Crisis in Ukraine, Part 2:

The Cold War Syndrome

by Branislav L. Slantchev

Comments on the developing crisis in Ukraine

April 23, 2014

As the situation in Eastern Ukraine is deteriorating by the hour, it is time to make one hard decision: how far are we prepared to go to defend the independence and, hopefully, eventual democratization of Ukraine? For one thing is clear: the way things are going now, we are looking at one of two very unpleasant outcomes: either Putin’s intimidation will succeed and the Ukrainians will elect a pro-Russian government returning the country back to the fold of greater Russia, or they will defy him, continue with their pro-Western reforms, prompting an escalation of violence in the East. Without direct Western military support, that escalation can only end with Russian occupation of these provinces, and perhaps their detachment from the country as “independent” enclaves. Either Ukraine keeps its remaining integrity and slides obediently into the Russian embrace or it gets dismembered with a rump western Ukraine heavily dependent on the West for its survival.

Can these outcomes be avoided? Possibly, maybe even probably, but for this both we – by which I mean NATO – and the Ukrainians need to brace ourselves for a dangerous confrontation for we will need to play a risky strategy if we want to keep Ukraine whole and independent. For reasons I explain below, it seems to me that the only course of action with some chance of success in that regard is for the Ukrainian government to request NATO troops to help secure the Eastern provinces. I realize how potentially explosive this action might be, provided it is even feasible on the Ukrainian government’s side, but do we, and they, really have any other options?

Why does the future presently look so bleak? For reasons I explained elsewhere, Putin is essentially engaged in a high-stakes game over the legitimacy of his regime. With no representative democracy to give voice to the multitudes and no economic prosperity (or at least visible sustained progress) to bribe them into trading off the absence of political liberty, Putin has based his rule on overcoming what I call the Cold War Syndrome, a fictitious malady said to afflict Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The diagnosis is simple: the fall of the USSR’s military shield has enabled the triumphant West to enclose Russia in a stifling encirclement, allying former republics and satellites through NATO and extending economic and political ties through membership in the European Union. Russia has been helpless in the face of this onslaught, and has been forced to retreat, abandoning places where it has had presence or influence for centuries. Not surprisingly, with the West doling out largesse to detach Russia’s former friends and allies, their economies have been Westernized too, and Russia has been hurt not merely politically, but economically as well. With its armies shrunk to second-rate power levels, and its economy reduced to exporting raw materials to underwrite Western prosperity, Russia has had to swallow one bitter pill after another. The latest Western atrocity in this narrative, of course, was the deposition of the legitimate pro-Russian Ukrainian government, and the imposition of Western lackeys in Kiev while Moscow could do nothing to prevent that.

Although this reading of history is highly tendentious, it has just enough elements of truth to make it stick, especially when the message is relentlessly pumped by media loyal to Putin. For our part, we have our own share of the blame to bear for we have been willfully blind to the hostile environment we have contributed to creating. We can discuss how wise it was to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to try to extend missile defenses to Eastern Europe, and to expand NATO to basically every European country that asked for it (some out of fear of the Russians, but others out of desire to ascend to the EU), while simultaneously pursuing economic policies that have resulted in the bandit capitalism of the oligarchs. But this is neither here nor there for right now we need to decide how to move forward.

If the Cold War Syndrome blames the fall of the USSR for Russia’s current troubles and the instability of some of its neighbors, then what is the remedy? One possibility, of course, is to abandon the narrative altogether, conduce genuine political and economic reforms that would complete the country’s stalled transition to democracy and market capitalism. Given Putin’s popularity and grip on power, there is absolutely no hope for this to happen on his watch. Given the oligarchs dependence on his regime – and not, as our sanctions strategy implicitly assumes Putin’s dependence on the oligarchs – the elites will not oust him. Given the government’s investment in its military, it is highly doubtful that the army would desert it if some pro-democratic segments of the population decide to attempt a popular overthrow. In other words, the present style of neo-authoritarianism in Russia is not going anywhere in the foreseeable future.

With meaningful reforms out of the question, the only remedy for overcoming the Cold War Syndrome must be the resurrection of the political and military clout of the Soviet Union, but this time in purely Russian form. The remedy is for Putin to invest in the armed forces and to roll back the West whenever it encroaches on Russian interests, which of course the West always does through its numerous protégés rather than directly. By restoring Russia’s power and influence, Putin could claim to rectify the economic imbalance and eventually deliver prosperity. But, in this remedy, first things first, and the first is to reassert Russian presence in its Eurasian basin. Failure to do so would invalidate the explicit and implicit promises and explanations that Putin has used to validate his regime and justify its anti-democratic and anti-market policies. Failure to do the one thing that he himself has identified as the reason for Russia’s woes would delegitimize his rule.

