Thursday, February 22, 2018

This most dangerous man

Vladimir Putin is the most dangerous man in the world. His invasion of Crimea and the threat he poses to Ukraine and the Baltic States have created tension between Russia and the West unlike anything since the Cold War and constitute the gravest threat to human civilisation since World War II. Putin exposes the fragility of global security. Any thug with nuclear power can take us to the brink. Now in a move described as “more than symbology” the US has sent troops to Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to assure them of its commitment to the region’s defence in the face of Russian aggression.

It is the nature of the Russian leader that makes this threat so existential. Putin is an anachronism. The former lieutenant colonel of the KGB wants to turn back the clock and return Russia to the days of Soviet power and influence. He is a devotee of 20th century Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin who believed “ Russia will rise from disintegration and humiliation and begin an epoch of new development and greatness.” Putin thinks the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and it is “a crime” to even think of the separation of Russia and the Ukraine.

He is brutal and calculating, has almost absolute power over the Russian parliament and significant support among the people who feel pride in their country’s return to order and international influence after the “humiliation” of the Gorbachev years and the chaos of the erratic Yeltsin. The West therefore cannot ignore Putin’s signals to extend his invasion to include Eastern Ukraine and other states with significant populations of ethnic Russians. The goal is a new Russian empire, not like the Soviet Union, but with independent states under Russian political influence and control.

Putin feels America and the West will do little or nothing. He remembers their impotence after he invaded Georgia. After the annexation of Crimea, a member of Russia’s parliament dismissed America and Europe with contempt saying “they will talk and talk and do nothing”.

The truth is, after Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans have no appetite for military conflict. According to Roger Cohen of the New York Times. “This is the Age of Reluctance, a time when American power is dominant but not determinant. Americans have turned inward”. Additionally, the European Union is a group of disunited vacillators on foreign policy, whose economies are yet to fully recover from the financial crisis, and who still depend on Russia for 30 per cent of its LNG which reaches them from a pipeline passing through Ukraine.

Putin has also read his American counterpart well. Barack Obama is the “intellectual-in-chief” without any strong convictions and who acts mainly out of political expediency after weighing pros and cons with greatest deliberation. Putin does not back down. Obama does. He embarked on a “reset” with Russia and betrayed important central European allies by cancelling a US missile defence system scheduled for Poland and the Czech Republic but strongly opposed by Russia. He drew a red line over chemical weapons in Syria but dithered and was saved from humiliation by a Russian negotiated agreement with Bashar Assad. Obama completely withdrew all troops from Iraq after so much American blood and treasure, leaving that country under the strong influence of Iran with whom Russia is currently seeking to deepen relations. He announced a fixed timetable for leaving Afghanistan and strengthened the Taliban which is certain to return to power if all international forces do indeed leave. Having let slip the real chance for change in Iran by refusing to identify with the Green Revolution, he is now negotiating with the ayatollahs over their nuclear programme and alienating America’s allies in the Middle East, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.

But to his credit, Obama has embarked on economic sanctions which could help to prevent further escalation. After the invasion of Crimea, and US sanctions, the Russian economy “tanked 10 per cent in March wiping out billions in market capitalisation”. Foreign investors have been pulling money out of Russian banks. Just this week Obama also imposed new asset freezes and visa bans on seven Russian government officials and sanctions on 17 companies linked to President Vladimir Putin’s “inner circle”. He has also initiated moves against Russia’s energy companies, banks and other sectors of its economy. But he must be prepared to go further like “excluding the largest Russian banks from the global dollar economy and targeting the foreign assets of energy companies like Gazprom and Rosneft”. European countries must be prepared to stop arm sales to Russia, seize bank accounts and other assets of Russian oligarchs, and eventually suspend imports of Russian energy. The US and Europe must not hope to avoid tough sanctions, because weak measures will not stop Putin.

And NATO must get tough again. It must rededicate itself to deterrence and collective defence. It must strengthen its military capabilities and strengthen its presence in Central Europe and the Baltics. Its members must contribute more to the capacity of the alliance and cease over dependence on the US which must seriously reconsider its recent decision to cut its defence budget.

The West must also capitalise on the energy revolution that has come from shale gas and oil now enormously abundant in the United States which now has 100 years reserves of natural gas. There is abundant shale also in Britain and Europe. The West must collaborate in developing this resource and weaken a main Russia weapon, its huge energy reserves, on which Europe remains dependent.

One expects in the foreign ministries of Caricom, there is at least some discussion on this grave global threat posed by the world’s most dangerous man.

* Ralph Maraj is a playwright and former cabinet minister.