economic dangers abound. If the US ever gets serious about using the shale revolution weapon against us, Russia will be in real trouble. Already in 2012, we needed the price of Brent crude to be $117 a barrel just to balance our federal budget. This is our jugular vein. Over time, huge new amounts of US oil and gas on the market are bound to drive down prices, placing us in a horrible position. Also, we will have to make up for the serious loss of up to $50bn a quarter in capital flight.

“But as I knew once I moved on Crimea, there is no going back for me. I have gambled everything on a Slavophile path for Russia, definitively turning away from the West, and will now instead increasingly gravitate towards China and other powers unhappy with the old, creaky, western-dominated order. I must conclude that long-marooned energy deal with Beijing right away, as a first step to dealing with our long-term investment problems. The China card, which I was already pressed to throw, will mitigate our economic weaknesses over the long term.

“In fact, now is precisely the time to keep being bold, while the West indulges in the usual bout of navel-gazing that follows its foreign policy defeats. I will never be as popular as I am now; my approval rating as of mid-March stands at an Olympian 72 per cent, a number Barack Obama can only dream of. This stratospheric popularity is bound to head earthwards. If I am going to act again, it must be now.

“And really, given my unexpected success, I have to. Without Crimea to balance things, Ukraine becomes a far more pro-western place, decisively tilting in the West’s direction. Machiavelli would not approve of a land swap whereby Crimea was gained, at the expense of forever losing Ukraine. Time to go back to the old playbook, increase tensions in eastern Ukraine and then…well, no one will stop us, will they?

“Once Ukraine is split, all of my non-Nato neighbours (like oil-rich Kazakhstan) will drift decisively in our direction, and Greater Russia will once again be a great power, in league with China. Then, over time, we can wage cold war on a tired Europe and a distracted America. I like the odds.”

If even a portion of this thinking is correct, it is time to batten down the hatches.

Dr John C Hulsman is president and co-founder of John C Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a global political risk consultancy. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Ethical Realism, The Godfather Doctrine, and Lawrence of Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again.

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