What Putin Fears Most for Russia and Ukraine

What Putin Fears Most for Russia and Ukraine

As the Ukraine crisis has gotten worse over the past five months, its center of gravity has shifted away from Russia. Russia, after all, is a constant.  It has continually pushed and instigated in eastern Ukraine, even after MH-17, even after the September cease-fire, and it will push and instigate until it is stopped.  The center of gravity depends on who can stop it.

The White House would like to believe that the center of gravity is in Washington, but that’s not quite correct.  Washington’s response has been singularly ineffective – ineffective, meandering, and marked by hesitation in three important ways:

  • The President’s unwillingness to confront threats that are unpopular.
  • The legacy of the failed Russian ‘reset’ and the rump state of a national security apparatus congenitally indisposed to opposing Russia. 
  • Endemic to the whole is the Obama’s inability to make timely national security decisions.  

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The Obama Administration is now reportedly debating sending defensive weapons to Ukraine.  They are unlikely to be a game-changer -- the last four moderate Syrian rebels could presumably tell Kiev a thing or two about waiting for American arms. In any case, like Syria, the Ukraine problem might soon be moot.  The heavily fought-over Donetsk airport is gone. Debaltseve, an important transportation hub, is almost gone.  The Russians are now eyeing a land corridor to the Crimea through Mariupol, where thirty people were killed by rocket strikes on Saturday. 

Moscow, however, is not really concerned about the American reaction.  It’s important, yes, since the United States is still a superpower and could impose some unpleasant sanctions through the global financial system.  But the U.S. is also a superpower, and a sucker for Russian help in the rest of the world, like Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan.  A stick here, a carrot there, and America would come back to the bargaining table. 

There’s only one catastrophic outcome for Russia, and that would be if Germany threw its full weight behind Ukraine.  And not just Ukraine, but Poland, Lithuania, and all the other agitator states that have known Russian invasion.  A renewed German presence and assertiveness in Eastern Europe would be a calamity for Moscow.  

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It has been seventy years since Germany last had a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe – that is, since the European continent was “normal” – and the Russians are very anxious to not have it return.  The entire purpose of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is to preserve and expand its borderlands.  German dominance of those borderlands would be a disaster.  

For now, that’s probably unlikely, since the German state is not yet a state.  Which is to say it’s not a normal state, but one that has been stuck in its war guilt halfway house for the better part of a century. During the Cold War, that guilt took the form of deference to NATO leadership. Afterwards, it was deference to European leadership, and a certain modesty when the issue of German leadership arose. In addition, there’s a strain of accommodation towards Russia that runs through German diplomacy. After World War II it became most famous as Ostpolitik, but was also a long-running German instinct to meet the East halfway.  

Eventually, however, Germany will become normal again.  The crux of the Ukraine issue is when, and the crux of that issue is Angela Merkel, who is the Continent’s center of gravity all by herself. She is Hillary Clinton as she’s supposed to, the meta-Hillary, Hillary if the reality had caught up with the myth.  The most powerful woman in the world, yes; the most powerful European, of course; the most powerful Westerner…well, at least arguably. 

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Merkel is also no stranger to Russia. She grew up in East Germany as the daughter of a clergyman, a member of one of the few institutions that had an almost-independent voice in the Stasi’s police state. She’s been chancellor of united Germany for nearly a decade, longer than her predecessors or other major European leaders.  She saw Europe through the fiscal crisis that almost consumed its union, and emerged with Germany as the Continent’s undisputed leader. 

That’s an uncomfortable position for both Germany and the Europeans. It was also bound to happen. World War Two didn’t solve the German problem of a nation too big for Europe and too small for the world. It’s the natural European hegemon – the most people, the most wealth, the most industry, education and science – but not quite a superpower. So Germany emerged from the fiscal crisis as the European center of gravity but reluctant to confront Russia on its own. Hoar shades of the past, don’t you know, and bad for business besides.  And so the Ukraine crisis has dragged on and on.  

If it is going to stop, and be settled in peace rather than victory, Angela Merkel might be the only person who can stop it.  So far, she has committed to sanctions; mindful of the Sonderweg and her halfway house, she has ruled out sending weapons.  But sanctions alone are probably not going to stop this war, no more than the fitful and belated shipments of American arms. German arms, on the other hand, and a Germany in full support of Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltics – a normal Germany, in other words – might make Vladimir Putin think twice. 

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