Friday, 27 May, 2022
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How Vladimir Putin keeps everyone guessing

Over the years, Putin has always had the upper hand tactically vis-à-vis the West because he’s had what’s called escalation dominance. But experts say he may have gone a big step too far.

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The standoff between Russia and the West is growing ever more fraught, with knuckles whitening on both sides amid the buildup of troops and weapons along Ukraine’s eastern borders. The questions the Biden administration and European leaders are grappling with are: What does Russian President Vladimir Putin want, and what will he do if he doesn’t get it? In a Twitter Spaces discussion, Bobby Ghosh put those and other questions to Bloomberg Opinion columnists Clara Ferreira Marques and Andreas Kluth. This is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

Ghosh: I’ll start with a brief overview from the United States. The Biden administration is signaling it might send more American troops into Europe, to enlarge the existing U.S. presence and add to the NATO Response Force. This is intended to deter any further Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Biden seems to believe Putin will make a further incursion there — in his press conference last week, he used the phrase “minor incursion.” (He has since tried to walk back that comment.) He sees that Europe is divided on how to deal with this crisis. The White House has expressed frustration about European allies’ indecision over confronting Putin.

There are also discussions in Washington about how to respond short of actual kinetic action, about economic sanctions and restrictions.

What’s the view from Moscow?

Ferreira Marques: I won’t attempt to tell you what Putin wants. We don’t really know. Perhaps Putin himself doesn’t know.

The fact that his aims aren’t very specific will allow him to declare victory on multiple outcomes. There is some hope to be taken from that.

However, he has now placed troops and military hardware all along the Ukrainian border and in Belarus, positioning Russia to take pretty much any of the options. He could, for example, just stay in the occupied territories. He could go further and try and build a land bridge to Crimea, which would require him to take Mariupol, an important Ukrainian port city. He could go all the way to Kyiv.

Understand that, for Putin, this is not just about territory — it’s a historic issue, and also a legacy issue. His fourth term as president ends in 2024, and pressures are building up.

Ghosh: Andreas, what’s it looking like from Europe?

Kluth: For Europe, this is a nightmare. The Europeans don’t know how to deal with Putin, who stands for naked power and aggression, spheres of influence and old-fashioned realpolitik — the exact opposite of what the European Union stands for, which is, “Play nicely together in the sandbox.”

The Europeans are all talking frantically with each other. They’ve just remembered that of the 27 members of the EU, 21 are also in NATO. They’ve just remembered that they have to be really good allies and stand together. That’s going to be difficult for them, but I hope they do it. They’re nervous about failing themselves if Putin forces the West to react.

Ghosh: A point that you made in a recent column is that Europe’s ideal of unity is also a vulnerability because it requires so many to agree on one course of action. Right now, they can’t seem to find a common ground. Germany, in particular, seems to be inclined in a very different direction from the states that border Russia.

Kluth: It’s a question mark whether they’ll stand as one. Germany has a new chancellor, Olaf Scholz. Many in his party, the Social Democrats, are pro-Russia, and they’re apologists for — even appeasers of — Putin. On the far left and the far right in Germany, as in France and other countries, many are pro-Putin. But the two junior parties in Scholz’s governing coalition, especially the Green Party, have recently taken a very moralistic and principled tone, both toward China and toward Russia.

One of the co-leaders of the party last year called for sending defensive weapons to Ukraine, which Britain and other countries are doing. Germany isn’t. At least officially, because of a legacy of atonement, it can’t send weapons to war zones.

I think Germany will, in the end, do the right thing. Scholz will stare down his own party and say, “No, we have to prove that we’re good allies.” I believe that, but I don’t know it.

Then there’s France. President Emmanuel Macron caused a stir last week when he said the Europeans and Russians should talk separately. Did he mean separately from the Americans? That’s a really bad idea, so he had to walk it back.

With Macron, you always worry whether he’s thinking about the interests of the West and NATO and Europe, or about projecting French power to the exclusion of American power.

If you look at states on the frontline with Russia — basically, EU and/or NATO members like Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Finland — they are in favor of the toughest possible stance against Putin. They’re worried about additional aggression. In the Baltic Sea, the Swedes have sent troops to the island of Gotland, worried that Putin might start a distraction or a sideshow there.

And then there are other members, like Cyprus and Greece, where there’s a lot of Russian money and where they don’t feel threatened by Russia. They’re far away and have other things to worry about. And they might be inclined to bring a quid pro quo into negotiations.

It’s awkward because the EU can only act unanimously: All 27 members have to agree on a foreign policy or on sanctions. If one — Malta, say — goes the other way, we don’t have a policy.

Ghosh: Since we were talking about Europe’s vulnerabilities, how does its dependence on Russian natural gas play into its anxieties?

Kluth: Europe as a whole gets about one-third of its natural gas from Russia; for Germany, it’s more about one-half. We’ve had a bad winter and there’s been a spike in energy prices for many other unrelated reasons. But one reason is that Putin has been using this as a geopolitical tool. The supply through the pipelines suddenly drops to unseasonable lows and storage capacities fall. The price of natural gas skyrockets, then drops and again skyrockets. He’s reminding Europe, “You need natural gas — and guess who has it?

