Thursday, 6 March 2014

Putin: tactical genius, strategic failure

Who do you think you are kidding Mr Putin?

The west is disarray, uncertain as to how to respond to the Kremlin's carefully planned aggression aimed at breaking up Ukraine. It looks increasingly likely that Putin may win Crimea, maybe other bits of eastern Ukraine. But so what? He's played out his last good cards, he has precious little in reserve. At its heart, his long-term game plan lacks any goal other than maintain Russian (read post-Soviet, read Putin+pals) power for as long as possible. Why? For power's sake, not for sake of the prosperity and well-being of ordinary Russians or their neighbours.

Russia is a hollow giant. Other than raw materials it has little to sell to the West in terms of things or ideas. It is imploding demographically, it is faced with tumult from its Muslim republics, it is collapsing in terms of infrastructure. Its biggest long-term threat is not from the West, but from China, which is eyeing the resource-rich lands across the Amur. China's population density is 141 people per square kilometre, Russia's is but eight. China needs lebensraum and raw materials; will Russia be ready, willing or able to defend Siberia, several time zones away from the Kremlin?

With the West less dependent on Russian energy (shale gas, LPG, renewables, investment in energy saving), the Kremlin will have less of a throttle-hold over its western neighbours.

An economy based on the extraction of raw materials is unsustainable in the long term. Where's the innovation? What happened to Medvedev's silicon city? You can't create successful innovative clusters by diktat. Putin's dream of a Eurasian Union to rival the EU is another sham; a cosy bunch of dictators denying civil liberties to their own peoples is hardly a vision of lofty ideals to rival that of Schumann and Monnet

Putin has shown his true face to the world, to those willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. The massive slump in his trustworthiness as perceived by the West will hit the Russian economy hard in the long term. It will further hit Western firms' willingness to invest in Russia. It has hit the rouble, it has hit the Moscow stock markets. And Russia's crude disinformation services, be they Russia Today TV channel or the army of online commentators posting bogus comments on English-language news media have been exposed and held up to ridicule; doubts have evaporated. The work of the 40-rouble army will no doubt be seen again on the forums, message boards and comments sections of British media in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum and indeed an referendum on the quitting the EU. Watch out for bogus Scots Nats and Ukippers.

For young Ukrainians, continuation of the Soviet Union under a different name means an end to any dreams of a decent life for themselves at home. It means more of the same; victory of might-is-right over decency and fairness. A Ukraine that's still a puppet of the Kremlin is one that needs to be kept corrupt, with feeble institutions and controlled media. It cannot be another way.

It is in particular the young Ukrainians that are hungry for change; they look over the border at their counterparts in Warsaw, Budapest or Bratislava and see a model of how they'd like to see themselves. The generation that was born in an independent Ukraine rather than the USSR has an entirely different outlook than the children of the war veterans that parade around in their bemedalled Red Army uniforms. And in between, a generation of 30- and 40-year-olds who've seen the last two decades of their lives stolen by venal politicians.

The true Putin has come out of the shadows, not the genial host of the Sochi Olympics or the conciliatory statesman at Westerplatte in September 2009 but a darker figures bereft of any redeeming features.

Whatever the outcome - and I hope it is a peaceful one maintaining Ukraine's integrity - young people in Russia will look at what happened in Kiev's Maidan from November to February and consider how long they will put up with the way things are.

A final point to consider: if Russia is indeed so great, with such a great future - why are its wealthy elites getting their money and their children out of the country? Russia is like a colonial empire in reverse - ransacking its own natural resources and taking the cash out. Putin's elite live the life of colonial masters - abroad. See this article about Yanukovych's stash.

This time two years ago:
Socialist Realist architecture in late winter sun

This time three years ago:
The Cripple and the Storyteller - part II

This time four years ago:
The station with no name
[update: W-wa Dawidy station got its sign last autumn]

This time five years ago:
Lenten thoughts on motoring

This time six years ago:
Flowers, spring - already

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