But if Putin’s rule is secure from internal challenges, then why should he care about its legitimacy? It is, of course, one thing to hold onto power in the face of determined opposition – entirely possible, as numerous dictators would attest – it is quite another to be perceived as a legitimate government. For although coercive rule can be stable, it can be very costly and risky to the government, which will have to devote substantial resources to enforcing compliance with its policies. The benefit of legitimacy is that it significantly reduces the need for coercion, making governance far easier and safer.

When legitimacy is based not on electoral procedures, ideology, or economic performance but on one’s ability to deploy the military and political resources of the nation in pursuit of foreign policy objectives, the government can easily be outflanked by voices clamoring that it is not doing enough. This makes Putin-style legitimacy a very dangerous motivation for it can push the government to do more simply to stay ahead of domestic critics.

Thus, Putin has to act internationally to maintain his domestic legitimacy. He has to act whenever Russian interests seem to be at stake. This is what led to the Russian interventions in Asia and the annexation of Crimea. In a sense, Putin is acting out of weakness for his regime has nothing else to rely on. Instead of making his policies wobbly, this weakness imbues them with a sort of desperation: they simply have to work for the sake of the government in Moscow. This means that Putin is very unlikely to retreat or moderate in the face of even substantial Western pressure – precisely the sort of thing that would completely ruin his legitimacy – and he is certainly not going to do so in the face of the feeble efforts we have made so far.

From this perspective, Putin’s annexation of Crimea was a triumph. He identified Russian interests there, inflamed public opinion, and then moved in militarily but peacefully to give a chance to the majority of Crimeans to declare their overwhelming desire to rejoin Russia. This he did despite clear warnings by the West that we would “do something”, and in this sense he successfully defied the West, exposed the emptiness of its threats, and the dubious security provided by Western (read “NATO”) guarantees. So why not stop here? Why continue the escalation in Eastern Ukraine?

Losing Ukraine to the West, which is how the events are viewed in Russia, is still a problem for Putin. His best bet right now is to intimidate the Ukrainians to elect a pro-Russian government. Putin’s implied promise is clear: if you do so, I will recognize it as the legitimate successor of the Yanukovich regime, I will provide the financial and economic help that it needs, and I will order my troops away from the border (and out of the country!) because Russians in Eastern Ukraine will obviously not need protecting from a pro-Russian government in Kiev. (No, Crimea will stay in Russia, I am afraid.) Putin’s not-so-implied threat is also clear: if you persist in your pro-Western ways, I will do everything we can to undermine the government, I will ruin the economy, I will foment instability until it gives me a pretext to invade the Eastern provinces.

The endgame of this threat also seems clear: given Western timidity so plainly on display in the Crimean episode and so often enunciated by all political leaders who fall over themselves to announce “sanctions” while simultaneously explicitly ruling out the use of military force, Kiev would stand alone against Moscow, and everyone knows that Ukraine cannot win against Russia. Kiev would thus either have to accept the effective dismemberment of the country as its price for relying on the West or would have to succumb to Russia after all. From Putin’s perspective, either one of these outcomes is preferable to letting Ukraine turn West unmolested.

Without military muscle, our current policies are not going to alter this fact. Putin can weather temporary financial instability and his cronies’ loss of a few billion dollars for sanctions will only play into his hands. The strategy of sanctioning Putin’s closest allies implicitly relies on an expectation that they will somehow pressure him to alter his policies; otherwise, these sanctions are empty gestures. But this expectation assumes that Putin is dependent on the oligarchs, which I think has the reality of his regime exactly backwards: the elites can enjoy their tremendous wealth only as long as they support Putin; it is they who are desperately dependent on him. This means that these sanctions have zero chance of accomplishing anything.

More extensive sanctions that actually hurt the economy will only benefit Putin because they will be sold (and seen) as the West punishing Russia for its pursuit of legitimate objectives. Annexing Crimea was the right thing to do from the Russian perspective, as would protecting Russians against Ukrainian “fascists”. Any economic suffering that the West manages to cause would strengthen Putin’s position by showing that he has been right all along. These sanctions, if they work, will have the perverse effect of strengthening his regime, which, unlike the Iranian (where some claim sanctions have been useful, in itself a doubtful assertion), enjoys widespread approval already.

Thankfully, these sanctions are quite unlikely to work anyway because the flight of investments from Russia – caused no doubt by short-term panic – is going to open golden opportunities for new investments. There is a reason the monarchs of old managed to repeatedly default on their debts and still find willing bankers: in the wake of such calamities, the rulers tend to be ever more generous in their attempts to attract investors, which means that the first to come back will be amply rewarded for breaking ranks. The West will not be able to maintain the necessary unity and discipline to impose the type of sanctions that can really hurt Russia even in the short run, let alone in the medium to long run.

