Staunton, October 29 – Vladimir Putin’s nuclear bluster reflects his conviction that the world is still as it was before he annexed Crimea: that Western governments will tolerate anything he says or does because their foreign policies are driven by fundamental business interests which want to make a profit in Russia, according to Mikhail Fishman.
But the world has changed because of his use of force in Ukraine, and now Putin is employing ever more hyperbolic threats not because he wants war but because he believes that by doing so, especially in combination with offers of new business opportunities to those who cooperate with him, he can return to the status quo ante without making any concessions.
Tragically, that creates a situation in which there is a danger that each side in this conflict will misread the other, a danger that was in some ways created, the Moscow commentator says, by the failure of Western countries to react to Putin’s earlier threats and actions in Georgia and elsewhere.
Putin’s comments about Russia’s nuclear arsenal do not mean that Moscow wants to “threat the world with nuclear war,” Fishman says. If that were the case, there would not have been any of his references to possibilities for cooperation with international and especially European business or his comments about the Ukrainian elections.
If he were preparing for “a major war,” Fishman continues, Putin would not have said anything of the kind. That in turn means it is critically important to understand why the Kremlin leader is saying what he is saying and acting as he is acting.
“Management specialists teach us that incorrect decisions usually are taken on the basis of deceptive experiences,” the Moscow commentator writes, and Putin “always has interpreted his experience of dialogue with the West” as meaning that “not abstract values but concrete material interests determine the global agenda.”
There are reasons he should think so, Fishman says. For years, Putin has interfered in the internal affairs of his neighbors, threatened them in various ways, “and all this has worked” at least to the extent that the West has continued to focus on developing its business interests in Russia rather than in defending some notional international order.
In 2007, Putin laid out a militant program in his Munich speech, which “until last week was the harshest of all” his remarks. He made threats, he launched a trade war with Poland, an oil war with Lithuania, and a scandal with Estonia, and despite all that, foreign investment continued to flow into Russia in record amounts.
The next year, Fishman points out, “Russian tanks almost reached Tbilisi,” and the West did nothing. Investments continued to come in and they would have been even greater had the economic crisis not begun. In short, for Putin everything was quite “comfortable: the conflict with the West strengthened Putin’s authority within the country” without any real costs.
But with the Crimean Anschluss, the situation has changed. Western countries are imposing real costs and Russians are feeling them although neither Putin nor most Russians have yet been able to figure out why Crimea is for Washington “more important than Georgia or Lithuania.”
Whatever the explanation is for that, Russia and Russians are suffering as a result. The Russian economy is in deep trouble, there is no growth, capital is fleeing, reserves as disappearing, and oil prices are falling. And Russians are beginning to question what Putin has been doing because it is no longer cost-free.
In the language of diplomacy, this trend means, Fishman says, that no one wants to work with Russia either for his or her own benefit or because of threats in case they do not. That in turn means, “the arsenal [of the Kremlin] is running out” of weapons.
“Despite this, Vladimir Putin continues to act according to the former scheme. Western business and Western leaders are receiving positive signals, but they are not having any effect.” The old channels of doing business with the West are no longer functioning, at least for the time being, and Putin doesn’t know what to do other than continue to bluster.
Neither Putin nor his aides are making plans for a second Cuban missile crisis, despite his aside about that at Sochi, Fishman says. “The Kremlin is not preparing for war” because “contemporary Russia is not religious Iran or even the USSR” which was prepared to use force to extend communism throughout the world.
Instead, Putin’s comments about Russia’s nuclear arsenal show that he does not know how to function in the new post-Crimea environment and appears to believe that he can ultimately be just as successful with the West as he was before he annexed that Ukrainian peninsula.
In the short term, he is certainly wrong, but the Kremlin leader is playing a longer game than many Western leaders are. Over time, he is convinced rightly or wrongly, the pendulum will swing back in the West to where it was before Crimea; and both he and his country will benefit as they did before.