In the over two years that I have been writing an occasional column titled “Putin Patrol,” never has the man been riding higher than he is now. It’s not that his domestic policy has been a particular success (though he has managed to squelch his political opposition). Internally Russia continues to suffer from a range of problems – including a limited, lagging economy – that over the long term will haunt it. But externally, in the short term, Putin has got nearly everything he wanted. From his agreement with Obama on Syria’s chemical weapons to a putative deal over Ukraine, Putin’s foreign policy accomplishments have been so demonstrably self-evident that his standing among the Russian people is sky high.
Let be clear here. Let’s not mince words. Whatever the long term outcome in Ukraine, as of this writing this much is true:
- Putin has changed the map of Europe by seizing Crimea, and now presuming it part of Russia. He has further changed what until this year was the post-Cold War European order.
- Putin has secured de facto if not de jure control over parts of Eastern Ukraine. The cease-fire deal that two days ago was agreed on by him and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko locks in place any and all gains made by Russian forces since their invasion – not “incursion”! – of Ukraine began. This includes protection of regional – read Eastern – autonomy.
- Putin has insured that Ukraine not move even a millimeter closer to the West, in particular the European Union, without paying a potentially high price. This is – again, let’s call it what it is – a severe restriction on Ukraine’s ostensible right to decide its own political future.
To be sure, there are in this case as in every other one mitigating or at least explicating circumstances. Realist political scientist John Mearsheimer writes in Foreign Affairs (September/October 2014) that the West’s “triple package of policies – NATO enlargement, EU expansion, and democracy promotion – added fuel to a fire [Putin was] waiting to ignite.” Moreover there is all this one saving grace: in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion NATO members finally decided to establish a rapid-reaction force, essentially to stop Putin, Russia, from going beyond Ukraine to interfere in other countries such as the Baltic Republics. But if 2014 were a geopolitical chess game between Putin on the one hand and Western democracies on the other, the former would be the obvious winner and the latter the obvious loser.