Nicholas Ross Smith: Putin's gambit will hasten Russia's decline

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The action in Crimea is unlikely to begin World War III. Photo / AP
The action in Crimea is unlikely to begin World War III. Photo / AP

The incredible events in Ukraine over the past weeks, culminating in Russian military action in Crimea (part of Ukraine's sovereign territory), has exposed not only the weakness of the European Union and the largest Western European powers but also the unwillingness of the United States to continue to act as the omnipresent "sheriff" of international affairs.

Consequently, media commentators and scholars have written at length about Putin's out-foxing of the West in which he is argued to have rightfully calculated a weak European retort as well as the absence of a credible, US-led, military response to their brazen intervention.

Russia's decision to intervene in Crimea on March 1 certainly caught the West by surprise, despite intimations from Russia the previous week. Shockingly, it took nearly a week for the incredulity of the West to subside as it was announced that the United States, with the EU in tow, was setting the wheels in motion for potential sanctions against Russia.

Putin's calculations about the likely lack of EU capabilities to respond coherently, the reluctance of larger European powers to impose sanctions, and the non-military response of the United States have all rung true thus far. However, Putin's calculation is not the product of a strategic mastermind but rather recognition of the obvious state of international politics.

It is no secret that the United States' international dominance peaked around the time of their post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan and has been in decline since, precipitating a gradual shift towards an international political system characterised by many capable powers.

Furthermore, the EU's integration towards gaining effective military and foreign policy decision-making capabilities has stalled in recent years, preserving its status as a "hobbled giant".

Understandably, Russia's brazenness in sending troops on to a sovereign territory has elicited fears of another Cold War or worse, World War III. In the case of the former, the clear Russia-US division over Ukraine is reminiscent of the political and ideological battles waged between the two during that period.

Regarding the latter, the parallels between Russia's justification for intervening in Crimea and that of Nazi Germany in their intervention in Sudetenland in 1938 are plain to see; both loosely based on protection of citizens. However, while both comparisons are interesting, they overlook the crucial context which underpins Russia's action.

I strongly argue that Putin's action in Ukraine is not precursory to a new Cold War or World War III but the actions of a desperate man who has run out of options in Ukraine, the unquestionable jewel in his foreign policy crown.

The indirect restoration of the Soviet Union, through promoting his pet project the Eurasian Union, has proved to be the key facet of Putin's foreign policy doctrine. Failure to convince Ukraine to join this union, firstly through incentives and later through coercions, ultimately led to this last ditch attempt.

Russia's geopolitical aims in Ukraine surely rest on securing a pro-Kremlin outcome; either the reinstatement of Viktor Yanukovych (or emergence of another pro-Russian regime) or in the worst case scenario, annexation of Crimea and potentially Eastern Ukraine. Yet, already, a situation has arisen where the long-term costs for Russia will likely outweigh the benefits.

The shocks taken by the Russian rouble and Russian stock market in the wake of the Crimean intervention has cost Russia as much as $60 billion, including $12 billion in reserves, which incidentally surpasses the $51 billion Russia spent on the Sochi Winter Olympics. Indeed, such numbers should be taken with a grain of salt given that the Crimean crisis has also raised the price of crude oil, providing sustenance to Russian coffers.

However, while oil and gas have given Russia an advantage over the West, as well as providing economic relief, the volatility inherent to being a resource-dependent emerging market, coupled with long-term sustainability issues, renders the outlook for Russia extremely bleak. Russia is a sinking ship and only radical modernisation of the economy, such as diversification away from resource-dependency and attracting foreign direct investment, can possibly save it.

Consequently, Putin's increasingly aggressive actions in Ukraine over the last few months have arguably hastened Russia's decline. As the costs rack up and the dependency on resource exports rises, along with the potential ostracisation of Russia in the international community, Russia will probably come to regret the heavy-handed tactics in Ukraine.

A strategy focused on growing the EU-Russia-Ukraine triangle, although not lending itself to Putin's firebrand nationalist and great power rhetoric, would have been the prudent option, particularly given the mutual interests of all parties to do so. However, Putin's Soviet revitalisation project has taken priority over sound foreign policy. Does he forget that the collapse of the Soviet Union was brought about, in part, due to economic failure? While Putin revels in his supposed geopolitical success in Crimea, one cannot help but think that future analyses will point to this as a key moment when it all went wrong.

Nicholas Ross Smith is a PhD student at the University of Auckland's department of politics and international relations. His PhD topic is EU-Russian competition in Ukraine.

- NZ Herald

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