Thomas L. Frideman: Challenging Putin’s values

Published: Wednesday, Apr. 30, 2014 - 10:00 am

While you can talk about Ukraine until the cows come home, this story is 95 percent about Vladimir Putin and how he has chosen to define Russia’s interests. The truth is, Russia and its neighbors need a different definition of Russia’s interests. That, however, raises a series of questions: Can Moscow ever define its interests differently under Putin? If not, how do we deter him without also weakening Russia to the point of instability? And if we do induce such instability over time with sanctions, do we know what comes next and will we be better off?

I think America and the European Union have done exactly the right thing in ratcheting up sanctions on Putin, to try to stop him from destabilizing Ukraine further and preventing the presidential elections there on May 25 from producing a legitimate government. But we’d also better be ready for the consequences of success.

When we lived in a world of walls – during the Cold War era – weakening Russia was a strategy that seemed to have only upsides. But in a world of webs, a world that is not only more interconnected but interdependent, the steps we take to make Russia weaker can also come back to haunt us. When the world gets this tightly interwoven, not only can your friends kill you as quickly as your rivals (see Greece), but your rivals crumbling can be as dangerous as your rivals rising (see Russia or China).

Russia still has thousands of nuclear warheads that need to be controlled, and hundreds of nuclear bomb-designers. We need Russia’s help to control mafia crime, drug trafficking and cybercrime. And we need a stable Russia to serve as a counterbalance to China, to be a global energy supplier and to provide a social safety net for all its elderly.

The sanctions thus far will not cripple Russia, but, over time, they will sap its strength, and, if widened, will really hurt. Will Putin change? Today’s globalization doesn’t mean leaders won’t do crazy, aggressive or nationalistic things that rattle markets and seemingly defy their economic interests. Putin has already confirmed that. But it does mean that whatever price an autocrat is willing to pay for such behavior will almost always be bigger, and come faster, than anticipated.

Look how just our limited sanctions triggered a stampede by the electronic herd of global investors who have pulled more than $50 billion out of Russia this year. Standard & Poor’s just cut Russia’s rating to one notch above junk status, raising its borrowing costs. The same day, Russia’s central bank boosted a crucial interest rate from 7 percent to 7.5 percent to try to stave off a run on the ruble. Russia’s currency has lost nearly 8 percent against the dollar this year, while its stock market is off 13 percent.

Bloomberg News reported last week that: “Russia scrapped bond sales for the seventh time in eight weeks as investors demanded higher yields.” That is why S&P added that continued regional tensions could “further undermine already weakening growth prospects.”

I take no joy in seeing Russia put under economic stress, and we should be ready to consider its legitimate interests in terms of protecting its borders. But the problem today is how Putin defines those interests. It’s bogus. After all, what is Ukraine trying to do? Host U.S. nuclear missiles? No. Join NATO? No. It isn’t even trying to become a full member of the EU. It wants to sign an “Association Agreement” that would provide Ukrainian companies more unfettered access to European markets and require them to abide by EU regulations, which Ukrainian reformers believe would help drive more rule of law inside their own country and make it more globally competitive. The Ukrainians want to import EU rules, not NATO missiles!

It’s actually what Putin should be trying to do for his country, rather than trying to prevent his neighbors from associating with Europe. But Putin is focused on building the power of his state, not the prosperity of his people. And he wants total political control and the right for him and his clique to steal vast sums, while seeking out foreign devils to distract the Russian public. These are not geopolitical interests that we have to respect.

Ukraine is not threatening Russia, but Ukraine’s revolution is threatening Putin. The main goal of the Ukraine uprising is to import a rules-based system from the EU that will break the kleptocracy that has dominated Kiev – the same kind of kleptocracy Putin wants to maintain in Moscow. Putin doesn’t care if Germans live by EU rules, but when fellow Slavs, like Ukrainians, want to – that is a threat to him at home.

Don’t let anyone tell you the sanctions are meaningless and the only way to influence Russia is by moving tanks. (Putin would love that. It would force every Russian to rally to him.) If anything, we should worry that over time our sanctions will work too well. And don’t let anyone tell you that we’re challenging Russia’s “space.” We’re not. The real issue here is that Ukrainians, as individuals and collectively, are challenging Putin’s “values.”

We couldn’t stop them if we wanted to. They’ve been empowered by globalization and the IT revolution. Get used to it, Comrade Putin.

Read more articles by Thomas L. Friedman



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