Russia has one gas pipeline going under the Baltic Sea into Germany and another under the Black Sea to Turkey and through Bulgaria into Europe. These are meant to give Putin the option of turning off the supply lines flowing through the Ukraine and Poland, depriving them of transit fees but also just cutting them off and holding them to blackmail.

Ferreira Marques: One important thing to bear in mind is that Europe’s gas demand will grow. So Russia may need the supply line through Ukraine as well the new pipelines.

Where Russia has been particularly cunning with using gas as a weapon is in keeping the storage very low. That’s where Europe has not played its cards right. Not only has it made itself extremely dependent on Russian gas, it hasn’t done enough in the way of gas storage.

Russia has prepared itself a lot better for this moment, at least economically. Some of these efforts date back to 2014, the year there was an oil crash and Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. This led to an economic crash, and the Russians do not want to repeat that.

So what they have done is de-dollarize their economy, bring debt down to among the lowest in comparable countries and central bank reserves to among the highest. Their national wealth fund has been boosted by recently high oil prices, which gives them a great fiscal cushion.

It’s also a highly centralized economy that depends on a handful of state-owned entities, which are prepared to weather pain.

Where they are much less prepared is at a household level. Russian households have really felt the squeeze because building this sort of armor-plated economy means that you are sacrificing something — and what Russia has sacrificed is growth.

Real disposable incomes in Russia are still below where they were before the Crimean incursion. The economy is projected to grow less than 2% annually, which is very, very low. There’s very little innovation: Almost all R&D spending is military, and to some extent oil- and gas-related.

And Russia remains a vulnerable economy because it still depends on oil and gas exports. So if the oil and gas doesn’t go to Europe, Russia will have to find another buyer. That may not be China, which has spent the last two decades diversifying its sources of energy, making sure it’s not in the position that Europe is today. That should at least give Putin pause.

Ghosh: I’ll make a brief digression here. Over the past few days, there’s been some speculation about whether Putin might hold off any fresh aggression in Ukraine until after the Beijing Winter Olympics, so he doesn’t upset Chinese President Xi Jinping. Is there any reason to think Putin might factor such things into his calculations?

Ferreira Marques: Putin is weighing up so many different things at this point, I would say that is probably not a prime concern for him. He’s put 100,000 troops on the border; how long does he wait? Certainly he’s not in a position where he wants to annoy Xi, so it may well be a consideration — but one of many.

Ghosh: And it’s not just troops. Putin has also put a great deal of his political prestige on the line. Can he now back down without losing with the audience at home?

Kluth: My greatest worry is that he’s gone too far. Over the past few years Putin has always had the upper hand tactically vis-à-vis the West because he’s had what’s called escalation dominance. He decides when to escalate and then we always want him to climb down. We want to cooperate, but he decides whether to escalate or deescalate. That gives him a lot of power because we, the West, can only hope to deescalate. We’ll never escalate.

And he’s been doing this all along, not just in Ukraine, but also with cyberattacks and all sorts of other things.

But he may have gone a big step too far. In December, he had his foreign ministry publish a couple of draft treaties, one for the U.S. and the other with NATO. These represented maximalist demands, including a guarantee that Ukraine and no other country will ever join NATO. That would be against the founding charter of NATO. He also wants NATO troops to be withdrawn to where they were before 1997. So he wants to turn the clock back to the Clinton-Yeltsin era.

Of course, there is no way that Biden — that anyone — could accept this. But once you put stuff like that out there, how do you withdraw those 100,000 troops and say, “Okay, just joking”? He’s parked this invasion force there. He’s made these outrageous demands. He’s got to bring home something or risk looking weak.

Ghosh: It reminds me of the dramatic principle known as “Chekhov’s gun” — if there’s a gun on the mantlepiece in the first act, then it has to be fired before the end of the third act.

Kluth: And he’s put 100,000 guns there.

Ghosh: Is there a way for Putin to back down without losing face at home? Does domestic public opinion matter since he has such control over the Russian media?

Ferreira Marques: In any authoritarian state, it’s really hard to get a good gauge of public opinion. What we know from 2014 is that there was a sort of rally-around-the-flag effect. Putin’s popularity spiked, but it’s very unclear that that would be the case this time. Now, there’s a lot of apathy. People are really struggling financially. There’s very little appetite for something dramatic and costly.

On whether he’s backed himself into a corner, I think to some extent he can claim victory already because look at what he’s achieved. He’s put himself in the news, meeting Biden and having high-level encounters with other leaders. These are big performances that are very important to Putin’s standing and how he sees himself.

So I think he can say, “Look, nobody took us seriously until now. Now they’re really taking us seriously. And look at this incredible display of military hardware and personnel. This is what we’ve done.”-Bloomberg


Also read: Joe Biden warns of ‘severe consequences’ for Russia if it moves into Ukraine


 

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