My last post expressed my biggest worry about Donald Trump: that he won’t be sufficiently firm with Vladimir Putin to persuade him to stop his aggression in Eastern Europe. The American Enterprise Institute’s Leon Aron has an excellent analysis of the Putin problem, “Changing Putin’s Mind.” Says Mr. Aron:
- Vladimir Putin has called the demise of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” The overarching objective of Putin’s policies, both domestic and external, is to recover and repossess the political, economic and geostrategic assets lost by the Soviet state when it fell apart in the 1990s.
- In Putin’s first two terms as Russian President, from 2000 – 2008, he focused on restoring the economy. But by 2012, when Putin returned to power, the domestic investment climate had slowed to a crawl with low oil prices causing a severe recession. Putin shifted the foundation of his regime’s legitimacy from economic expansion to patriotic mobilization.
- The reason for the annexation of Crimea, war on Ukraine and intervention in Syria is that restoring Russia’s superpower pride is essential to his regime’s legitimacy. This is the point of a classic Soviet poster (attached) with a Russian soldier admonishing Uncle Sam, “Don’t you fool around!”
- In Syria, Putin’s goal is to help Bashar al Assad, not defeat ISIS, and so Assad must not be restored. This could be accomplished by grounding the Syrian air force, enforcing no-fly zones, etc. and forcing Putin to distance himself from Damascus.
- In Ukraine, Putin will not stop unless battlefield dynamics begin to change by, for example, sending Ukraine defensive anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, radars to pinpoint Russian positions, etc. Putin must be forced to make a choice between increasing Russian deployment and thus casualties or seeking a genuine peace agreement.
Conclusion. The choice is between two admittedly risky and unpleasant options: confronting Putin now or see him emboldened to the point where he attempts to destabilize a member state on NATO’s eastern flank.