Opinions - 16.07.2014 - 00:00 

Putin’s great game

Russia’s undeclared war against Ukraine continues. The death toll is terrible. At the dawn of the 21st century, Putin is behaving like the power-hungry monarchs of one hundred years ago, writes HSG professor Ulrich M. Schmid.
Source: HSG Newsroom


16 July 2014. So far the conflict in Eastern Ukraine has cost 800 lives. The Kremlin still holds that it is not party to the war and that the clashes are an uprising of the oppressed Russian population in Ukraine against a criminal central power.

Russian interference is obvious

During the Crimean crisis, Putin had still claimed with hardly muted cynicism that the armed soldiers were local citizens who had bought their kit in the nearest corner shop. Meanwhile, the separatists’ equipment and fighting strategy has reached such a professional level in the east of Ukraine that Russian interference has become obvious.

Putin started a very great game in Ukraine. His stake – Russia’s international reputation as a reliable economic and political partner – is enormous, but so is his potential gain if the game works out in his favour: Russia would become a superpower again without whose say-so no important problem of global significance is decided, Putin’s authority at home would remain uncontested, and Russia would dominate the entire Eurasian area on account of its energy resources. For the time being, however, this is only the dream that Putin is chasing.

It may also turn out differently: Russia may no longer be able to defray the follow-up costs of its aggressive course and suffer a national bankruptcy, as it did in 1998; the Russian population may come to view Putin as a gambler who recklessly jeopardises all international cooperation; Russia may increasingly isolate itself from its neighbouring countries and become an “Evil Empire” again – the example of the Baltic countries, Moldavia, Georgia and Ukraine may catch on and spread to Central Asia, which has traditionally been well disposed towards Russia.

Precarious domestic policies replaced by authoritarian foreign policy

In the short term at least, Putin’s calculations seem to be working out: 89% of the Russian population welcome the annexation of Crimea, and after a humiliating low during the 2012 presidential elections, Putin’s rating has again risen to 83%. However, the problem is the fact that Putin can only play the patriotic card once. During the Crimean crisis he succeeded in replacing precarious domestic policies – lack of reforms, limitation of civil liberties and a drop in economic growth – by an authoritarian foreign policy which is quite obviously proving popular with the electorate.

However, the new collision course with the West is also accompanied by serious disadvantages: Russia’s international reputation today resembles that of Serbia under Milosevic. At the dawn of the 21st century, Putin is behaving like the power-hungry monarchs of one hundred years ago when international politics was regarded as a zero-sum game with the conquest of resources and territories. Today, Russia’s jingoists are letting themselves be dazzled by Putin’s expansion policy. It may dawn on them before the presidential elections of 2018 that peace, prosperity and democracy cannot be conjured up with nationalist outbursts of enthusiasm.

Photo: Photocase / 12frames