Staunton, November 24 – No one can deny that Western sanctions and the declining price of oil have had a negative impact on Russia, but few recognize the other side of the coin: Western sanctions saved Vladimir Putin by allowing him the opportunity to shift blame for what has gone wrong in Russia away from himself onto the West.
Both many in Moscow and in the West, Vasily Kashin, a Moscow analyst says, assume that Putin and his regime have no choice but to find a compromise with the West in order to end sanctions, but in fact, sanctions are working to Putin’s benefit and no compromise is likely anytime soon.
In today’s Vedomosti, the Moscow analyst points out that in 2013, “without any sanctions and a cold war with the West, Russia had entered a period of economic stagnation,” largely as a result of “internal problems” including structural ones that had been building “for decades.” Indeed, it appeared that Russia was heading toward a recession.
Russia’s domestic problems at that time were compounded by the economic situation in Europe, Russia’s most important trading partner. Economies in the eurozone were also heading toward recession and that in turn meant that they would be purchasing less gas from the Russian Federation.
Seen from this perspective, Kashin says, it is obvious that “the current economic war with the countries of the West only deepened the Russian crisis but did not give birth to it.” He argues that in fact, sanctions rank only third or fourth as a cause compared to domestic structural problems and the collapse of oil prices.
Thus, “the economic significance [of sanctions] was secondary, but their political impact has been enormous.”
Had there not been a Ukrainian crisis, Russia would have had to deal with all these economic problems in any event, and the Kremlin could not be certain that the demonstrations which had swept the country in 2011 would not reemerge with new force to challenge its control of the country.
But by responding in a military way to Western support of the change in government in Ukraine, the analyst argues, Russia has been able “to solve an enormous number of problems” that it otherwise had no good answer for.
As a result of its actions, the Russian government now “has unlimited political capital which will allow it if needed to take radical and unpopular measures in the face of the crisis. Any economic difficulties,” he says, can be blamed on the West and the idea that the West is responsible will be widely accepted.
“The successful reunification of territory and military support for compatriots abroad has great significant for the establishment of contemporary [Russian] statehood,” Kashin says. “The extremely weak post-Soviet Russian identity was strengthened, extremely dangerous ethnic nationalism was discredited, and state nationalism has been developed.”
These things alone won’t be enough in the long term. Other, harder changes will be required. But in the short and medium term, what Putin has done in Ukraine and how the West has responded is building a nation much in the same way that Prussia’s attack on Denmark in 1864 did for Germans.
The Ukrainian crisis “was a gift for the Kremlin. If President Obama instead of introducing sanctions, putting tanks in the Baltic countries, and comparing Russia with the Ebola epidemic had limited himself to a display of the Ukrainian flag at the White House and the holding of an exhibit of Putin caricatures in Washington, he would have harmed the Russian leader much more than he has.”
And consequently, “the declarations of the US and the EU about their readiness to lift sanctions in response to the good behavior of Moscow in Ukraine and their proposals to discuss conditions for this look laughable and demonstrate a lack of understanding of the situation,” Kashin suggests.
Moscow isn’t interested either in such talks or in exacerbating the Ukrainian crisis. “It has already fulfilled its useful role.” Consequently, from the Kremlin’s perspective, “a new outbreak of military actions in the east of Ukraine and a new wave of sanctions for Russia are not dangerous but not desirable either.”
At the same time, Moscow is interested in “freezing the conflict” and thus won’t make any “serious concessions” about the status of the breakaway republics because that would be a display of weakness and would “deprive Russian leaders of the political capital that they have won” in recent months.
With time, the Moscow analyst suggests, the significant of Ukraine for Russia will decline. What Moscow will be concerned about is executing its turn to Asia without turning itself into an overly dependent supplier of raw materials to Beijing. For the Kremlin, that is much more important than “influence in Ukraine and the military-political situation in Eastern Europe.”