Sunday, February 22, 2015

Putin the Improviser

Andrew Weiss had an illuminating piece in Friday's Wall Street Journal, proposing that Vladimir Putin isn't working a fiendish, chess-like plan, but, rather, he's furiously improvising, without rhyme or reason.
"How can the Ukrainians or dogged Western leaders such as Ms. Merkel possibly search for a diplomatic solution if they are dealing with a leader who is making it all up on the fly?"
Weiss presents some persuasive evidence, but the most interesting bit revealed something new to me. Putin, of course, explains his adventurism (e.g. Ukraine and Kazakhstan) as an effort to protect Russian ethnic minorities in neighboring countries. As Weiss points out, he's been "cloaking himself with language seemingly lifted from former Serbian strongman Milosevic’s playbook." But it turns out that this represents a complete about-face for Putin.
"That turnaround could hardly have been more striking: Throughout his time as president or prime minister, Mr. Putin had consistently avoided playing to ethnic-based nationalism. He seemed well aware that ethnic chauvinism could bring havoc to the multiethnic Russian state—and could alienate prospective members of a proposed Eurasian Union that he touted as the main project for his third term in the Kremlin."

Against this backdrop, Mr. Putin’s efforts look more like a short-term tactical play than a carefully considered embrace of an ethnocentric approach to defending Russia’s declared interests in its neighborhood. Mr. Putin’s nationalist credentials have never been terribly strong. Before the Ukraine crisis, many prominent Russian nationalists openly despised him for creating a political regime...[with] an inner circle that contained relatively few ethnic Russians and an expensive, unseemly co-dependency on a ruthless, violent Chechen warlord named Ramzan Kadyrov (whose countrymen seem to be playing an important supporting role in the fighting in eastern Ukraine). Just a few years ago, one of the most powerful grass roots political activities in Russia was a nationalist-led campaign entitled “Stop Feeding the Caucasus,” which had clear racial overtones.
An entire world of scholars, pundits, journalists, and politicians is "struggling to explain the thinking of the man who, almost single-handedly, seems to be dragging much of the West into a new Cold War." And while it's hard to find much fault with Weiss' portrait of Putin as an erratic opportunist, in the end, I suspect even this "No Plan" Plan is overly reductive.

Putin finds himself in a convoluted position as neo-czar presiding over a plunging economy, pitted against legions of bitter enemies, and laden with a flagrant criminal history leaving him without a viable exit strategy/retirement plan. Even in the best of times, Russian politics is insanely complex, and there's an awfully fine line between high complexity and chaos. So I suspect the answer is that Putin has found himself working both sides of that fence.

One last particularly delightful vignette:
"Mr. Putin had...[staked] significant personal prestige on keeping the hapless (Ukrainian president] Mr. Yanukovych in power, thanks largely to perhaps as much as $20 billion in financial support and gas-price incentives.

Mr. Putin later conveniently accused Western governments of double-crossing him and orchestrating Mr. Yanukovych’s removal. But the truth was that Mr. Putin had only himself to blame for backing a leader who simply panicked when the going got tough. (Mr. Yanukovych’s loss of nerve should not have come as a total surprise; there is a memorable video of him collapsing in a heap on the campaign train in 2004 after being hit in the chest by an egg, which he mistook for an assassin’s bullet.)"

UPDATE: I asked Nina Khrushcheva ‏one of my favorite Russian pundits (and Khruschev's grandaughter and's complicated), for her comment on the article. Her response:

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