What is Putin Risking?

Today is Monday, March 10, 2014.

I’ve been thinking about what happens next should Crimea be returned to Russian territory after the coming referendum. What impact will that actually have? If the world, and especially the E.U. and the U.S. don’t stop it, is it tantamount to ‘appeasement’? After all, we’ve seen Putin march into Georgia, and the world more or less let it happen without much push back. Did that embolden Putin? Now he’s trying to take the Crimea. What’s next? All of the Ukraine? Belarus? The Baltic States? There are voices from many corners of the international political scene who are suggesting that Putin has to be punished on some level, if for no other reason but to let him know this will have serious repercussions for Russia in the future.

But what repercussions? Just what is Putin risking by moving into Crimea? Russia’s economy is not that large or stable given the size of the population. It has only been 22 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic infrastructure for existing and thriving in a global capitalist economy is not quite complete. Should the U.S., the E.U. and others put economic sanctions on Russia, it will have a long term negative effect on the domestic economy. Putin has made it clear that he supports a Eurasian Economic Union as a next phase of globalization in that part of the world. Russia stands to benefit enormously from such an economic union, and without it, Russia’s economy will develop much more slowly. His move into Georgia was bad enough, but now the situation in Crimea, which is in complete violation of Russia’s international obligations, which Putin and Medvedev signed off on, creates an atmosphere of distrust. If Russia can so easily turn its back on its international agreements, who, in their right mind, will still want to put their investments into such a country? The world markets are sensitive to perceptions, feelings and emotions, and right now, the markets will not be happy with Russia if they take over Crimea. Any resulting sanctions against Russia will have a serious impact on the Russian people and the overall domestic economy. ┬áThere may be an initial positive nationalistic response–a rallying around the Russian flag, so to speak–but it won’t take long for dissatisfaction to set in, if their economy sputters–and it will.

Although I think Putin’s military response here was an emotional and rash reaction to the February 21st agreement in Kiev and Yanukovich’s ouster, the move was predictable given Putin’s larger agenda in Eastern Europe. If Putin ever believed, though, that he could separate Russia’s economic development in a globalized world economy from what I think is a necessary resulting global geopolitical culture, he will certainly suffer from the consequences of that belief after this Spring. He can’t continue to believe that he can keep Russia’s political culture from Western influences. He defiantly stands against the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights regarding gay issues in Russia, for example. He criticizes American and European social culture and stands behind the ‘traditional’ social culture of Russia. The politics of this situation has created a large-scale international critique of Russia’s ‘backwards’ ways. This irritates Putin to no end. Now, unfortunately for Putin, this move into Crimea ultimately isolates Russia geopolitically, threatens future investments in the country, and makes Russia too much of a risk for most countries and leaders to have serious, close relations. The situation has consequences much farther reaching than the international criticism over gay rights.

The U.S. and E.U. will have to bail out the Ukraine, because if they don’t, it will give Putin reason enough to stabilize the situation there with his military. Yet, such a Russian response will only destabilize the entire Eastern European region and create a political and economic earthquake for the E.U. and then, of course, for Russia as well. I can only hope that Putin is not so blinded by his nationalism and emotionalism that he can’t see the seriousness of the larger picture here. He could be risking Russia’s entire future as well as any lasting, positive legacy of his administration. At this point, he has refused to back down from his position in Crimea. His actions are seriously threatening Russia’s reputation and future role in the world of the 21st Century.

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