Don’t isolate Russia | Tom Switzer

Putin currently graces the cover of Time, Newsweek, Der Spiegel and The Economist, together with a host of lesser publications. Always unfavourably of course, with the possible exception of Time where the headline is “Cold War II” and the subhead “The West is losing Putin’s dangerous game”.

In the midst of this stampede, it’s refreshing to find authors who take a longer view. Two popped up today, both writing in conservative publications and from a realist standpoint.

In “Don’t Isolate Russia” over at The American Conservative, Tom Switzer implores us to “think clearly and, if necessary, coldly, about the underlying cause of the Russia-Ukraine standoff, which sparked the military blunder.”

It [the West] has repudiated the implicit agreement between president George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990-91 that the Atlantic alliance would not extend into Eastern Europe and the Baltics, a region that Russia has viewed as a necessary zone of protection long before Stalin appeared on the scene. In so doing, the West has taken no account at all for Russian susceptibilities and interests.

For Moscow, unlike Washington and Brussels, Ukraine is a matter of intense strategic importance: it covers a huge terrain that the French and Germans crossed to attack Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries: [ . . .]

Since the collapse of Soviet communism, Western liberals and neo-conservatives have declared the demise of power politics and triumph of self-determination. But Putin’s calculations are based on an old truth of geopolitics: great powers fight tooth and nail when vital strategic interests are at stake and doggedly guard what they deem as their spheres of influence.

This is unfortunate, but it is the way the world works, and always has. Imagine how Washington would respond if Russia had signed up Panama in a military pact, put rockets and missiles in Cuba, or helped bring down a democratically elected, pro-U.S. government in Mexico.

In The National Interest, Dmitri Trenin considers Russia’s likely security strategy now that the West appears to have definitively turned against it.

Russia is learning to live in a new harsh environment of U.S.-led economic sanctions and political confrontation with the United States. More than five months after the change of regime in Kiev, which ushered in a new era in Moscow’s foreign policy and its international relations, a rough outline of Russia’s new security strategy is emerging. It is designed for a long haul and will probably impact the global scene.

The central assumption in that strategy is that Russia is responding to U.S. policies that are meant to box it in and hold it down—and back. The Kremlin absolutely could not ignore the developments in Ukraine, a country of utmost importance to Russia. The armed uprising in Kiev brought to power a coalition of ultranationalists and pro-Western politicians: the worst possible combination Moscow could think of. President Putin saw this as a challenge both to Russia’s international position and to its internal order.

Taking up the challenge, however, meant a real and long-term conflict with the United States.

This burgeoning, open-ended conflict is tragically unnecessary. Whatever one may think of Putin, Russia during his time has been a predictable actor on the international stage. The few times (such as with Georgia in 2008 and the Ukraine now) when it did come into conflict with the west shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. Its concerns were openly telegraphed well before troubles erupted.

Now, however, particularly in the wake of MH17, we in the west seem to have abandoned even the pretence of dealing with Russia as a respectable nation, much less as an equal. They are instead being treated as a pariah.

I see that as unreasonable but regardless of one’s view of Putin and Russia, dealing with anyone in this fashion is counterproductive. It merely ensures misunderstandings, heightened tensions, and a hardening of one’s opponent’s attitudes.[1]

The sanctions will not make Putin back off. He also knows that if he were to step back, pressure on him will only increase. The Russian elite may have to undergo a major transformation, and a personnel turnover, as a result of growing isolation from the West, but the Russian people at large are more likely to grow more patriotic under outside pressure—especially if Putin leans harder on official corruption and bureaucratic arbitrariness. If the Kremlin, however, turns the country into a besieged fortress and introduces mass repression, it will definitely lose.

It is too early to speculate how the contest might end. The stakes are very high. Any serious concession by Putin will lead to him losing power in Russia, which will probably send the country into a major turmoil, and any serious concession by the United States—in terms of accommodating Russia—will mean a palpable reduction of U.S. global influence, with consequences to follow in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere.

I don’t agree that any “serious concession” by the US would necessarily affect it negatively. Done well, it might actually boost their international mana; after all, concerns about its growing unilateralism have been around for awhile, not only amongst its enemies but also amongst its friends. In any case, the important point is that this risk wasn’t forced upon them, it was assumed voluntarily, much like the war in Iraq.

Aggressive steps publicly taken are usually a one-way ratchet. The cost of stepping back, particularly in a political system as dysfunctional and intensely adversarial as that in the US, is just too high. The value this simple truth ought to place on considered prudence has unfortunately yet again been cast aside in the heat of battle.

Update: David Stockman, Director of the Office Of Management And Budget (OMB) under Reagan, covers the same territory a lot less diplomatically.


1 Sometimes sweet reasonableness is no longer a useful tool, as with Hitler in the 30s. However, it would have been very useful indeed 15-20 years before when Germany and its people could still have been brought safely back within the community of nations.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Don’t isolate Russia | Tom Switzer

  1. Sacha Blumen says:

    Don, this piece in Foreign Affairs by Alexander Lukin on the potential thinking in the Kremlin is interesting.

  2. Ingolf says:


    Yes, good article. Thanks for that.

    Ingolf (not Don)

  3. paul frijters says:

    Good articles and I applaud the intentions, but the crucial point is that Russia is not a great power anymore. Its GDP (2 trillion USD a year) is barely larger than that of Australia (1.5 trillion USD a year), and its population now is about what it was in 1914 (140 million) whilst the rest of the world’s population has quadrupled. With one of its main exports (gas) coming via long pipelines that cross many territories, it is strategically very vulnerable.

