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Blundering in Ukraine: Putin's strategic debacle

Vladimir Putin

A dark horse is stalking the Eurasian continent, casting a shadow over all that crosses its path. For 16 years Vladimir Putin was a career officer in the KGB, the infamous Soviet security agency created in 1917 as the Cheka (and once headed by Polish aristocrat turned Marxist, Felix Dzerzhinsky) before retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel to take up a political career, Putin has blazed a trail across the Russian political landscape like no one since Joseph Stalin.

Now that several months have elapsed since Putin unleashed his "hybrid" war on Ukraine -- first annexing Crimea and then destabilizing eastern Ukraine -- it's worthwhile examining Putin's objectives and the degree to which they have been realized.

Hybrid War: Feints, subterfuge and disinformation

In military campaigns against Georgia to occupy Abhkazia and South Ossetia in 2008, Vladimir Putin introduced elements of a what Russian analyst Julia Latynina has called a strategy of "new war." In truth, little of this is actually new, although the constellation of irregular conflict elements are a Putin innovation.

Russian rebels

This "new" or "hybrid" approach involves using troops with no insignias who refuse to identify themselves; employing or creating local "militias" who ostensibly have "self-mobilized;" funding, arming and training these forces, all the while strenuously denying that you are doing so; launching vigorous propaganda and disinformation campaigns, accusing the other side of what you yourself are doing; and generating clouds of falsehoods and red herrings to confuse the suggestible and generate panic and hysteria. (See Myrna Kostash's My Maidan for a discussion of how such propaganda and disinformation have impacted progressive, western circles.)

This approach is designed to generate "plausible deniability," allowing Putin maximal tactical flexibility while avoiding responsibility. To try to avoid opprobrium in international fora Putin claims not to be involved, while actually calling the shots. He poses as an advocate for peace while fomenting war. This illustrates Hegelian dialectics as interpreted by Bolsheviks (i.e., a sophisticated form of lying). It is a campaign fought equally by below-the-radar military advisors and media spin-doctors.

Vladimir Putin in the KGBElements of this approach have long been used by groups such as the CIA; for example in campaigns against the Chilean government of Salvador Allende, the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and the Castro government in Cuba. It's a tactic of shadowy conflict; of stealth, subterfuge, and Orwellian doublespeak. It's precisely the lexicon of Vladimir Putin, a KGB First Chief Directorate operative schooled in intelligence and counter-intelligence, spying, false identities, propaganda, coercion, "wet operations," disinformation, sleights of hand and forgery.

The problem is that in the information age, with Internet, cell, and satellite phone access everywhere; where everyone has a smart phone that can record still and moving images; high-resolution and omniscient military and civilian satellites; drones; and ubiquitous media, it's getting much harder to do. It's hard to propagate a lie when you can't control the truth.

The clouds of disinformation are demonstrably false, but that doesn't prevent them having an impact on the uninformed, gullible and conspiracy theorists (who thirst after an alternative secret narrative in which everything is its exact opposite). This propaganda doesn't actually pull the wool over the eyes of anyone who matters, since satellite, human, and signals intelligence are available in abundance to militaries and governments in the developed world, but the disinformation cloud can doubt and thus server as a barrier against a response.

Putin has been able to succeed with such measures domestically because of the extraordinary control that he has over Russian media, where all but a handful of outlets are under his direct or indirect control (see Faces of War and Peace on Moscow Streets for a discussion of the muzzled press in Russia). Within Russia, he is able to project his desired interpretation of events by virtue of this control. Many editors or publishers take their direction directly or indirectly from the Kremlin; those that didn't have largely been removed from their posts.

The Putin Doctrine

So, what is the objective of these smoke and mirrors tactics? What drives the Putin agenda?

Vladimir PutinThere are a number of interlocking ideological strands. Like many Russians, Putin carries a nationalist chip the size of Siberia on his shoulder. There is a long history of Russians feeling that "great" as it may be, Russia doesn't receive the respect it deserves. That the long history, the great expanses of the steppe, the profound Russian spirit, its sacrosanct role as the guardian of Orthodoxy -- all these components of Russian exceptionalism not withstanding, Russia isn't treated with sufficient deference.

