Putin may pay heavy price for Crimea moves
By Paul Richter | Tribune Washington Bureau (MCT) | Published: March 15, 2014
WASHINGTON — Supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin expect to savor victory as residents of Crimea vote Sunday on splitting from Ukraine. But Western officials and analysts increasingly feel that in the long run, Russians will come to see their nation’s military and political move into Crimea as a mistake.
Two weeks after Russian forces entered the peninsula en masse, Russia’s stock market and economic data have started to signal trouble — the start of what could become a lasting pullback by foreign investors. That would badly hurt Russia’s efforts to modernize and diversify its economy.
At the United Nations and other international forums, the number of countries supporting Moscow’s strong-arm action has shrunk close to zero. Even China, which frequently sides with Russia on international issues, has turned sour.
Nor has Putin succeeded in splitting the Western coalition and stopping U.S.-led efforts to impose sanctions in retaliation for the seizure of Crimea. Instead, his strategy seems to have driven the alliance together while frightening countries on Russia’s borders into closer cooperation with the United States and Western Europe.
The clearest indication of how Putin’s action may be backfiring came Thursday when German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had been the foremost advocate for a soft line, shifted position and warned Moscow of a possible new East-West division that could “massively damage Russia, economically and politically.”
Other world powers have been unpersuaded by Putin’s arguments that military action was necessary to protect the majority ethnic Russian population in Crimea from Ukraine’s interim government in Kiev. The new Ukrainian government took over from a Russian ally, President Viktor Yanukovich, last month in what the Russians call an illegal coup but which most other countries have recognized as legitimate.
“This looked like an old-fashioned land grab from the 18th century” to many governments, said Francois Heisbourg, a former French diplomat in Paris who is chairman of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “He’s breaking even the rules of the Cold War with this.”
China, which usually follows the Russian lead at the United Nations, has been notably silent on the move. The Chinese dislike the precedent of letting separatist-minded regions vote for independence, something they have spent years blocking in Tibet and other areas.
Belarus, which hews closely to Russia’s line, signaled its ambivalence by recognizing the government in Kiev.
Russia’s isolation was vividly illustrated Saturday when it cast a lone vote to veto a U.S.-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution declaring the Crimea referendum illegal. Thirteen security council members voted for the resolution, and China abstained.
Perhaps most ominous for Russia are signs of an economic pullback.
The most harmful effects “may not be from other governments’ sanctions, but from the gradual deterioration of an economic situation that is already weakening,” said Blair Ruble of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Russia has long sought to diversify its economy, which now depends heavily on energy. Moscow has hoped to add new centers of technology and innovation. But the Crimea seizure “has left the impression that Russia is an unreliable partner,” Ruble said.
Since Putin sent troops into Crimea on Feb. 28, the ruble has hit record lows, the stock market has fallen about 20 percent and many economists have slashed their 2014 growth forecasts.
Many of Putin’s supporters in Russia won’t feel the stock market slide, of course. In the short term, the annexation of Crimea and threats of retaliation from the U.S. and Europe might strengthen domestic support for Putin, who already has public approval ratings around 60 percent.
Over the longer term, however, a weakened economy probably will eat into his public support, analysts say.
Moscow’s strategy since the invasion has been to try to divide the European Union’s few assertive countries from the many that didn’t want to tangle with the Russians because of concern about damaging their own fragile economies.
Russia has signaled that it could cut off gas exports on which much of Western Europe depends and retaliate against sanctions with financial punishments of its own. It has mobilized tanks and troops near Ukraine’s borders, reawakening fear of a new East-West military confrontation.
How real the Western threat of sanctions will be remains to be seen. Broader-gauge sanctions “are still in a discussion stage” within the European Union, a Western diplomat said, speaking anonymously to comment on negotiations. Merkel, despite her tough language, will remain under pressure from German business and labor groups to not inflict penalties that would harm Germany’s economic relationship with Moscow.
How far the confrontation goes will depend, in part, on whether Russia’s advance stops with Crimea. Because the region was part of Russia until 1954, when it was transferred to Ukrainian jurisdiction by the Soviet Union, other countries may eventually be willing to accept Moscow’s control of it.
But a Russian move into cities of eastern Ukraine that have large numbers of Russian speakers would seriously escalate the conflict. In recent days, Russia has conducted military maneuvers in its border regions a short distance from Ukrainian cities, including Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest urban area.
Some analysts also foresee the possibility of a sanctions escalation, perhaps driven by Congress’ bipartisan passion for such penalties. Russian officials are warning that they could retaliate by suspending their cooperation on nuclear arms control agreements.
At the same time, Russia’s aggressive moves have harmed its interests elsewhere along its borders, pushing Eastern European members of NATO, including Poland and the Baltic nations of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, to ask for stronger military support from the United States. Countries with large ethnic Russian minorities, including the Baltic states, are especially alarmed.
Some Republican senators are demanding that the Obama administration revive plans for a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic that Russia loathed.
Adding to Moscow’s burdens, the moves on Crimea would saddle it with the cost of taking care of the peninsula, an impoverished region that depends on Kiev for water and power. And the actions have stiffened resistance among most Ukrainians to Russian domination.
As recently as this summer, a public opinion survey by Gallup showed that 17 percent of Ukrainians viewed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a source of protection, 29 percent saw it as a threat and 44 percent were neutral. Most analysts believe that public opinion in the country has now swung more heavily toward alliance with the West.
A change of Ukraine’s conflicted feelings about its Russian neighbor may be another long-term cost that Russia will suffer from Putin’s tactics, Ruble said.
“He may forever have a large and hostile Ukraine right on his border.”