Ask The Experts


ukraine edited  

CPR: What will be the repercussions of Putin’s increasingly ethnic-based rhetoric (e.g. switching to russkiy rather than rossiyskiy)? Is ethnic nationalism just a rhetorical tool Putin is using, or is it becoming a guiding philosophy? 

Prof. Marten: President Putin’s statement to parliament on March 18 marked the first time he used ethnic-interest language to explain or justify his actions. It is not clear what this will mean in the future. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave a speech about Crimea two days later where he was careful to speak only in state-interest, not ethnic-interest, terms. This may mean that Putin’s speech was a trial balloon that failed, and that it will be forgotten in the long run. It could, though, mark a disturbing and potentially frightening turn. That statement could be used to justify any military action on behalf of ethnic Russian minority populations living throughout the post-Soviet space. It could also be a signal to the Russian domestic audience that ethnic conflict is okay at home, potentially accelerating the neo-Nazi attacks on ethnic minorities inside Russia that have not been thoroughly investigated or punished by state authorities in recent years.

CPR: From whom should Putin fear reprisal? NATO/the West, Russian citizens and activists, Russian political and economic elites? Does he face real consequences for further action in Ukraine, or are these parties all unwilling or unable to punish him effectively? 

Prof. Marten: The Russian military is much larger and more sophisticated than the Ukrainian military is, and Ukraine is not a member of any military alliance. No force is going to be able or willing to stop Putin if he truly wants to take chunks of Ukrainian territory. He has already decided that he is willing to take the risk of facing a violent insurgency in Crimea; the risks of violence will skyrocket if he tries to occupy parts of the Ukrainian mainland, too.

In economic terms, Putin is already facing sanctions, and further action on his part is likely to shock the international community into strengthening them. The Russian economy was faltering before Crimea happened, and the added pressure of sanctions fears on Russian international trade and investments, in addition to the added economic burden of subsidizing Crimea (which still depends on mainland Ukraine for its supplies of everything from food to water and electricity, and has relied on huge budgetary bailouts from Kiev) is going to have significant consequences on Russia. Putin thinks he is going to address this problem by turning Crimea into a gambling mecca, but he faces competition from other areas on the Black Sea for clients, including the city of Batumi in Georgia.

Many people have argued that Putin made a bargain with the Russian middle class, of trading economic health and stability for authoritarian control. The question is whether global oil and gas prices will remain so high that Putin can continue to fulfill his part of that bargain through the profits earned by state-controlled energy exports from Russia, even with these added economic burdens—or whether at some point the elite turns against him.

CPR: Should the United States opt for a conciliatory policy with Russia, or try to punish Russia with economic sanctions and military action? What is the West’s best response to Putin? How would the European economy fare against the inevitably higher energy prices incumbent with any strong response to Russia? 

Prof. Marten: This is not a new Cold War, because Russia is no longer a global power (it is merely a regional power). But it’s time to dust off the precepts of George Kennan, one of the greatest U.S. diplomats of the early Cold War era, who also had to deal with unpredictability emanating from Moscow. Kennan argued that the U.S. needed to engage in crystal clear extended deterrence, so that Soviet expansionism would be contained. In this case, that would mean reiterating U.S. military treaty commitments, especially to NATO member-states that border Russia, Ukraine, and the Black Sea. At the same time, Kennan argued that authoritarian regimes need enemies in order to justify their existence, and that if the Soviet Union faced no real external threats, the system would eventually collapse under its own weight. He was right. So that means that the United States also has to be careful not to take actions that are threatening to Russia. We should do everything we can to undercut the enemy image that Putin is trying to create about US goals. We need to seek areas of mutual interest with Russia wherever we might find them, including nuclear weapons non-proliferation in places like Iran and North Korea, the chemical weapons accord we are jointly overseeing in Syria, international legal, trade, and environmental cooperation in the Arctic, and perhaps even working jointly to control terrorism and the drug trade extending out from Afghanistan.

Because Russia is far from a unified state, and in fact even lacks a unified elite inside the Kremlin (Putin faces a snake-pit of competing elite networks), it also means we have to be careful not to punish Russia as a whole, and especially not those members of the elite who lean toward the West and toward international economic cooperation. Instead we should be targeting only those members of Putin’s regime who share his aggressive goals.

It is too early to know what the result of the shale oil and gas revolution will be on European energy prices, and what effect this will have on either the European economy or the willingness of European energy firms to redirect their trade away from Russia. We do know that Putin chose a bad time for his aggression, though, because the global energy economy is in so much flux, and Russian oil and gas were already facing new competition.

CPR: Assuming Putin makes no more forays into Ukraine proper, what will the Kremlin’s relationship with the new government be like? What is the strategic importance of Ukraine without Crimea to Russia? What role does oil/natural gas play in all of this? 

Prof. Marten: Putin will likely have less influence on Ukrainian domestic politics in the future than he has had in the past. Crimea was the Ukrainian region with the largest ethnic Russian population, and their votes no longer matter to Kiev. The more land he takes in the south and east, the even less Kiev has to worry about the ethnic Russian vote. Putin may be able to get concessions out of Ukraine that stem from fear, but he may ironically have accelerated the resolve of Ukrainian elites to overcome their own internal problems, including by cleaning up corruption and cementing civilian control over the security forces, and thereby make Ukraine a more attractive candidate for western trade and investment. •

Kimberly Marten is the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, and a member of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Faculty at Columbia University. Marten’s research examines how patron/client politics and corruption affect international security. She has recently discussed the Ukraine crisis in a number of publications, including Foreign Affairs and the Washington Post, and in appearances on The Daily Show, NPR, MSNBC and other media outlets.