Despite its flawed economics, grotesque human rights abuses, support of Hitler, and godless atheism, the Soviet Union marked a kind of apogee in this regard. It was the largest country on earth, ranging from Baltic, Black and Caspian Seas to the Arctic and Pacific Oceans, spanning nine time zones, having absorbed countless nations, with its nuclear arsenal -- this was a superpower the whole world had to reckon with. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was felt as a profound loss of face by Great Russian nationalists, Putin amongst them. With linguistic, ethnic, and religious overtones, this longing for a rebirth is also a wellspring of the Slavophile movement (see Ukraine on the Brink for a discussion of this topic). (N.B. Such exceptionalism isn't unique to Russia; other powers such as the United States, China Germany, Britain, and the Arab world have also been afflicted with inferiority complexes.)

A corollary of this thinking is the belief that the values of western liberal democratic society are corruptions. Democracy, pluralism, tolerance of heterodox ideas such as modern art, gay rights, feminism, non-Orthodox religion, environmentalism, etc. are modernist, cosmopolitan distortions. European culture and the political institutions of the European Union (EU) stand in opposition to historical Russian values.

Russia also has a historical paranoia of being encircled: penned into the Baltic by Germany; choked at the Black Sea by Turkey; confronted by Persia across the Caspian; threatened by Japan in the Pacific; "encircled" by Poland, the Baltic republics, and the countries of the Caucuses, etc.

These same nationalist and imperialist fixations characterized all the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century empires: British, German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and French. However the imperial possessions and aspirations of these fell away in varying degree after World War I. In the case of Russia, the Tsarist Empire was succeeded by the Soviet Empire, which after post-Cold War dissolution, Putin aspires to rebuild as the Russian Empire 2.0.

Eurasian Economic Council

All this is the backdrop for what has evolved to become the Putin Doctrine. In order to inoculate Russia against the corrupting influences of western liberal democracy on the one hand, and to keep NATO at bay, which has already dangerously encroached upon Russia's frontiers in the Baltic Republics, Eastern Europe and the Balkans -- all territory once part of the Soviet Union or in its Warsaw Pact penumbra -- Putin is trying to forge a Russo-centric political, economic, cultural, and religious counterweight. This has ideological and political components as well as economic ones such as the proposed Eurasian Economic Union (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Armenia to date), a financial and customs union to reintegrate the states of the former Soviet Union. Underlying this are two important objectives: maintaining the kleptocratic state and shoring up Putin's political base.

Wealth transfer, oligarchs, and Russian kleptocracy

As Thomas Piketty has pointed out in Capital in the 21st Century, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the chaotic privatization of the Yeltsin era resulted in one of the largest public to private wealth transfers of all time. Available data shows that the value of public wealth in the Soviet Union was on the order of three to four times that of the annual national income (i.e., 3.3 to 4.4 trillion USD), whereas the value of private capital was miniscule (some private plots of land and occasional housing; no industrial capital and virtually no financial capital).

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 (i.e., in just over two decades), the situation has reversed: private capital accounts for virtually all of the wealth of the state, and public assets are scarcely if at all greater than public debt. In other words, in the last 22 years some $4.4 trillion in assets has been transferred to an extremely small number of "oligarchs" (there are some 58 Russian billionaires) who were able to find inventive ways to bilk the "privatization" process initiated by Boris Yeltsin. It has lead to spectacular concentrations of wealth. This is the contemporary kleptocratic Russian state: a miniscule percentage of the population (and their minions and acolytes) who own almost everything and who have acquired their colossal wealth by legalized theft.

