Crimea and Punishment



PROMPT: Will Putin’s actions in Crimea pay off?

When he is not writing for CPR or the Spectator, Eric Wimer (CC `16) can usually be found on stage. He sings Bass for the Kingsmen and directs/ produces plays when he can, acting or choreographing as well whenever he gets the chance. In his free time, he’ll work out with CU Tae Kwon Do, work for change with Student Worker Solidarity or the CU Dems, and simulate space battles with CIRCA. He is a triple concentrator in American Studies, Political Science, and English. 

Ben Rimland is a junior in Columbia College studying political science and art history. His interests include security studies and American foreign policy in East Asia. This summer he will be working at the Asia Society in Mumbai. 


WIMER: It is very easy to look at Putin’s incursion into Crimea, along with his ludicrous denials, and say, as German Prime Minister Angela Merkel said to Obama that “he’s living in another world,” that reality is bound to catch up with him sooner or later. But Putin has been playing to his people from the very beginning, agitating and stirring up nationalism to buoy his career in times of trouble, and the United States is powerless to stop him.

Putin’s approval rating since he arrived in office, based on data from the respected Levada Center, reveals that after arriving on the scene as the unknown successor handpicked by the terribly unpopular Boris Yeltsin, the strong man reversed his image within a matter of months, “riding a wave of war hysteria,” over the “popular” Chechnyan war, as the The New York Times reported at the time. Already, they were calling his image a “cult of personality,” fueled by aggressive, revanchist language and an image of “above all, manliness” refreshing to Russia that, all too often lately, had been feeling helpless and defeated. The economy rose conveniently soon after, but the data shows that Putin’s approval rating had already shot sky high before it did.

In a speech on March 18th, Putin made another crucial shift in direction. Up until then he had been using the word Rossisskii to describe the Russian people, a word more associated with citizenship on the state level. This time, he claimed that Kiev is a Russkii (ethnicly Russian) city and that the Russkii people were made one of the largest divided nations in the world when the former Soviet republics split. It was the culmination of his courtship of nationalist, revanchist Russians that has been his chief strategy of preservation since 2001. After Chechnya, the next largest spike in approval ratings, a shot from 60-80 percent, coincided with his aggression towards Ukraine, after an embarrassingly ramshackle start to the Sochi Games and even more embarrassing election fraud that he was still recovering from. By espousing this racist, militaristic ideology, Putin is actually building support, not losing it.

The United States swings around talk of sanctions, but in reality they are just as irrelevant to the conversation as Russian objections were when we invaded Iraq, or bombed Libya, or impressed our power upon other smaller, weaker countries. Recent history has shown that sanctions don’t damage the autocrats and billionaires, but only manage to hurt the people. And Russia is not Iran. The United States wishes it had Russia’s rate of economic growth and steady supply of petrodollars. There are many eager partners, China first among them, who will gladly buy whatever oil we refuse to. This means that we need Russia more than Russia needs us and, outside of military action, which Putin knows the public will not (nor should they) stomach, there’s not much the United States can do. This is not to say that the United States “lost” this round, because as I said, Russia has been similarly powerless to stop our military incursions. It’s simply the state of international politics.

So if the United States can’t punish Putin and his people reward him for this brash action, who’s to tell him tell him that he’s “living in another world?” While his actions make no sense to Merkel or Obama, Putin is very much of this planet. He’s living in Russia, where people have consistently rewarded this type of action. Until the people evolve their incentives, citizen by citizen, this type of aggression and maddening double-speak will continue to pay dividends for the president.


RIMLAND: The many permutations of the Ukraine crisis, going by such monikers as the Maidan revolution, Crimean crisis and now the Separatist crisis, have together become the greatest foreign policy crisis since the end of the Cold War. Russian president Vladimir Putin has unleashed a terrifying Pandora’s box of ethnic nationalism, and while Russian opinion polls may be rising rapidly in response to his annexation of the Crimean peninsula, Putin will come to dearly regret his recent actions.