    • Ingolf says:

      True enough, Paul, but is Russia as strategically vulnerable as this would suggest?

      In PPP terms, it ranks quite a bit higher, for example only a little behind Germany. Its population has stabilised in recent years after the post-Soviet slump. And, while the gas pipelines are undoubtedly vulnerable that cuts both ways and far as I can tell gas accounts for “only” about 9-10% of exports.

      More generally, it’s in a reasonable financial position with an external surplus, roughly balanced budget and small government debt. Large FX reserves arguably compensate for its substantial external debt.

      As for its military, it’s probably fair to say that if it isn’t a great power militarily, it’s damn close.

      • paul frijters says:

        other countries don’t care what a dollar buys you in Russia.

        More to the point, the key calculation must be how far Putin can push his luck in terms of hurting the economic interests of the oligarchs via international sanctions before the oligarchs unite against him and how much Putin can afford to lose face by backing down. I simply dont know enough about the internal politics in Russia to give you a good idea on this. You can be sure though that the foreign policy analysts in the major capitals of both governments and big financial conglomerates will be working overtime on those questions. The former to prevent escalation, the latter to make money.

        • Ingolf says:

          That isn’t why I brought up PPP. If things move towards war or truly punitive sanctions, the underlying economic reality becomes more important.

          I don’t know enough to judge either, Paul, but I have the impression Putin has spent a lot of time and effort trying to housetrain the oligarchs. The way things are going, we may find out.

      • conrad says:

        “Its population has stabilised in recent years after the post-Soviet slump. “

        No it hasn’t. The population is in dire straights. They’ve got low birth rates, and the only reason the population pyramid doesn’t look bad is because the males are dieing at an average age of 64 due to wide-spread chronic alcoholism and other things that lead to poor health. As a comparison, males of Aboriginal heritage in Australia live around 69 years, and many think that’s terrible.

        With these sorts of problems, this is not a country likely to keep it’s importance in the future. There real problem is not going to be the West harassing them, it is going to be what happens to large areas of their country that are basically going to be more or less depopulated.

        • Ingolf says:

          “The population hit a historic peak at 148,689,000 in 1991, just before the breakup of the Soviet Union, but then began a decade-long decline, falling at a rate of about 0.5% per year due to declining birth rates, rising death rates and emigration.[9]

          The decline slowed considerably in the late 2000s, and in 2009 Russia recorded population growth for the first time in 15 years, adding 23,300 people.[10][11] Key reasons for the slow current population growth are improving health care, changing fertility patterns among younger women, falling emigration and steady influx of immigrants from the ex-USSR countries. In 2012, Russia’s population increased by 292,400 people.[12]

          As of 2013, Russian TFR of 1.707 children per woman[5] was the highest in Eastern, Southern and Central Europe. In 2013, Russia experienced the first natural population growth since 1990 at 22,700 people. Taking into account immigration, the population grew by 294,500 people.”

    • Sacha says:

      Thanks Paul – I hadn’t realised that the non-PPP GDP of Russia was only a third larger than Australia.

  4. Persse says:

    The three articles are all illuminating enough but ignore that one of the chief protagonists is traduced by its own hypocrisy. I am mean the USA vis a vis Israel.
    I do very much hope all these events are not a full dress rehearsal to commemorate the anniversary of the First World War.

  5. desipis says:

    From Sacha’s link:

    In annexing Crimea, Moscow decisively rejected the West’s rules and in the process shattered many flawed Western assumptions about its motivations. Now U.S. and European officials need a new paradigm for how to think about Russian foreign policy — and if they want to resolve the Ukraine crisis and prevent similar ones from occurring in the future, they need to get better at putting themselves in Moscow’s shoes.

    If we’re going to reassess assumptions about Moscow’s motivations, perhaps we should do the same about our assumptions about Washington’s motivations.

  6. “… the implicit agreement between president George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990-91 that the Atlantic alliance would not extend into Eastern Europe and the Baltics …” Actually calling this “implicit” distorts the reality as it was back then. The agreement actually dates back to 1989 when the Warsaw pact was still alive back then and NATO expansion was not an option and no one seriously thought the Soviet Union and its satellite empire might fall apart so completely and so swiftly. East (originally actually Middle) Germany was another matter. For the very same reason Stalin already had offered to release East (i.e. then middle) Germany under the condition that it reunited but stayed a neutral country moving forward. Proof: he did the very same thing with Germany’s WW I ally and WW II satellite Austria two years earlier! Then the US installed an anti-ballistic rocket shield in Poland “against Iran”. The kettle calling the pot black. I fear the end of this gamble will be the demise f the dollar and the end of the US empire much as World War II was the end of British hegemony. The US took on the Russians in Afghanistan – and failed, took on the Chinese in Korea – and failed. Took them on in Vietnam – and failed. Look at Syria, Libya and Iraq. They can start a mess but never finish off. This is exactly what is termed “imperial overstretch ” and what looks eerily like the end of the Roman empire.

  7. Fyodor says:

    Difficult one to call, this.

    Either the turkey’s changed his meds or these droppings are faux fowl. The text just doesn’t scan right – too dull, insipid, insufficiently choppy (and chippy) and not nearly enough Joachim of Fiore. Score: 4/11.

  8. hammy says:

    I tried to post a link to an article on this topic on John Menadue’s blog, but it didn’t get through. I wonder why.

  9. hammy says:

    …and take out the (dot) and put in the full stop. I don’t know why the name followed by .com doesn’t work. Jacques?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *