Sunday, March 16, 2014

How Putin Makes America Look Good

Not long ago, America was having a lot of bad hair days in foreign affairs.  The war in Iraq ended without stirring speeches or victory parades.  The war in Afghanistan is winding down, but won't have a prettier conclusion.  America led from behind in Libya and messed up in Benghazi.  Then, America led from even farther behind in Syria and, not surprisingly, got an aviary flip from the Assad regime when President Obama objected to the use of poisonous gas.  To avoid being totally blown off by a two-bit tin pot dictator, the Obama Administration had to work with Vladimir Putin's autocracy for a face-saving compromise that still isn't near full implementation.  America's grand strategy of pivoting toward Asia has floundered as extremism of numerous varieties keeps provoking eruptions in the Middle East and Europe.

Now comes Vladimir Putin--let's call him Vlad the Invader--who puts the shine on the United States.  Using the most transparently farcical of pretexts, Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine.  Okay, so there was a referendum in Crimea as to whether or not to "validate" the Russian land grab.  But with thousands of Russian troops "guarding" the polls to ensure "integrity" to the voting process, we knew how the vote would turn out before the polls opened.  There is nothing America can do to prevent Russia's annexation of Crimea, just as there was nothing America could do to stop Putin's 2008 land kleptomania in Georgia.

But America can and will react.  The EU will talk a lot--and then talk some more.  It will issue a few condemnations and maybe even an excoriation.  But sanctions?  Well, let's talk some more. 

America's sanctions will be primarily economic.  And Russia will respond in kind.  America's economic interests will suffer.  But Russia's economic interests will suffer more.  Not necessarily in terms measured by dollars (or rubles), but in terms of relative pain.  Russia has a much smaller and weaker economy than America.  And Russia's economy is growing slower, with continued prospects for slow growth.  Crimea requires significant subsidies, which will further drain Russia's resources, along with the added cost of all the military "exercises" the Russian Army is staging with walking distance of the Ukrainian border.  From a strategic standpoint, Russia's nuclear arsenal is a match for America's.  But Russia's economic arsenal is far weaker.  And Russia's energy customers and trade partners will look elsewhere for supplies and opportunities, not wanting to give leverage to a bully with a powerful military.

The Cold War was primarily an economic struggle.  America and the Soviet Union engaged in a 50-year competition to build to the most advanced and powerful military.  Arsenals cost money, and America's vastly greater wealth left the Soviet Union moribund, unable to deliver prosperity or even anything approaching a First World standard of living for its citizens.

As America and Russia swap sanctions, it is important to keep in mind that, realistically, the goal isn't to force Russia out of Crimea.  That won't happen.  The goal is to turn the crisis into an opportunity to make America once again the world's shining beacon of freedom and democracy.  America's sanctions, although likely to be ineffectual in terms of sending Russian troops back to the barracks, will contrast sharply with the EU's decrepitude, and the near silence from the Asia.  As an ironic consequence, America's influence around the world, and especially in the periphery of Russia's borders with many former members of the Soviet Union and former Soviet satellite states, will likely grow.  After all, no one likes a bully.  The bottom line is Putin has made America stronger.

The outcome of the looming war of sanctions is difficult to predict with precision.  But the advantage lies with America and its great economic strength.  Germany and Japan won the early rounds of World War II.  The Soviet Union won most of the early rounds of the Cold War.  But we know how those stories ended.  Even if Putin will be able to feel like a studly fellow for a while, time isn't on his side.  Keep the faith.

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