To examine just how Putin’s adventures will lead inevitably to failure, we must briefly examine his motives and goals in Ukraine. To understand the Russian attempts to destabilize Ukraine and annex Crimea as longplanned would be a mischaracterization. Even under relatively pro-Western president, Viktor Yuschenko (not to mention recently deposed president Yanukovych), Ukraine had been firmly under Putin’s thumb. The lease on the Black Sea naval fleet at Sevastopol had been renewed up to 2042, and Yanukovych had expressed an eagerness to move away from a proposed EU association agreement and closer to the stillhypothetical Russian led Eurasian customs union. This is precisely why Putin saw the Maidan revolution not as just another permutation of the “color revolutions” which swept across Eastern Europe in the last decade, but as a stinging and highly offensive rebuke in the face of all that Russia done to “support” Ukraine. His actions have been highly emotional, unscripted, and highly cynical. If Ukraine is to reject Putin’s overtures, then, in the eyes of the former KGB officer, it is to have no stable government at all.

However, Putin has executed this campaign in a manner that will only serve to work against his effort to again bring Ukraine into Russia’s orbit. Chiefly, Putin’s careful choice of wording in his speech announcing the annexation of Crimea (employing the word russkii, meaning ethnic Russian, rather than rossisski, meaning a citizen of Russia), represents the reopening of the ethnic Pandora’s box which tore apart Eastern Europe in the early nineties. This, compounded by the anger of the Ukrainian people over the invasion itself, means that entire future generations will grow up seeing Russia and ethnic Russians as an existential threat. It is hard to fathom, then, how Ukraine will allow its Eastern regions to be cleaved off without kicking off a bitter insurgency. Many of Russia’s ethnic minorities, including Chechens and those in Russia’s far east, will look to Putin’s ethnic nationalism with fear and disgust. It is entirely possible that they will begin to clamor for their own separation from Russia as they feel unsafe in a country deemed exclusive for the russkii.

Though the West’s response so far has been anemic, Putin will still find Russia crippled by Western sanctions in response to his actions. Russia’s stock index, the MICEX, has fallen dramatically since the start of the crisis, and if Iran-style sanctions are put into effect, Putin will have overseen the collapse of his rentier state. And finally, any credibility Putin may have had in calling out the West on ignoring international institutions will be utterly and irrevocably lost.

It is critical to understand that most of these drawbacks will not manifest themselves in the short term. It will take some time for sanctions to bite, and hopefully the West will understand the grave threat posed by Putin. But make no mistake, the actions of the past few months will end poorly for the chekist-in-chief.

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WIMER: Putin has faced similar decisions before, and he has shown a pattern of fostering nationalism through conflict and displays of strength even at the cost of actual well-being. A poor, angry Russia actually suits his designs better than one with a rising middle class and liberal tendencies. He’s using conflict with Ukraine to tighten his grip on Russia, and turning weak sanctions into just one more example for his propaganda machine.

The specter of racism has been rising in Russia for years, fueled by Putin’s deliberate efforts to consolidate power around nationalistic nostalgia. He didn’t just insert that loaded word (Russkii) into his language because of a bitter emotional flare up. Back in 2007, in its campaign for reelection, Putin puppet candidates like Vladimir Zhirinovsky were already decrying opponents who “take money from the pocket of the working Ivan and give it to the 21

bandit Mohammed, who cuts Ivan up in pieces and buys himself a third Mercedes.” This is nothing new.

So why would Putin fuel ethnic conflict? To understand this we have to go back to before the 2007 elections, when the far-right was his biggest challengers. What better way to maintain power than by co-opting the opposition? Back in 2005, Dmitry Rogozin had been barred for agitating against immigrants, but by 2007 he was campaigning for Putin’s United Russia party with those same messages. Ethnic wars, so long as they are short and victorious, have become a key tool to unite the majority of Russia’s population around a common enemy, further reinforcing the Russian identity by defining what it isn’t. It has worked from when France consolidated over the bodies of Huguenots to Russians today forming all white, “pure” towns like Khotkovo, which kicked out its foreigners in 2007.

