Monday, June 30, 2014

Motyl: How Ukraine & the West must react to unpredictable Putin

As Alexander Motyl points out, Russia's president Vladimir Putin has made so many ridiculous, conflicting statements about Ukraine that, in a rational world, they would limit his options now -- assuming Putin must appear rational and consistent, which he probably doesn't. The West would only be relieved if Putin did a complete 180 and too happy to let him save face; while the Russian public could probably be bamboozled by Russian state media into believing anything. 

Putin has maneuvered himself, and Russia, into a position of Zugzwang—a chess term denoting a condition in which one’s king has to move, but cannot, because any move would result in check.

Putin has twisted himself into policy as well as rhetorical knots as a result of his absurd insistence that Ukraine’s post-Yanukovych government is unconstitutional. 

So how should Ukraine react to this enigmatic autocrat [emphasis mine]?:

If states cannot calculate how an adversary will behave, they have no choice but to hope for the best and prepare for the almost-worst and the worst: the almost-worst is Russia’s full embrace of a cold war, while the worst is a hot war. Ukraine and the West must assume that Putin is unreliable, unpredictable, and dangerous—and plan accordingly. For now, Ukraine’s short-, medium-, and long-term priorities are threefold.

First, it must safeguard its own security. [...] Ukraine need not be able to defeat Russia; it need only deter it and crush the terrorist assaults that form a large part of Putin’s strategy to keep Ukraine unstable and thus pliable.

Second, Ukraine must jump-start its economy with radical economic reforms. A strong economy is the only long-term guarantee of a strong military, which is the sine qua non of Ukraine security. [...]

And third, in order to remain democratic in a tough neighborhood dominated by a neo-fascist bully, Ukraine will have to embed itself in the West. Membership in the European Union is the ultimate prize, but any form of affiliation that promotes the deeper Westernization of Ukraine’s culture, education, laws, and institutions will help ensure survival.

And what does the future hold for Ukraine and Russia, according to Motyl?:

Over time, some combination of cold war, cold peace, and hot war will transform Ukraine into a South Korea, Taiwan, or Israel. Ukraine will have to live with the permanent threat of Russian aggression, but that threat could have a silver lining: compelling it to become a vigorous democracy with a strong economy and a strong army.

Russia’s future is less clear. If Putin stays in power for another twenty years, it could become an impoverished garrison state such as North Korea. If Putin departs well before he becomes an octogenarian, Russia could become a second China. More likely than not, Putin will keep on posturing, and Russia will remain an ossified and increasingly unstable petro-state like Saudi Arabia.

By Alexander J. Motyl
July/August 2014 | World Affairs

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