As the old song goes, “you got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.” Vladimir Putin should have heeded that advice but as it often is with megalomaniacs they usually lack the self restraint needed to quit while they are ahead. While the West seemed content to let Putin carve Crimea out of Ukraine via a referendum that would have shamed a Chicago ward heeler, his continued complicity in the rebellion in Eastern Ukraine may have been a bridge too far.
Two events have transpired that make it likely that Putin is in for some tough days ahead.
Probably the most important event was Putin’s reception at the G20 meeting in Brisbane. Putin arrived expecting to be greeted by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. What he got was not expected:
The Russian president stepped onto the runway at Brisbane airport on Friday night with dozens of staffers.
Federal Assistant Defence Minister Stuart Robert, Queensland Governor Paul De Jersey and the Governor-General’s Secretary Mark Fraser greeted him.
Putin, who has the status consciousness of any nouveau riche social climber, was not happy about being greeted by rather junior officials. At the meeting itself he approached one of his harshest critics (that would not be Barack Obama) Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He seemed intent on creating a photo opportunity for domestic consumption:
Putin approached Harper and stuck out his hand to shake the Canadian prime minister’s, said MacDonald.
After months of public condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military support for separatist rebels in Ukraine, Harper accepted the handshake with a blunt message.
The prime minister said: “Well, I guess I’ll shake your hand, but I only have one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine,” recounted MacDonald.
The Gothic atmosphere continued and Putin departed early:
Vladimir Putin quit the G20 summit in Brisbane early saying he needed to get back to work in Moscow on Monday after enduring hours of browbeating by a succession of Western leaders urging him to drop his support for secessionists in eastern Ukraine.
That was the opening act. The high point was a speech given by German Chancellor Angela Merkel:
One thing we know for sure about Angela Merkel: she takes time to ponder her decisions and she weighs her words carefully. So the speech the German chancellor gave in Australia, a few days after Vladimir Putin stormed out of the G20, may go down as a major shift in European geopolitics.
In a nutshell: Germany seems to be closing down Ostpolitik, the policy that has driven much of its diplomacy for decades. This has potentially huge repercussions that may shift the power games in Europe. Putin’s strong network of “Russland Versteher”, people who “understand” and side with Russia in Germany, will now be severely put to the test. Other European countries will be paying close attention to how this change in German-Russian relations unfolds. It is also a testimony to the importance of the German-US relationship, which the Obama administration is clearly relying on in its dealings with Russia’s revisionism of the post-Cold war order.
It is worth listening to Merkel’s Sydney speech. In a few swift sentences, she cast the Putin regime not just as a nuisance in a nasty regional rivalry, but as a threat to the very heart of European wellbeing.
First, she contemplated how European powers had stumbled into war in 1914, through “no readiness to accept compromises” and “an arrogant belief in military superiority”. It sounded like a description of Putin’s tactics in Ukraine. Then she referred to how the European project was built in the aftermath of the 20th century’s conflicts, leading to a union that has put its “faith in the cohesive effect of shared values”. But she warned: “There are still forces that believe in the supposed law of the strong and disregard the strength of the law.” Russia “regards one of its neighbours, Ukraine, as part of its sphere of influence,” said Merkel. All this “after the horrors of two World Wars”. She was indignant. The EU “will make every effort to reach a diplomatic solution” with sanctions against Russia “on the necessary scale and for as long as needed”.
While Russia has had some success in intimidating the Baltic States, bullying Poland, and convincing Hungary to go down the road to neo-fascism, this has all happened in a environment where Germany was desperately trying to accommodate Russia. That moment seems to have passed. It is no accident that the commander of US Army, Europe announced that the US will pre-position equipment for an armored brigade in the Baltic States and US troops will begin regular rotations there:
The US Army plans to deploy about 150 tanks and armored vehicles to NATO countries next year and some of the heavy armor may be stationed in Eastern Europe, a top American general said Tuesday.
Nearly 50 armored vehicles are already in place and another 100 M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles will be “pre-positioned” in Germany and possibly elsewhere for the US troops conducting drills with NATO partners, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges told AFP in a phone interview from Estonia.
The highly visible of a united front of major nations at the G20 snubbing and lecturing Putin has to have had an effect on the diminutive dictator. Merkel’s pulling the plug on the keystone of German foreign policy over the past 25 years has to have gotten the attention of his inner circle who are beginning to feel the pinch of sanctions.
Putin seems undeterred. One suspects that he knows his power rests on winning and the moment he is seen to be a loser he is vulnerable. This week he doubled down by announcing a treaty with the breakaway Georgian republic of Abkhazia:
President Vladimir V. Putin signed a treaty on Monday to expand Russia’s authority over Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia, effectively giving the Kremlin a dominant role in military and economic policy and making it easier for residents of Abkhazia to obtain Russian citizenship.
The accord comes at a time of deep apprehension in the West over Russia’s expansionist aspirations because of its annexation of Crimea and its support of the violent separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine. The treaty was angrily denounced by Georgia as illegal and a step toward “de facto annexation.”
Georgia, like Ukraine, has been moving toward closer political and economic ties with the European Union. Officials in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, said the new accord with Abkhazia was yet another attempt by Russia to thwart the westward ambitions of a former Soviet republic while tightening the Kremlin’s influence.
Has Putin overstepped? Will the West fold like a cheap suit? It is hard to tell at this point but the strongest evidence says that absent some major climb-down by Putin his adventure in the Ukraine will be seen as the beginning of his end.