Boris BerezovskyThe support of these ultra-wealthy oligarchs forms one of the two mainstays of the Putin presidency. However, unlike the Russian boyars who were able to exercise considerable influence over the tsar, Putin keeps the oligarchs on an extremely short leash. In the Yeltsin era and the early years of Putin's first presidency, some of the hyper-rich attempted to use their newfound wealth to shape the political landscape. Putin reacted to this challenge with extreme virulence, destroying and exiling oligarchs such as Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The result of these "oligarch wars" was the so-called "grand-bargain" allowing them to keep their wealth in return for their explicit support for Putin and their political alignment with his objectives. Still very powerful economically, the oligarchs have been politically neutered by Putin; they know the consequences of stepping out of line.

The Russian Middle Class

The pillar on which Putin's political support rests is the Russian middle class. After the economic and political chaos of the Yeltsin years (which saw the GDP of Russia fall by 40 per cent in the span of a decade) Putin's "firm grasp" of the country is supported by many ordinary Russians. The Russian economic collapse from 1989 to 1999 caused massive hardship to many ordinary Russians. Pensioners were left destitute and the middle middle-class reduced to almost penury.

USSR & Russian GDP

What saved the Russian economy, however, had nothing to do with Putin's economic, political or military prowess, but simply rising petroleum demand and prices. Russia is currently the largest producer of crude oil and natural gas. When Putin took power in 2000 oil prices averaged $27 USD per barrel. By 2013 they had topped out at $112 USD per barrel and today the international Brent Crude price is over $107 USD per barrel. This resulted in a quadrupling of Russia's oil revenues. Together oil and gas account for 68 per cent of Russia's export revenues, and 50 per cent of the Russian federal budget comes from extraction taxes and customs export duties on oil and natural gas. This amounts to vast sums of money, circa $220 billion USD.

Crude Oil Prices

Like Alberta (and unlike Norway) Russia has been spending these revenues like a drunken sailor, not creating a sovereign wealth fund and increasingly turning the ruble into a petro-currency (see Failing grades: The Canadian resource economy -- Part 1 for more information on this topic). This has been a massive stimulus to the Russian economy in the last decade, and its spillover into the middle class forms the core of Putin's political support amongst this constituency. It also means, however, that the Russian economy (like Canada's) is increasingly vulnerable to Dutch Disease (see Dutch Disease denial: Inflation, politics, and tar for a discussion of this topic) where resource revenues inflame the desire for more resource extraction and increasingly push other sectors of the economy to the sidelines. It also makes the Russian economy (and its robust growth in the past decade) highly exposed to oil demand, prices, and revenues -- a precarious political position for Vladimir Putin, and one that leaves the country vulnerable to sectorial sanctions that might target this sector.

Capitalizing on crude nationalism and Great Russian chauvinism, Putin's Crimean adventures and meddling in eastern Ukraine have dramatically increased his domestic popularity to some 86 per cent. However, if the Russian economy goes into recession, and the middle class begins to feel the bite of sanctions, this popularity could rapidly evaporate.

Punishing Ukraine: Putin's tactical campaign

Vladimir PutinAll of the aforementioned helps explain why Putin has acted as he did over these past months. Ukraine is at the heart of the Russian imperial and Slavophile dream (see Ukraine on the Brink for more on this subject). To see it pulling away from Russian orbit and towards the European Union -- with its democratic, religious, economic, cultural, and social traditions that differ markedly from Putin's ethnic, nationalist, Orthodox and authoritarian vision -- is an anathema, a major rebuff of Putin's designs, and even more dangerously, a reminder to the adjacent Russian population that fellow Slavs can embrace liberal democratic values and reject the autocratic model of society promulgated by Putin. It puts a hole the size of Ukraine (20 million hectares) in the middle of the Eurasian Union.

The Euromaidan movement's focus on democracy, civil society, and an end to corruption shine a headlight squarely at Russia where all of these are conspicuously absent. The removal of Viktor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine on February 22, 2014 was a sharp rebuke to the Ukrainian keleptocratic state, a carbon copy of the Russian model. If Ukrainians could build a society and economy not ruled by corruption, cronyism, and kickbacks, ordinary Russians might imagine that such a thing was possible in their own backyard. Putin already regards the European Union nations on the threshold of Russia as highly problematic; to imagine a EU member in the heartland of the former Soviet Union is unthinkable.

