Glen Ruffle: How do you solve a problem like Putin?

Like it or not - and the Kremlin most certainly does not like it - the downing of flight MH17 almost certainly involved Russian equipment, supplied by Moscow, to the rebels in Eastern Ukraine. To a greater or lesser extent, the President of Russia has blood on his hands.
Questions over how much actual control the Kremlin exerts on the ground are valid and remain open, but this tragic event reflects Putin’s breakdown in strategic thinking and lack of direction in what he wants.
Scope creep
When the Euromaiden revolution took place in Kiev, Putin quickly and strategically acted. A simple surgical snip saw Crimea drop into Russia’s hands, preventing the inevitable calls to evict the Black Sea fleet and preserving Moscow’s strategic assets.
But then Putin lost focus. There were pro-Russian groups in the East of Ukraine…might he be able to get more than just Crimea? And when the US began advising the Ukrainian military, the opportunity to make the new cold war ‘hot’ was irresistible. Russia against the West by proxy in East Ukraine.
Sanctions
The sanctions regimes against Russia have had a small effect. Putin has felt the economic squeeze, but nevertheless, the main result has been to drive Russia into the arms of China. Putin has nothing if not a long memory, and the sense of injustice being nurtured in the Kremlin’s halls of power will continue to grow.
Let’s not forget Russia’s long term aims under the Putin regime: build either a new, multipolar, world economy; or build a rival ‘global’ economy centred on Moscow. As long as Putin can find friends in South America, China, Africa and Asia, the sanctions regimes are aiding this ambition by strengthening non-Western ties, and thus undermining the West. And hopes of bringing down Putin are ill-found. Did sanctions bring down Saddam Hussein? Is Lukahsenko any weaker in Belarus? Indeed, sanctions often strengthen the hands of dictators. So far, middle-men in South America and other less-regulated countries, willing to act as conduits between Russia and the West, have benefitted from the current sanctions.
Backfiring
Russia was moving forwards. Especially under Medvedev, Russia took great leaps forward towards developing markets, reducing corruption, developing tourism, and making society generally more consumerist and open. English-language teaching flourished as Russians sought to visit the world, and as a bi-product, this enabled them greater access to non-state controlled information sources. This in turn increased the internal pressure for reform, leading to street protests.
All of this is in jeopardy now. Many do not realise the extent to which the Kremlin controls the media in Russia, and the relentless message of victimisation is solidifying a societal view of ‘us V them’. When Putin goes, the sense of paranoia in Russia will ensure that equally paranoid people will take his place. A Russia without Putin could be even more frightening: different oligarch-cum-warlords tearing the country into regions, and nuclear weapons flooding out into the Middle East or into the hands of other terrorists willing to settle old scores by launching them.
Diplomacy
Germany’s issuing of a last-last-last-last chance warning clashes with Cameron’s “we’ve had enough” message, as Britain mourns our dead. Brussels, as ever, is hopelessly divided, as one common foreign policy is shown to simply not work. But isolating Russia – the route already tried – has led to the massacre of innocents. However unpalatable, the West needs to engage with Moscow. Getting rid of Putin is a worry that can come later; now, governments need to work with him to deliver peace on the ground. If for no other reason, Brussels has no hard-military options.
There are ways out of this – the hypocrisy of international diplomacy (what would happen if a missile, launched by the rebels the US supports in Syria, took out a jet?) – can lead to quick results if Putin and Berlin enter into serious, Henry Kissinger-style, negotiations. The West needs to acknowledge some Russian grievances, but only on the condition that Putin stops war mongering, opens up Russia, and delivers other hard concessions. Working with the Russian people is the best way to ensure long-term regime change.
Time to start paying
The EU never really wanted Ukraine, but Russia’s mishandling has landed the country into Brussels’ hands. The clean-up bills will also arrive in Brussels. But if Brussels wants to be more than just a soft-power banker, then it needs to assess what it actually has. In Britain and France, the EU has world-leading capabilities. Instead of trying to steal from them systems that work, the EU – and especially Eastern Europe – should look at funding the armed forces that, via NATO and the Lisbon Treaty’s Article 42, that actually provide its security. It is Britain that provides the leading military defence capabilities of the EU (two state-of-the-art aircraft carriers being delivered; F35 planes and the Typhoon), and it is Britain that has the best global surveillance capabilities via the Anglosphere global networks. Brussels needs to bury its envy and start channelling funding towards Britain: it would actually keep the UK in Europe, as well as providing Brussels with the hard-power it craves.

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