Putin’s backward gaze

By moving on Ukraine, Vladimir Putin looks to the past when he should be envisioning a fresh future for Russia.

Sergei Chirikov/Pool/Reuters
UKRAINE-CRISIS/PUTIN RTR42H3S 14 Aug. 2014 Yalta, Ukraine Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in Yalta, Crimea, Aug. 14, 2014. Putin said on Thursday Russia would stand up for itself but not at the cost of confrontation with the outside world, a conciliatory note after months of tough rhetoric over the crisis in Ukraine.

Is Vladimir Putin a genius, a Russian chess master thinking several moves ahead of the West in the diplomatic and military confrontation playing out in Ukraine?

He sends a column of trucks toward that country purportedly carrying humanitarian aid while at the same time sending in convoys of arms for the Russian-backed rebels fighting just inside the eastern border. And now he’s suddenly speaking in conciliatory tones, ready to talk with Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, in an Aug. 26 face-to-face meeting.

Is he a mastermind brilliantly pushing for advantage in every facet of the Ukraine problem?

A more useful view might be that of a desperate Russian leader trying to make his country relevant in a world that is passing it by.

When a country loses its sense of direction and purpose, a foreign adventure can serve as a handy unifying force.

Instead of looking ahead, President Putin is looking backward longingly at imperial and Soviet Russia. He’s attempting to energize his country around the idea of reuniting Russian-speakers in now independent former Soviet states with Mother Russia.

Putin’s Russia is rich in natural resources, including oil and gas. But that isn’t the foundation of a diversified, 21st-century economy. Russia’s population is stagnant. Yes, its oligarchs have become super-rich, but not through innovation: According to one source, Russia ranks behind the US state of Alabama in the number of patents it has been awarded in the past decade.

Here’s the rub: The decline of Russia isn’t in the interests of the world. Western economic sanctions may be useful in the short run, but the goal is a stable Russia that is engaged economically and otherwise with Europe, the United States, and the world, not a sickly and isolated Russian bear.

The government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stepped in and engaged Putin in talks that should aim at finding a way to keep Ukraine intact as an independent, neutral buffer state between the European Union and Russia. That “soft power” role is an appropriate one for Germany as a thriving democracy and Europe’s leading economic power.

That effort should free the US to stand back and play the long game of carrots and sticks aimed at inducing Russia to turn away from an expansionist policy. Taking steps to make Russia’s incursion into Ukraine more costly (already begun with sanctions) and boosting Ukraine’s economy are two actions.

Russia has strong emotional ties to Ukraine, an important region of the old Soviet Union. Its loss, as one Russia-watcher has put it, is like “the pain an amputee feels in a phantom limb.”

Putin and Russia may long for what now seem like grander days of empire under czars and communists. But those are roads to a past that can’t be repeated. Putin’s energy would be better spent on building a different, new Russia, one whose prosperity is based on cooperation, not confrontation, with its neighbors.

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