As Ukraine heats up again, and the picture in the Middle East enmurkifies, we have to worry, how threatened does Putin feel?
Maybe Putin doesn't think in the long term because he sees only a series of short terms that he absolutely has to control.
As if the Middle East mess weren't messy enough, and as we still try to process the implications -- for both the locals and for us -- of the collapse of the long-tottering Yemeni government, and the hardly unexpected death of Saudia Arabia's King Abdullah (and the accession to the throne of yet another half-brother, King Salman, but with the naming of his nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, as deputy crown prince, the first member of the next generation of the House of Saud to stand in the official line of succession), not to mention convulsions that are felt all through the region, now things are heating up to the north, in Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists appear to be on the move. ("War Is Exploding Again in Ukraine; Rebels Vow More," the NYT head says.)
And if you don't think developments in Ukraine and on the Arabian peninsula can be closely related, think again.
Throughout the ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine (the crisis that has included Russia's legally unsacnctioned annexation of Crimea -- you remember that crisis?), Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has seemed to get his way, and to get away with murder, at pretty much every step, to the frustration of most onlookers. And through all of it, commentators who have seemed to me to have some idea of what the situation entails have insisted that each action of Putin's was all but certain to negatively impact Russia in the long term but that in the short term there wasn't much that could be done to or about him. You get the feeling that in Putin's thinking there is no long term, a short term that he needs to control in order to be in a position to control the ensuing short term, and so on.
In his post on the heating up in Ukraine, Ian Welsh has a lot to say about that link to Saudi Arabia, but he also has interesting things to say about Putin's situation and outlook. Perhaps the reason he can't afford to think in terms of a "long" term is that he's thinking even more than the rest of the world what a post-Putin Russia will look like, and he likely understands that it doesn't look good for him.
The question, then, is this: how threatened does Putin and the rest of the Russian leadership feel? Putin is unlikely to survive a leadership change for long unless it is his hand-picked heir who takes over, and maybe not even then. Many others in his government would similarly be in danger.I think the whole piece is worth a close read. I think you'll see why I've boldfaced the final paragraph.
So, the Separatists are now on the offensive in the Ukraine
2015 JANUARY 24
by Ian Welsh
Granted, I think the evidence points to significant Russian support. Nonetheless, the Ukrainian army is just embarrassing at this point.
Back in 2008 I wrote that Crimea and the Ukraine would be the next likely flashpoint, and that Russia would never tolerate any possibility of losing Sevastapol. The serious people who know how the world works told me how wrong I was—that the Ukraine and Europe and Russia were in a mutually beneficial arrangement.
But arrangements change, and Russia has always been a country with a clear view on what its strategic interests are.
So now we have an economic war against Russia and a shooting war in the Ukraine, encouraged by the Russians (and by the Americans: the first big Ukrainian offensive occurred after CIA chief Brennan visited.)
Sanctions did little to the Russian economy, but crashing oil prices did. Russian currency dropped almost exactly in concert with the drop of oil. Given the consensus that dropping oil prices so precipitously was a Saudi decision, meant in part to take out high cost unconventional oil production, but also in part to damage Russia and Iran, this can only be seen as hostile foreign action by the Russians.
Russia’s vulnerability is due to mistakes made by the Russians. The lack of diversification of the economy, and the vast corruption made Russia a petro-state, reliant almost entirely on oil revenues. Countries which need to import a great deal are always vulnerable to foreign economic action.
The question, then, is this: how threatened does Putin and the rest of the Russian leadership feel? Putin is unlikely to survive a leadership change for long unless it is his hand-picked heir who takes over, and maybe not even then. Many others in his government would similarly be in danger.
If they feel endangered, then the traditional thing to do is start a war. This proxy-war in the Ukraine may not be enough.
Keep an eye on the security of Putin’s leadership. If it starts looking insecure, the Americans will think they are close to getting what they want: a new leader, who will understand he rules only so long as they are kept happy. But it will also be the point Russia becomes most dangerous.
DWT SCHEULE NOTE: Next post at 7pm PT/10pm ET