The DonbasPutin knew perfectly clearly that there was no linguistic or cultural threat to Russian-speakers in the urban areas of the Donbas (the Donets and Lukhansk region) or in Crimea. Russia already exercised great influence in Crimea and agreements for its naval base for the Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol were secure by treaty until 2042. The Crimean annexation and the destabilization of the Donbas were punishments to the Ukrainian government for having strayed from the fold -- stark reminders of who calls the shots between the Baltic and Black Seas.

The ostensible persecution of Russian-speakers in Ukraine at the hands of Kyiv "fascists" directed by the CIA was a narrative explicitly designed to appeal to the nationalism of the Russian middle classes; a narrative that showed Putin and Russia (once more a great power to be reckoned with) as standing up in defense of Russian people and values against American meddling and cosmopolitan, modernist European ideas. A key component of Putin's "hybrid war" is propaganda and disinformation, and the Russian media churned out such product on demand (see Faces of War and Peace on Moscow Streets for an examination of how Russian media is controlled and directed by the government). And, as Putin's 86 per cent popularity indicates, domestically the strategy worked to perfection.

Moreover, as Paul Roderick Gregory argues in Putin's Failing Ukrainian Scorecard, Putin succeeded in annexing Crimea with scarcely a shot being fired, and with skillful use mercenaries, criminals, local militias, and undercover Russian security and military personnel destabilized the Donbas, all the while staving off meaningful sanctions with plausible deniability and propaganda. Alternating bouts of aggression with promises to use his "limited" influence on the insurgents, he publicly talked of peace while practicing its exact opposite. All the while he berated the purportedly "fascist" government of Ukraine. Putin appears to have outsmarted the Ukrainians, Europeans and Americans with a series of brilliant tactical maneuvers.

Putin's strategic debacle

"However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." -- Winston Churchill

So what's the hitch? Gregory argues (and I agree with much of his analysis) that the short-term tactical successes highlighted above are virtually irrelevant in light of short- and long-term strategic blunders that have not only undone much of what Putin hoped to achieve with his Ukrainian gambit, but have actually significantly eroded Putin's political support and harmed Russia's position. Indeed, that the whole venture appears to be a top-to-bottom debacle.

Euromaidan in Kyiv

Putin has not been able to overturn the Euromaidan revolution. A peaceful election has been held in Ukraine, which elected the "Chocolate King," Petro Poroshenko, to office with an absolute majority of 54.7 per cent of the vote, winning in in every electoral district of the country save one. The ultra-right political forces (much pilloried in the Russian propaganda press as the "fascists" that had taken over Ukraine) garnered miniscule levels of support. Oleh Tyahnybok, running for the right-wing nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party, received only 1.16 per cent of votes cast; Dmytro Yarosh of the even more extreme Pravij Sektor (Right Sektor) garnered 0.70 per cent; both of these were far less than extremist right-wing parties received in the 2014 European Parliament elections (i.e., in France the right-wing National Front received 24.9 percent of the vote; in Greece the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party received 9.4 per cent; in Denmark the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party took 26.6 per cent; in Austria the far-right Freedom Party received 19.7 per cent support, while in Hungary the neo-fascist Jobbnik party took 14.7 per cent.) By contrast, Vadim Rabinovich, president of the Ukrainian Jewish Parliament and running as an independent, garnered 2.25 per cent of the vote -- more than both right wing parties combined. Said Rabinovich:

"I want to destroy the myth about an anti-Semitic Ukraine, which is spreading around the world. Probably I'm the most fortunate candidate. Today unification is needed, and I'm a unifying candidate. I have no maniacal thirst for power, I just want to help the country".

Petro Poroshenko signs memorandum of agreement with EU

Poroshenko has embraced the values of a civil society and of ridding the country of corruption. Soon after his election he signed an association agreement with the European Union. He has moved to decentralize power, end the rebel insurgency, to allow village, city, district, and regional authorities to decide if they wish to give status to Russian and other minority languages in Ukraine, and signed a decree ending all military cooperation with Russia until the annexation of Crimea has been reversed -- all significant setbacks to Putin's agenda.

