Putin will find it hard to do as he likes in Ukraine

Robert Patman says defying global opinion carries a price in today's world

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 5:58pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 March, 2014, 2:26am

It is a truism that an appropriate policy response to a crisis situation requires a clear and accurate understanding of the circumstances that caused it.

US Secretary of State John Kerry recently characterised Russia's incursion into Crimea as "a 19th century act in the 21st century" while President Barack Obama described it as a move that put Moscow "on the wrong side of history".

For many critics in the West, such statements only confirm that the Obama administration does not "get it" and is largely to blame for Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression. It is argued that Obama's reset policy towards Russia - consisting of muted responses to Putin's human rights abuses and support for murderous regimes like Syria's - emboldened Putin's foray into Ukraine.

But such criticism falsely assumes America can single-handedly run the world in the 21st century and keep the likes of Putin in line. If Putin insists on making a misjudgment, there is little the US or any other major player can do.

Even so, the US and its allies can and should harness the links of a globalised world to ensure the costs of Putin's brazen attempt to force Ukraine into a satellite status are prohibitive.

Putin's belligerent stance cannot but have negative consequences for Russia's stability. Russia is too weak and vulnerable economically to project strength. Economic growth is currently less than 2 per cent, and the economy is dangerously dependent on oil and gas exports.

If the EU imposed sanctions and stopped Russia's gas supply to Europe, for instance, Moscow would lose a substantial portion of its export revenues and the economy would be devastated.

At the same time, Russia has become increasingly integrated into the global financial system. In one day last week, the Russian stock market plunged more than 12 per cent and wiped out nearly US$60 billion in asset value.

Putin's Russia is far more vulnerable to market fluctuations than many other countries because the state owns a majority stake in a number of Russia's largest companies. Gazprom, the energy giant, is a case in point. Russia's involvement in the Ukraine crisis has hit investor confidence in London, Berlin and Paris, and contributed to an almost immediate downturn in the company's trading value.

The declining image of Putin in the West will also affect the perceptions of Russia's neighbours and other rising powers. China, for one, does not support the deployment of Russian troops in Crimea. It is striking that a recent commentary in Xinhua concluded that "an independent, complete and stable Ukraine best serves the interests of all, including China".

So while the Putin regime found the threat by "ultra-nationalists" and "fascists" in Kiev to be intolerable, Russian intervention raises a much greater risk - the political and economic isolation of Moscow.

Putin is not alone in failing to recognise that the world has fundamentally changed since the 1960s and 1970s. The same is true for some observers in Washington and the West.

In the 21st century, controlling territory or so-called areas of influence is no longer so important. In a globalising world, the ability of great powers to unilaterally project power is increasingly constrained by an international environment in which there is greater interdependence than any previous era in history.

Russia is no exception. If Putin continues his current policy in Ukraine, he should have no illusions about the political price he will pay.

Robert G. Patman is a professor of international relations and head of the department of politics at the University of Otago, New Zealand