Putin's biggest blunder

Russian President Vladimir Putin's adventurism in Ukraine is likely to end in strategic disaster for Russia, writes Robert G. Patman, of the University of Otago.

Amid the growing clamour in Washington that the Obama Administration project strength towards the Ukraine crisis, several key points are being obscured.

First, the option of America acting like a Cold War great power is over.

The global context of the 21st century is fundamentally different from the Cold War era.

If the events of 9/11 or the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 demonstrated anything, it is extraordinary national power alone does not guarantee security or diplomatic influence in the world.

The diffuse process of globalisation has accelerated to the point where challenges in the security, economic or environmental spheres cannot be resolved unilaterally by any sovereign state.

This constraint applies not only to the US, the world's only superpower, but also to rising powers in the international system such as China and India.

Second, and not unrelated, President Vladimir Putin's adventurism in Ukraine is likely to end in strategic disaster for Russia.

On the surface, Mr Putin's swift annexation of Crimea and growing involvement in eastern Ukraine has been a rousing national success.

Many Russians are applauding Mr Putin as a hero who stands up to the West and is prepared to use military force to assert Russian interests and rights in ''near abroad'' countries like Ukraine. Mr Putin has seen his popularity in Russia soar and recent polls indicate his personal approval ratings have surged above 70%.

Winning at home matters to Mr Putin. His government's crackdown on independent media organisations, the systematic harassment and arrest of political opponents, and the growing restrictions on unauthorised protests and demonstrations all point to Mr Putin's utter determination to be Russia's ''strong man''.

Mr Putin has behaved as if he is leading the old Soviet Union rather than a post-communist Russia, which has a big stake in an interconnected global economic orderIn particular, Mr Putin has overlooked - or at the very least discounted - the economic, political and diplomatic costs of his actions in Ukraine.

Even before the Russian intervention in Ukraine, the Russian economy was struggling. In 2013, economic growth was a modest 1.8%.

Now, as a result of intensifying US and EU sanctions, Moscow faces the prospect of negative growth in 2014 and a looming economic crisis.

Russia's former finance minister Alexei Kudrin said sanctions could cost up to $160 billion in capital flight alone.

Last Friday, the Standard and Poor's credit agency cut Russia's credit rating for the first time in more than five years, citing a capital outflow of $70 billion this year and a growing risk to investment.

Mr Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev seem to believe Russia can protect itself against Western sanctions by strengthening economic ties with China. But China is not going to jeopardise its two biggest export markets, in the US and EU respectively, to please the Kremlin.

Besides, China knows that technologies and business are too globally intertwined to divide the world into economic blocs.

At the same time, Mr Putin's intervention in Ukraine is a geopolitical disaster.

It is creating the very situation the Kremlin most feared. US and EU support for the interim government in Ukraine has massively expanded in the face of the Russian threat.

The recent visit of US Vice-president Joe Biden to Kiev highlighted the new American commitment.

Meanwhile, Nato, no doubt pressed by anxious East European members such as Poland, is actively strengthening its presence in the region around Ukraine.

It is ironic, given Mr Putin's strong opposition to Nato, that the Kremlin's heavy-handed approach towards Ukraine has now raised the real possibility that politicians in Kiev could pursue Nato membership for Ukraine in the future.

Furthermore, Mr Putin's Ukraine stance has left Russia diplomatically exposed and virtually isolated - 13 of the 15 members of the UN Security Council voted in March to proclaim the Crimean referendum facilitating Russian annexation was invalid. Only Russia voted against, while China abstained.

This was followed by a UN General Assembly vote in which 100 states supported a resolution calling Russia's annexation of Crimea illegal.

And with Russia deepening its military involvement in eastern Ukraine, and apparently condoning actions such as the recent detention of eight Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe observers, Moscow's global reputation will decline even further.

Mr Putin's regime has shrugged this off by saying many countries do not understand the Russian position while others such as the US and the EU are simply hostile and want to keep Russia weak.

Recent talks in Geneva between Russia, the interim Ukrainian government, the US, and the EU briefly raised hopes for a diplomatic solution when it was agreed that pro-Russian groups should leave Ukrainian government buildings they have occupied.

But the Geneva accord now appears to be dead. The Putin Government has since threatened to send its army into eastern Ukraine to prevent the interim government using force to evict pro-Russian groups while the Obama administration and G7 nations have pledged to significantly expand sanctions against Russia for failing to implement the Geneva agreement.

Moscow insists it has other diplomatic options, including a closer relationship with China, but Beijing has made it clear that it opposes any threat to the territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine.

So the Putin regime finds itself insisting it is right on Ukraine and much of the rest of the world has got it wrong.

Make no mistake, the economic, geopolitical and diplomatic costs of Mr Putin's muscular policy in Ukraine will bite within a matter of months and Russia is now on the verge of its biggest strategic blunder of the post-Cold War era.

Robert G. Patman is a professor of international relations at the University of Otago.

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