Worse still, from Putin's perspective, is that emboldened by the Ukrainian example, and repelled by the Russian one, both Georgia and Moldova, formerly Soviet republics, also signed association agreements with the EU, clearly signaling what model of social, political, and economic development they are interested in pursuing.

And even worse, Russia's Crimean annexation and overt military interference in the Donbas has significantly boosted the popularity of NATO in Ukraine. As recently as four years ago PEW Research found that 40 per cent of Ukrainians regarded NATO as a threat, 51 per cent opposed NATO membership, and only 28 per cent were in favour of it (and other polls found levels of support as low as 12.5 per cent). However, polling conducted in June 2014 by the Gorshenin Institute found that support for NATO in Ukraine had increased to 47.3 per cent. NATO expansion is something that concerns Putin even more than EU expansion and his tactics have driven the Ukrainian public in precisely the opposite direction.

And even worse still, this Russian adventurism is propelling formerly neutral countries such as Finland and Sweden to consider NATO membership, much to the fury and frustration of the Russian leadership. Even if they do not, the mistrust generated in the Nordic countries (as well as the Baltic states and the Caucuses) by the annexation of Crimea and Russia's military and political interference on the territory of a neighbouring state, is apt to persist for years, if not decades -- all significant setbacks to the Putin agenda.

Although the Ukrainian gambit may have worked domestically in Russia to Putin's advantage, it has dramatically harmed his image and popularity in Ukraine -- and not just in Ukrainian speaking regions of the country. The results of polling conducted by Rating, a socio-political pollster in Ukraine, show that in eastern regions of the country such as Kharkiv, Poltava, Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhiia (which have substantial populations of Russian speakers) Putin's popularity has fallen from 62 per cent in October 2013, to 19 percent in April 2014. Similarly in southern regions of the country such as Odessa, Mykolayiv and Kherson, where there are also significant numbers of Russian speakers, his popularity has fallen from 57 to 14 per cent during the same time. In the Donbas it has increased slightly from 63 to 66 per cent. 

However, polling conducted by the International Republican Institute shows that even in the Donbas, this popularity does not translate into support for Russian annexation or an independent state (such as the self-proclaimed Peoples Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk). In eastern Ukraine including the Donbas (where the largest concentration of Russian-speakers live), only 5 per cent of the population supports Russian annexation or an independent state. Forty per cent support the current Ukrainian state, and 35 per cent a unitary state with a federal structure giving greater autonomy for local regions (i.e., 75 per cent support a unified Ukraine; only 5 percent support division).

Insurgents in Donetsk

Moreover, the meager 5 per cent support for autonomy or annexation is apt to rapidly decline further given the state of dissolution into which the so-called People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk have fallen. These self-proclaimed "governments" are increasingly dysfunctional and the areas they control are dissolving into anarchy, gangsterism and infighting between different insurgent groups. It is difficult to imagine that residents will see any future in being governed in this way by such inept groups of thugs. In general, the Kremlin's heavy hand in Ukraine has, if anything, served to develop a sense of national unity, purpose and popular resistance in Ukraine across party and linguistic lines. As Paul Roderick Gregory has pointed out:

"[Putin] must deal with a new and emboldened Ukraine in place of the old supine Ukraine that feared to cross its Big Brother to the east. If Ukraine engages in the real reforms demanded by Maidan, it can emerge as a major European power unbeholden to no one."

As noted previously, Russia remains highly vulnerable to sectorial sanctions. While sanctions hurt both sides, 15 per cent of Russia's GDP depends on trade with the European Union, whereas only 1 per cent of the EU's GDP is dependent on trade with Russia. So, economic sanctions bite Russia, much more deeply than they do the EU. Mikhail Kasyonov, a former Russian Minister of Finance and the Prime Minister of Russia during Putin's first presidential term said:

"If there will be sanctions against the entire financial sector, the [Russian] economy will collapse in six months."

