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Old Putin, New Tricks

By Harrison Grad
U.S.-Ukraine Foundation Volunteer
March 31, 2015

The implementation of the Minsk ceasefire in Ukraine's restless east has left the watchful world uneasy. Nominally, this peace has been a successful one, resulting in a drawback of heavy weaponry from the frontline and a reduction in armed clashes. However, the persistence of sporadic clashes between the legitimate Ukrainian government and the rebel forces of Donetsk and Luhansk, paired with the consistent flow of weaponry and "volunteers" from Russia to the Donbas, leave many skeptical about the future prospects of the Minsk agreement.

In the wake of these developments, debate has erupted between factions of the U.S. government over whether or not to arm the Ukrainian government in their seemingly inevitable fight against the rebels of the Donbas and their covert Russian backers. The Obama administration has remained ambivalent on the issue, although it has received vocal pressure from a bipartisan contingent of Congressmen who believe that the U.S. government is obliged to arm Ukraine against Putin's Soviet-era foreign policy.

On March 18, Dr. Thomas Mehlhausen, a Research Fellow with the Johns Hopkins University's American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, outlined his own strategy for the West's response to Russian aggression at his event Searching for a Strategy in the Ukraine Crisis.  Dr. Mehlhausen, being a German himself, primarily considered how Germany and other European Union countries should respond. However, many of these countries, especially Germany, face the same questions that are being debated amongst American policy makers.

To arrive at the appropriate and proportional response to such a chauvinistic foreign policy such as Putin's, it is first and foremost necessary to decipher what said policy's objectives are. Dr. Mehlhausen made it clear that he disagreed with the comparison between Putin's current strategy and Hitler's Anschluss of 1938. Instead of seeking an eventual Russian dominance of Europe, Dr. Mehlhausen believes that Putin wants to solidify a Russian sphere of influence in the "near-abroad." An essential component of this strategy is the maintenance of the "Russkiy Mir" (Russian World) ideology. Seeking to bring this ideal "World" to life, Putin will pursue a policy that lionizes him as the savior of ethnic Russians and their language. Some have compared Putin's current stance to the Brezhnev Doctrine of satellite state protectionism, and that comparison seems most apt. Appealing to the interests of the "Putin Doctrine," while still seeking the maintenance of Ukrainian sovereignty, is how Dr. Mehlhausen believes the West will develop a winning strategy.

To draft his approach towards Russia and Ukraine, Dr. Mehlhausen combined elements of both Polish and German foreign policy in the region. German foreign policy before the crisis erupted was a strategic one that focused on European cooperation with Russia. Polish foreign policy distrusted Russia, and saw the Polish existence as contingent upon its successes in containing Russia and building an occidental partner out of Ukraine. Both policies had their fallacies, and the proposed stance seeks to combine the best elements of both.

The strategy comprises three parts: De-escalation, widening the cost-benefit gap, and solidifying the resilience of the European Union. The first point, de-escalation, is pulled from the German perspective. Put simply, it is how Dr. Mehlhausen envisions the West bringing President Putin to the negotiating table-by giving him a little leniency. Perhaps the most familiar point that was adopted from the Germans was Mehlhausen's objection to sending lethal arms to the Ukrainian government. On this point, he said that if anything, more young Russian men that will die at the hands of Western weapons, and it will give Putin more martyrs with which to convince the Russian public (which needs little more convincing) of his righteousness. Indeed, the propaganda value seems astronomical.

Another stratagem that Dr. Mehlhausen believes will needlessly escalate tensions with Russia is Ukrainian NATO and/or EU membership. He cited statistics that stated, overall, 38% of Ukrainians would favor joining NATO, and 36% of Ukrainians saw NATO membership as "not acceptable." On joining the EU, 52% were in favor, with 26% against. From what he could tell, Ukrainian membership in these two institutions would only feed more fuel to the fire of civil unrest and the heterogeneity of Ukrainian identity. He therefore suggested that neutrality may be the best bet for maintaining whatever unity was left between east and west.

On a similar note, Dr. Mehlhausen suggested that the conflict could be further de-escalated by reassessing the EU's Eastern Partnership, the EU's official venue through which it discusses travel, trade, and other matters with its neighbors to the east, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. As you might have guessed, these countries fall squarely in what President Putin considers a Russian neighborhood. Mehlhausen suggests depoliticizing this Eastern Partnership, one of the stipulations of which requires the Eastern Partners to gradually adopt democracy and liberal values. The spread of Western ideals in Russia's former sphere of influence serves as little more than an existential threat to Putin's ideal of a "Russkiy Mir." If the Partnership were depoliticized, and the countries involved in the Eastern Partnership are allowed to stay as they are, without a shift towards Western liberalism, then the thought is that Russian nationalists will not feel as threatened by Western hegemony, and will hopefully cease this tantrum they have been outsourcing to Ukraine's east.

A policy that both the Germans and Poles have employed is one of what Dr. Mehlhausen called "widening the cost-benefit gap." In other words, undertaking measures that will lead to the conflict's end with as little loss incurred by either side as possible. The two measures that Dr. Mehlhausen proposes under this approach are visa liberalization and free trade, and further economic sanctions. One of the issues that Putin has envisioned in the past was "a harmonious economic community stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok." Without the President's flowery language, he seeks an integrated and free market across Europe for Russians to tap into. The benefits, Dr. Mehlhausen suggested, would be a victory for both sides, and would provide the potential to subversively undermine Russian propaganda through the spread of Western values. However, the deficits of such a proposal seem far more concrete than the abstract benefits. While Putin may not be Hitler, giving him a free market to exploit after covertly invading a portion of another country is hardly better than handing over the Sudetenland. Furthermore, the idea of a free trade zone across Europe seems to be in direct contention with Dr. Mehlhausen's second method for widening the cost-benefit gap, the increased economic sanctions against Russia.

In the final component of his strategy, Dr. Mehlhausen used the Poles' more hawkish style in suggesting greater resilience in the EU. This resilience would manifest in the form of collective European energy bargaining, and in a European "solidarity fund." The collective energy bargaining would ensure that Russia could not use the same kind of energy-dependent leverage that it has used in the past, because Europe would have a unified price for gas. The solidarity fund on which Dr. Mehlhausen spoke would be a fund that would be employed to counterbalance the negative externalities that the EU might incur after sanctioning Russia. However, it is unclear how such a fund would be financed.

In all, Dr. Mehlhausen has drafted a refreshingly comprehensive plan for addressing the real threat of Russian aggression. Noting how President Putin has historically responded to force with force, he has avoided provoking the great bear much further, and has not been tempted by the ease of sending lethal weaponry that has lured many in the United States, preferring instead to focus on multi-layered incentives for the Russians.

However, perhaps the most damning obstacle that such a strategy faces is one that Dr. Mehlhausen himself addressed in his presentation: Putin has historically been a zero-sum actor. Dr. Mehlhausen's plan hopes to see the Russian calculus switch to positive-sum. Indeed, perhaps the incentives are too great for Putin to pass up. Or, perhaps Dr. Mehlhausen has fallen into the same trap that those at the German Foreign Ministry fell into before the Maidan-investing too much trust in the Russians to play ball by Western standards.

One thing is for sure, Putin is an old KGB dog, and as the world watches the fate of the Minsk agreement unfold in the coming days, weeks, and months, we will see if you really can't teach an old dog new tricks.

Harrison Grad attends The Elliot School of International Affairs at The George Washington University and serves as a U.S.-Ukraine Foundation volunteer. Opinions expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. Mr. Grad can be reached at harrison.c.gra@gmail.com.

 


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