You have to hand it to Vladimir Putin.
When doddering old Boris Yeltsin announced on New Year’s Eve 15 years ago that a relatively obscure former KGB officer would become Russia’s acting president, there was little indication what was in store.
We’ve all gotten quite familiar since then with the virile, shirtless tough guy. If he’s not exactly master of the universe, he is undisputed ruler of nearly one-sixth of the planet’s land mass. For the second year in a row, Forbes declared him the world’s most powerful person. At an age when he could start collecting Social Security here (and when many Russian men already are dead), he shows no real sign of slowing down.
It’s certainly true that the image he crafted has played well with Russians traumatized by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the chaos of the Yeltsin years. But he may have overplayed his hand in Ukraine this year. As developments this week have made clear, the Russian economy is in big trouble, and it’s not clear he knows how to get out of it.
But before we get to that, the two most important things to know about Putin are:
1. He is intent on rebuilding Russia’s prestige and power, particularly as a counter-weight to the United States and Western organizations such as NATO and the European Union, and particularly among neighboring countries that once were part of the Soviet Union.
2. By all appearances, he is a formidable tactician — but not so great of a strategist.
Putin almost certainly doesn’t care about ethnic Russians in Ukraine. They are a tool for him, not a cause. But there is little point to rebuilding any regional union without Ukraine — just as there was no point to keeping the Soviet Union together without the second-most populous Soviet republic. So on one level, his actions in Ukraine this year make perfect sense.
If Ukraine up until this year had seemed chronically divided between Western-oriented and pro-Russian politicians, however, the effect of Putin’s actions seems to have been to encourage a headlong embrace of the West. Plus, many other former Soviet republics are plenty worried by what they’ve seen in Ukraine.
That’s not to say that Ukraine will quickly become a Western outpost. Ukraine is a basket case. And come what may, Kiev will always be much closer geographically to Moscow than Washington or any major European capital.
Meanwhile, Western sanctions meant to punish Putin for his actions in Ukraine have hurt Russia. Putin may have anticipated them, betting that he could outmaneuver President Obama, and that Western European countries dependent on Russian energy supplies wouldn’t dare to go too far.
But Putin apparently didn’t expect oil prices to tumble. And if prices stay low for a long time, as many experts predict, it’s going to be very bad for him: Analysts estimate that Russia needs oil to sell for around $100 a barrel to balance its budget; it’s currently trading below $60.
Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said recently that sanctions were costing Russia about $40 billion a year, and that the drop in oil prices another $90 billion to $100 billion. He estimated capital flight from Russia this year at around $130 billion. That was before massive losses this week, which drove down the value of the ruble. The Russian currency now has lost 60 percent of its value this year.
Russians have lived through much worse. Their recent oil-fueled prosperity is an exception rather than the rule, and in one sense hard times would be a return to normal. Things would have to get a whole lot worse for urbanites, who took to the streets a couple of years ago to protest electoral shenanigans, to cause him serious problems.
He controls the Russian media, and in the past he has cowed a fragmented political opposition and neutralized any potential political challenger.
But it’s also true that in the long term, if anything can weaken Putin’s grip on power, it’s probably the economy. Low oil prices would be a big factor, just as they were when the Soviet Union collapsed. While a popular uprising seems unlikely, insiders who have gotten rich off Russia’s tawdry mix of business and political influence might get antsy.
So what does Putin do? And what do the U.S. and its allies do?
Putin’s major speech on Dec. 4 didn’t provide any clarity. At the Council on Foreign Relations, senior fellow Stephen Sestanovich found the address “very eclectic, even incoherent,” with no indication of how he would address growing anxiety in Russia over Ukraine and the economy.
The wisest Western response, according to some is the same strategy George Kennan outlined in his famous essay in 1947 that became the basis of U.S. Cold War policy: containment.
That strategy envisions being prepared to offer Putin a way out, if he chooses to take it. If he does, it’s likely to be another tactic – unless he has concluded he really has no other choice.
Mark Porubcansky has been a foreign correspondent and editor for 30 years. He was an Associated Press correspondent in Moscow during the last years of the Soviet Union and served until recently as foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Scandia.