According to Henry Meyer, Irina Reznik and Ilya Arkhipov (in Russian Billionaires in "Horror" as Putin Risks Isolation) it is becoming clear that Russia's oligarchs are "increasingly frantic that President Vladimir Putin’s policies in Ukraine will lead to crippling sanctions and are too scared of reprisal to say so publicly." Igor Bunin, head of the Center for Political Technology in Moscow, said:

"The economic and business elite is just in horror. Nobody will speak out because of the implicit threat of retribution. Any sign of rebellion and they’ll be brought to their knees."

Russian oligarch Alisher UsmanovThis is understandable given the terms of the "grand bargain" imposed on them by Putin. Nonetheless, having lost in excess of $14.5 billion in the value of their assets since the beginning of the year as a result of the limited sanctions that have been imposed to date, the oligarchs are clearly alarmed at Putin's increasingly rogue positions internationally. And, indeed, the European Union has added 15 individuals and 18 entities to its sanctions list and the EU foreign ministers:

"Agreed to finalise work on tougher, sectoral measures and to present proposals for taking action, including on access to capital markets, defence, dual-use goods and sensitive technologies, including in the energy sector." 

This is bad news for Putin, bad news for the oligarchs, and bad news for Russia.

The damage to Russia's international reputation has also been formidable. While Putin's attempts at "plausible deniability" for the destabilization of eastern Ukraine may play well to the Russian middle class and to western "useful idiots" (see Crisis in Ukraine: Disinformation and useful idiots for more information on this topic), they fool no one of consequence; neither scholars, historians and academics, nor world or military leaders who have their own sources of information from satellites, and human and electronic intelligence. Putin's unilateral redrawing international boundaries with his annexation of Crimea have alarmed the EU, the United Nations, and other international institutions. The Kremlin's conduct has undermined the investment climate in Russia, of considerable importance to the development of the resource sector there.

Malaysia Airlines MH-17

If all this were not bad enough, there is the recent Malaysia Airlines MH-17 disaster (see Fallen aircraft and smoking guns: The deadly consequences of Russian insurgency in Ukraine) may soon result in even stiffer sanctions. While it's clear that this civilian aircraft was shot down by accident by Russian-supported and backed insurgents, nevertheless, the Kremlin has armed the rebels. As I point out in the article, "What could possibly go wrong if you give sophisticated high-tech weapons to a group of lunatics, fanatics, mercenaries, and criminals?" Putin will have to bear a significant responsibility for this tragedy, which, as Doug Saunders has correctly pointed out in The Globe and Mail, is a war crime:

"The killing of civilians during conflict, whether done deliberately or through tactical disregard for their safety, is a war crime under international humanitarian law."

Malaysia Airlines MH-17

In all these regards, the results of Putin's "Ukrainian campaign" have ranged from calamitous to disastrous. Almost every salient aspect of the Putin doctrine has been substantially undermined by what can already be seen as a Ukrainian debacle. 

Ukrainian wheat fieldsIn some respects, the most tragic fallout is for Ukrainian-Russian relations. Ukrainians and Russians are closely allied people with centuries of social, cultural, and economic relations. Travel, friendship, and intermarriage, as well as economic, social and cultural ventures, and economic enterprises have linked them for centuries, and geography means that they will be one another's neighbours to the end of time. In Eastern Europe, a land riven by wars, politics, pogroms, purges, rivalries and betrayals, transcending history can be a significant challenge. Putin's cynical annexation and manipulations hearken back to the worst examples Great Russian chauvinism and bullying. One can well imagine that it may take decades -- if not longer -- to heal the wounds of this misadventure and dispel the clouds of suspicion that may poison Ukrainian-Russian relations well into the future.

This is Part V of a series on the political situation of Ukraine. Part IV is Fallen aircraft and smoking guns: The deadly consequences of Russian insurgency in Ukraine. Part VI is Ukrainian aspirations: Material, moral, and spiritual dignity

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He has a Russian Studies degree from Dalhousie University and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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