Thinking Aloud: “The Ukraine Crisis and Russia’s Place in the International Order”

Aug. 24, 2014 by Darius 

Today is Ukrainian independence day.  With the current tension between Ukraine and Russia and the West and Russia, many people are wondering what motivates Russian President Putin and what his next move will be.  I recently attended a panel discussion on “The Ukraine Crisis and Russia’s Place in the International Order.”  The most interesting panelist was Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institution.  (Gaddy is co-author of the book Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, which I’ve blogged about before.)  I’ve shared his comments below.

According to Gaddy, President Putin is not seeking to overthrow the existing international order.  Putin has never sought international leadership for either himself personally or for Russia nationally.  Instead, his policies are entirely focused on Russia itself.  Gaddy disputes the idea that Russia is setting itself up as a rival to the US as in the Cold War.

Gaddy portrayed Putin’s foreign policy as going through three phases.  In the first phase, during the beginning of Putin’s tenure in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Putin’s foreign policy consisted of trying to get other countries to back off so that Russia could fix its own domestic problems in its own way.  The second phase, which began after the 9/11 attacks, marked a shift to Putin asking other countries (i.e., the US) to not conduct their foreign policy in such a way that the blowback hit Russia.  In the third phase, which doesn’t really have a clear emergence date, Putin ramped up his rhetoric, demanding that the West stop its assault on Russia.  Putin considered such acts as NATO’s enlargement and the placement of anti-missile defenses in countries on Russia’s borders as provocations.  At the heart of the third phase of Putin’s foreign policy is that only Russia can define Russia’s security interests and what Russia considers to be threats.  For the West to downplay the significance of actions Russia perceives as threatening is irrelevant.

According to Gaddy, Putin does not have any problems with the US’s self-appointed role as global policeman with three caveats.  First, US police actions cannot interfere with Russia.  Second, US actions cannot cause blowback that hurts Russia.  Finally, Russia must be able to sometimes “bend” the rules of the world order just as the US frequently does.

Gaddy also had some insightful comments on Russia’s economic policies.  When the price of oil spiked in the mid-2000s, Russia’s growth rate was enormous – even faster than China’s.  However, two economic shocks changed Putin’s thinking about Russia’s participation in the global economy.  The first was the 2008-09 US-generated economic crisis (although Russia rebounded very well from the downturn).  The second, more serious shock was the Eurozone crisis.  As a result of these recessions, Putin decided that the real winners of the global economy would not be those who grew the fastest when everyone was growing but those who had the economic resilience to survive the bad patches.  Putin began enacting economic policies to make Russia more resistant to external shocks.

Putin is even using the sanctions levied against Russia by the US and EU to further this agenda.  Recently, he banned food imports.  This move was not so much designed to inflict harm on the US and EU but to increase protectionism for domestic Russian food producers.  Without the sanctions, Putin could not have acted in such an overtly protectionist manner because Russia is a member of the World Trade Organization.

Gaddy also noted that Western sanctions have only targeted the modern, progressive sectors of the Russian economy, notably finance and banking.  The sanctions have not touched the sectors of the economy left over from the Soviet era.  Gaddy wondered whether these particular sanctions were in fact counterproductive.

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One Response to Thinking Aloud: “The Ukraine Crisis and Russia’s Place in the International Order”

  1. Pingback: Thinking Aloud: Year in Review Countdown #3 | Not What You Might Think

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