Sunday 18 February 2018

Kremlin's belief that it's better to be feared than loved

So far, Russian President Vladimir Putin's resolve seems undiminished. But his choices are diminishing
So far, Russian President Vladimir Putin's resolve seems undiminished. But his choices are diminishing

Rodric Braithwaite

A year ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an aggressive adventure to annex Crimea and bend Ukraine to his will. He acted in part because he needed a short victorious war to bolster his weakening position at home. His domestic ratings soared.

Mr Putin used to be a cautious man: he knew when to stop his war against Georgia in 2008. Perhaps he thought that the West would again respond with no more than mild and passing censure. If so, his tactical sense was deteriorating. Ukraine was a much bigger fish. But the West struggled to devise an effective response. The dilemma was acute. We remembered 1938: how could we allow yet another carve-up of Eastern Europe? Yet we were not prepared to use military force to stop it. So we applied some quite painful sanctions against the Russian economy and the Russian elite. The Europeans made some feeble attempts to reduce their dependence on Russian oil and gas. Nato did a bit to strengthen its posture in Eastern Europe. Nobody did much to help the Ukrainians prop up their tottering economy and reform their corrupt institutions, or supply them with the heavy weapons they lacked to repel Russian rebels in Ukraine.

Western policy evolved, but not very far, when the rebels shot down a Malaysian airliner in the summer. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Francois Hollande of France did what they could to promote a durable ceasefire, but failed. Each time the rebels suffered a reverse, Moscow sent more men and weapons to support them; each time, the European Union and the Americans upped their sanctions in response.

Mr Putin's deal with the Russian people is based on a guarantee of order, prosperity and the restoration of Russia's weight in world affairs, in exchange for their willingness to give up some of the freedoms they gained at the end of the 1990s. The deal held up well as the Russian economy grew spectacularly for more than a decade. But now it is being undermined. The Russian economy is in bad shape (experts disagree how much) thanks to sanctions and the tumbling price of oil. Body bags are coming back to Russia from Ukraine in increasing numbers. It is difficult to believe that all these difficulties will not eventually force political change. But for now, patriotic Russians are still rallying round the flag. They quote Machiavelli: it is better to be feared than loved. Meanwhile, the Russian rebels in the east are pressing forward. So far, Mr Putin's resolve seems undiminished. But his choices are diminishing: negotiation or a greater use of force in Ukraine; greater repression at home if need be. The West is not in better shape. Ms Merkel and Mr Hollande are still gallantly seeking an agreed way out. The agreement they have apparently sketched out in Moscow may hold if Mr Putin concludes that the costs of his adventure are beginning to outweigh the gains, and if the Ukrainian president can bear whatever concessions it contains. But if negotiation fails again, the West faces a narrowing range of choice between supine acquiescence or escalation. (© Independent News Service)

Rodric Braithwaite is a former British ambassador to Moscow

Irish Independent

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