Breakups a la Yugoslavia won’t happen under Putin’s reign either. Ethnic Russians compose 81 percent of the population and the next largest group (Tatars), only 3.7 percent. Yugoslavia was 36 percent Serb, 20 percent Croat, and 9 percent Bosnian according to its 1981 census. And even Yugoslavia didn’t disintegrate until its order-keeping dictator Tito passed. Remember that, even with the population fully behind them, Chechnyan rebels were crushed easily, serving as nothing more than a tool for Putin’s nation-building. All dissenting ethnic groups can do in response is provide another opportunity for a short, victorious war. Putin wouldn’t hesitate if provoked.

As to those threatened minorities who leave? They can’t flee West thanks to sanctions restricting property ownership there, neither can they keep their money offshore. As to other places to take your money and run, most aren’t as secure as Russia. So big money will stay put. Migrant labor, sadly, is all too easy to replace.

With oil prices ever rising and an army of willing buyers to grab the goods we refuse to buy, any trade restrictions will be trivial. And any restrictions on travel will actually feed into Putin’s narrative of a Russia besieged, of Western forces maliciously attacking it. After all, Putin can argue, “Where were the sanctions when the United States invaded Iraq?” The United States was not sanctioned, they have armies. This is also why international legitimacy is something that Putin has already shown he is prepared to lose. I doubt any Western power has seriously listened to his perpetual UN objections for years now. He is courting his own alliances, and countries like China or Iran, to name the biggest of many anti-Western leaning countries, could care less about a UN thumbs up.

But we should remember that a stable country or an economically successful one, are irrelevant to Putin’s goals. The consolidation of his power gains only from the image he fosters, which is why he was popular before the economy even gained steam, and this grab for Crimea has strengthened his power. The people may make him pay yet, but Crimea won’t help them step in that direction.


RIMLAND: Eric has made some great points in his essay—indeed many I agree with. While there are certainly problems in accepting at face value opinion polls conducted in an autocratic society where dissent is frowned upon (even if the collection methodology is sound), there is little doubt that Putin’s actions have been enormously popular among most Russians. And finally, sanctions on individuals are just as toothless as Eric asserts they are. The many comments and jokes had by Putin and his acolytes over Western travel bans and asset freezes suggests that they matter little. But Eric is dead wrong on two counts: that America needs Russia more than Russia needs America, and that sanctions on the whole are ineffective.

Let’s start with the first point. To argue that Russia, a middle-income rentier state, is somehow in a position to bring the United States, a high-income post-industrial state, to its knees is ludicrous. A whopping 1.2 percent of American imports come from Russia, and while most of that is oil, America’s surging energy industry is on track to make the country energy self-sufficient in the coming decades. The vast majority of Russia’s other exports to the United States include metals, gems, and rubber—in other words, raw materials. Currently, the only major economic concern stemming from the deep freeze in US-Russian relations is space cooperation, as many American rockets use Russian engines and NASA currently farms out many of its launches to the Russian space agency. However, given the breakneck pace of development in the private American space industry, this is unlikely to be an issue for long.

It is instead Russia which needs the United States, and desperately. Primarily, this need stems from the unfettered access currently enjoyed by Russian companies to the American financial system. Gazprom and Rosneft, the Russian national natural gas and oil companies, do their business in dollars and euros. Depriving them of access to the American and Western financial system, which could be accomplished with the stroke of a presidential pen, would be a tremendous blow to the Russian state and its coffers.

This brings us to the second point, the efficacy of sanctions as a whole. I do concede, as I mentioned earlier, that sanctions on individuals can be ineffective. And surely, as I’ve written elsewhere, I do wish that the West would take a stronger and more focused response to Russia’s military bravura. Finally, there is general acknowledgement that there is little stomach (at least in Europe) for sweeping sanctions on Russian industry. But, such sweeping sanctions were what drove the election of President Hassan Rouhani in Iran and his desire to reintegrate Iran into the global system after years of isolation.

Ultimately, however, the question does arise: Are sweeping sanctions the most effective way of accomplishing Western political objectives in the near-term? The answer is no, as sanctions are much more effective in the longgame than the short. But, the recent deployment of 600 American troops to Eastern Europe, along with an air force wing of F16 fighters, is a more reassuring reminder that the West is slowly beginning to take Putin’s threats seriously, and will ensure that he will come to regret them.