Monday 3 March 2014

Putin's hand is weaker than you think

The first cold war was won by the West without the need for a full on confrontation of opposing armies. Yes, sadly millions were killed in proxy sponsored wars - but the Cuban Missile Crisis apart there was little chance of actual engagement.

In the US and UK media today there is a feeling that Putin and Russia have all the cards and the West will stand around meekly with nothing to do but shout and huff. Journalists are keen to dust down 1938 accounts of appeasement of Hitler and so forth.

Of course there is no hope of the West militarily intervening in Ukraine but what we do have, as in the first cold war, is the power of business.

Russia's budget requires a high oil price, worse it is reliant on one or two state giants to provide it with funds. The US does not need Russian Gas or Oil and neither does the UK - even Germany has reduced its reliance in recent years.

Worse for Russia, look at the rouble - the currencies fall at the end of last week handily mirrors the economic prospects for Russia. Crimea as a nationalist use and its use as the base of the Black Sea Fleet and home to holiday Dacha's. Beyond that it is of little economic use.

The idea that threats about G8 status are effete and weak are wide of the mark. Russia's corrupt and disjointed economy could ill-afford to be cut off from world markets. Putin will not be popular with his fellow oligarchs if their businesses face severe sanctions. Russia is no economic superpower and cannot win a victory except by militarily bullying the weak neighbours on its borders.


Anonymous said...

I agree. In the medium to long term the Crimeans can return to Russia but they risk looking on at the rump of Ukraine as plays catch-up with living standards to rejoin the prosperity of Poland, Slovakia and other border countries.

Still, is the EU ready to welcome Ukraine or will existing members pull up the drawbridge?

Nick Drew said...

There are other easy tricks up the West's sleeve: freezing individual oligarch assets for starters, Putin must have a mind-boggling stash somewhere and it ain't China

and they value G8 & WTO membership - would hate to be relegated to nose-against-the-window status

however in purely practical terms he can do whatever he pleases in E.Ukraine, and he has every reason for occupying it, directly or by proxy:

(a) he is no more going to let his access to the ports be at risk than we would our access to Cyprus (we saw off Turkey in 1974)

(b) he has to defend his own position, which is best done beyond his own borders than within

old military saying: if you want to defend a river-line, you must hold both banks

Electro-Kevin said...

An erudite commenter elsewhere mentions that Russia's serviceable fleet should by now be at sea - away from threats from land and facing those threats from the sea.

'Serviceable' being the operative. How many of those ships are seaworthy ?

Nick Drew said...

Kev - in 'normal' circs, a sound principle: but in this case

a. there is no threat* from landward
b. there is no threat* from seaward
c. many are barely seaworthy

[*if some rogue Ukrainian commander or politico tried his hand at (say) an artillery barrage or solo airstrike in the direction of Russian assets (which wouldn't be very difficult), the response would be so crushing as to be rather awkward all round - in practical terms the Russians have an absolutely clear hand

the West would step up its economic sanctions, no doubt, but Putin would be happy to have made a rather clear point

Russians like the Smack of Firm Government very much indeed]

dearieme said...

"the Cuban Missile Crisis apart ..,": which, alas, was principally the fault of the USA.

AndrewZ said...

A full-scale invasion of Ukraine would mean a large war with heavy casualties on both sides. To control the whole country the Russians would have to massacre thousands of civilian protestors and maintain a hugely costly military occupation for many years to come. Putin must understand that the economic, political and military costs would far outweigh any possible benefit.

The only important strategic interests that Russia has in Ukraine are preventing the emergence of a hostile power on its border and keeping control of the naval base at Sevastopol that provides the Russian navy with access to the Black Sea. The first can be done with a show of force to remind the new government what Russia is capable of. The second can also be achieved with a show of force or by annexing the Crimean peninsula. Putin probably assumes that the Ukrainians wouldn't be wiling to start a potentially catastrophic war over Crimea.

So the most likely outcome is that the two sides will reach a deal that guarantees Russian control over Crimea without officially making it part of Russia. The second most likely outcome is that Russia annexes Crimea and the Ukrainian government is forced to accept it. The least likely outcome is full-scale war

CityUnslicker said...

Andrew Z - yes those are the likely outcomes. However, the meedia today is full fo those who seem to equate the military power of Russia with the old Warsaw pact.

Whilst of course there is no challenge in the Ukraine in army stakes, there is a lot in the economics. Russia and China have common enemies, they are not friends and 90% of Russian people live closer to London than China.

ND's point about the oligarch's is well made - just as it was Ukrainian Oligarchs who agreed to get rid of Yanukovich in the first place.

Nick Drew said...

@Andrew: The only important strategic interests that Russia has in Ukraine are preventing the emergence of a hostile power on its border and keeping control of the naval base

we should interpret "interests in Ukraine" more widely than just its geography

Putin needs strategically to give to his own people (and to other bordering republics) an adroit and compelling display of just what happens in cases of revolt etc

this is all the more important because the 2008 Georgia event was not at all brilliantly handled

Bill Quango MP said...

Be careful of that 'both banks' maxim.

The battle of Fishing Creek involving the fabulously named General Zollicoffer saw him on the wrong side of his own defences.

The Russian fleet is a mid 80's navy. A warship is good for about 20 years? And can do serviceable work for another 5-10 if it has been very well serviced and maintained.

The Russian fleets haven't been.

They are better off in port as a Saddam style threat.

Nick Drew said...

@BQ - Zollicoffer must stem from the Russian Zelikova, which is pronounced pretty much 'Zollicoffer'

(when I was in Moscow the CFO of Gazprom was the rather dour Mme Irena Zelikova: when I had the temerity to suggest to her that oil-indexed gas prices gave them a rather volatile revenue stream, she replied: "een Gazprom, vwee take a feefty yurr view" - which was a rather good answer)

DJK said...

Plenty of armchair generals here today.

Bill Quango MP said...

Always! its our sub-forum!

K said...

Something that hasn't been mentioned much is that Putin pulled the same trick in Georgia: give Federal passports to ethnic Russians, provoke Georgia for a year, and then claim to be defending Russians when Georgia finally snapped. Even Western media at the time was on the side of the Russians and painted the Georgian president as a Bush lackey.

Times are different now. Ukraine failed to take the bait and the Western media is on its side.

But on a lesser scale Putin has even done similar things in the Baltic states (remember that cyber war over the statues?). Hence why Latvia and Lithuania were the first to call Nato Article 4.

So the worry is that the West gave him Abkhazia and South Ossetia and are now going to give him Crimea. Are EU and Nato membership really enough to stop him from advancing further? And is it even worth starting WWIII over somewhere like Estonia anyway?

Electro-Kevin said...

DJK - Thank goodness its armchair generals and not armchair admirals ... otherwise most of us would be sitting on the floor because there wouldn't be enough armchairs to go round (If we're talking of Royal Navy admirals that is)

hovis said...

K your point might stand if Crimea wasn't historically Russian and had not only became part of Ukraine in 1954. Everyone is playing games but if you are suggesting it's just the Russians your perspective is somewhat limited.

ecclefechan said...

Crimea is NOT historically Russian. It only became Russian after 1783. To say it's historically Russian is like saying Algeria is historically French.

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