All of this leads me to conclude that our current policies will not deter Putin from intimidating the Ukrainians, and if they stand firm – which, for all I know, they might – then they will have hell to pay.

The only thing that can help Ukraine now is to call Putin’s bluff for it is one thing to intimidate the Ukrainian military (some of which might in fact be sympathetic with Russia), but it is quite another to confront openly a NATO force. If Kiev wants to preserve its Western tilt and keep the post-Crimean country intact, it must request military assistance from the West, perhaps to ensure the security of elections in the Eastern Provinces. This means putting NATO troops, several thousand of them, on the ground in Eastern Ukraine with ROE that oblige them to respond to military attacks with force. This is going to be a hard sell domestically, and it is not clear to me whether Kiev has the wherewithal to pull it off. But if they do and if we recognize our responsibilities in the region and respond, then Putin will have to confront a rather less tempting choice.

He might continue to stoke provocations, but these are likely to die down rather quickly if the prospect of an overt Russian entry recedes. He might escalate by invading anyway. From the perspective of the Cold War Syndrome, such an action is quite possible and it might even be probable especially if we leave him no face-saving way out. Given the sizeable proposed NATO force, this invasion will have to be overt, with sufficiently large numbers to make aggression unmistakable, and will have to involve military action against Western troops. These factors should increase support for a military response so that NATO could push these invading forces out of Ukraine. There is a risk that this can escalate into a larger war, although it seems unlikely given the limited aim of securing Eastern Ukraine. But it is a risk we will have to run: one cannot expect to gain something by risking nothing in the type of high-stakes game we are playing. Even if we prevail peacefully and he backs down – which I think is the most likely outcome – it will be a blow to his legitimacy and prestige, which means that we will have to brace ourselves to deal with a revisionist Russia for years to come.

Is this a price we want to pay? After all, the alternative is to abandon the Ukrainians – if not explicitly, then de facto by continuing rounds of empty sanctions and even emptier rhetoric -- and then let even these die out in the name of securing Russia’s cooperation on matters of international importance (the escape clause that all Western leaders have already built into their strategies quite openly) or, more realistically, in the face of the blunt reality of our inability to restrain our own financial interests. So why not let Ukraine go?

We should not let Ukraine go for several reasons. First, we encouraged them and we made promises to them. I am not going to waste time on the moral obligations we have incurred (although I happen to think they should matter), so let us look at cold interest. We have been known to abandon pro-Western attempts in Eastern Europe – Budapest and Prague anyone? – but we have better chances here provided we move first.

If we abandon Ukraine, we will not return to the status quo “ante bellum”. Instead, we will enter a new age of Russian assertiveness, a period where Putin’s regime will be stronger than ever, and where the deterrent threat of NATO will likely be degraded substantially. This will require us to embark on a costly and nebulous neo-containment of indefinite duration. If, thus encouraged, Putin miscalculates or is pushed too far by the domestic jockeying for legitimacy, we might see ourselves involved in a shooting war to protect a NATO ally in the Baltics or face the complete collapse of this alliance.

If we abandon Ukraine, Russia’s neighbors will reevaluate their relationship with Moscow, making Putin’s Eurasian dreams a reality. We shall thus have to face not only a resurgent Russia but also deal with loss of influence in the Middle and Far East. This will hamper our attempts to slow down nuclear proliferation, to stabilize countries that are breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism, and will simply make all our “friendships” more expensive as there will be another potential “friend” in the region for them to turn to. We will, to a large extent, resurrect the Cold War.

If we abandon Ukraine, the chance of meaningful domestic reforms in Russia will go to zero. Putin’s triumph will confirm him as the doubtless leader presiding over Russia’s reemergence from the ashes of the post-Soviet era. He will have overcome the Cold War Syndrome, and even the meager opposition to his rule will vanish, both because he will be emboldened to suppress it and because these opponents will be fatally discouraged by the total disengagement of the West. As Putin solidifies his popular neo-authoritarian regime, our relationship with Russia will continue to be adversarial but the prospect of improvement will disappear beyond the horizon because Russian politics will become even less democratic.

Pushing back now is risky, and it will antagonize Russia. The effect on Putin’s regime is harder to predict because on one hand it will be yet another piece of evidence of Western hostility – which will work for him – but on the other hand it will be a conspicuous policy failure for him – and will so work against him. Although Putin will doubtless ride this out, it might be a while before he gambles again. As usual when it comes to Russia, time is our only hope for any permanent normalization of relations can only come from internal reforms there, and given Putin’s hold in the Kremlin, these can only come with time.

Branislav L. Slantchev
Professor of Political Science
University of California, San Diego