A Western bargaining strategy concerning Putin

My personal stance is that allying with the Ukraine or other forms of intense meddling there are not really beneficial to my country and thus no defence policy.Our national security would rather be degraded by getting involved closely rather than staying away.

This is a quite egoistic view, of course: The view of a state as a club providing services to its members. It's not about the state as an entity that's providing welfare to foreign countries.

This doesn't mean economic aid is wrong, though: It's in part economic policy, and in part there's a 'feel good factor' provided to the club members as a state service to them.

There's also a way how supporting the Ukraine intensely may provide a 'feel good factor' to the citizens/club members large enough to justify the effort (short of war):
Experimental psychologists have found out long ago that most humans are not plain egoists. Most of us -I presume some very right wing folks rather not- are willing to sacrifice something in order to punish someone who has been unfair to a third person.
We have this pattern of behaviour apparently because it helps to build and maintain a community (a clan, a tribe). A bunch of 100% egoists has a much lesser case for building a community - and that's evolutionary inferior apparently. The few per cent egoists are basically free riders on the others' efforts to keep the community functional.

So we've got these instincts, and no doubt many of us are now wooing for the Ukrainians and interested in helping them. Yes, even though there's no substantial benefit for ourselves in sight.
Economists call this a preference, and it's perfectly legitimate for a state (government) to try to meet the citizens' preferences. That's even what a state is all about.

So basically there is a justifiable case for supporting the Ukraine with substantial effort. Now how to do it?

The typical reflexive reactions were already published:
* Proposal to help train the militias
* Proposal to supply weapons
* Sanctions against Russia
* Sanctions against Russia's plutocrats and political elite
* Annoying interference by OSCE and UN

This is the usual stuff, and doesn't require much of a strategy.

There is potential for a strategy, though: Putin's position isn't nearly as good as one might think under the impression of recent events. And that's where my intro about how to get around my long-held position matters:

Rational or not, Putin is not going to like having NATO or EU at Moscow's doorsteps.

Here's a graphic from my 2009-11 text "Strategic depth - always valuable?":

I'm sure Putin wouldn't agree with me on what I wrote back then, so the reasoning from that text isn't relevant here. The longest arrow shows the distance between Moscow and NATO during the Cold War, the two medium length ones show the distance today and the shortest one shows how it would be if the Ukraine joined NATO.

He's not going to like that, so he's going to prevent it. He cannot do so by splitting up the Ukraine:
Russian as mother tongue according to 2001 census, (c)Tovel
Very little of the Ukraine that's most close to Moscow is speaking Russian. He might cut away that small part up there, but that would gain only two or three hours worth of an armoured brigade's advance. Moscow would still be most unpleasantly close to NATO. Russia is simply not accustomed to this.
Putin might cut off some more parts of the Ukraine - especially in the East. This would only drive up the share of ethnic Ukrainians in the remainder of the country and would furthermore make them feel most vulnerable and opposed to Russia. The predictable outcome would be an application to join the NATO.

Putin may or may not have anticipated his success so far, but now he's in a most tricky situation. he's kind of near his culminating point. The farther he goes, the more the whole thing might blow up in his face. He cannot annex or control the whole Ukraine, after all. He lacks the troops and the domestic stability for this.

And this is where the West has an extremely powerful bargaining chip:
We should accept that the vast majority of Crimeans want to be part of Russia, and a Russo-Ukrainian border treaty moving some areas (the dark ones near the border in the map above) to Russia. But then Putin's in trouble: There would be a lingering threat of the Ukraine joining NATO (and the EU, which takes longer). He might get lucky and some European government might choose to block an application, but he cannot on his own effort keep NATO's great powers from entering an alliance with the Ukraine. The USA and a couple Balkan NATO members (for robust lines of communication) would already suffice to turn the Ukraine into a firmly Western country.
About 500 km from Moscow.
That's at the doorstep by Russian standards.

The bargaining chip is even renewable: It's usable again and again for blackmailing as long as you don't consume it by realising the threat.

What could be achieved with this bargaining chip?
A settlement on the new, almost satisfactory Ukrainian borders, Russian 'peacekeeper' withdrawal from Transnistria, withdrawal from Abchasia and South Ossetia?
A lot.

But that would be a strategic approach to the problem, may run counter to some instincts and it wouldn't benefit the MIC or please the 'hawks'. One would also need to explain it to every new head of government in involved countries to sustain the threat.

- - - - -

By the way; Luttwak offered an alternative to reflexive sanctions: Increase Russia's brain drain by attracting well-educated professionals as immigrants. That's decidedly unsexy for 'hawks' as well.
The United States and Germany would be in top starting positions to execute this alternative strategy. It would be an anti-Russia and very long-term action, though. humans get used to almost everything, and the creeping normality of lack of talent in a country would probably not influence policies much.



  1. Use the sanctions to strengthen the ongoing brain drain.

    Using a NATO membership of Ukraine as blackmail sounds promising to constrain Russian ambitions. I doubt these are as limited as you suppose. Eastern Ukraine and Southern Ukraine are certainly up for grabs. they have a most important strategic role for Russian naval ambitions.
    I'm not sure the Ukrainian speaking parts of the country can be counted as staunch opponents of Russia, that's what the blackmailing strategy depends upon. I do believe it possible that the situation is much worse and there is support for Russia among the Ukrainian speaking population. Ongoing rule by the Maidan-crowd and the civil war could strengthen this group in numbers and resolve, carrying the armed struggle beyond the borders of Russian language speakers.

  2. SO: Your strategy seems sound, but lack one important detail: Why should the Russians believe "the West" would keep their word, after done deed? All indications in the past show that promises from the EU/NATO can't be trusted. Even if actions are not only based on mutual trust in "inofficial" promises, but on security council resolutions. [eg Resolution 1244's parts about the territorial integrety of 1999s Serbia.]

    On the account of NATO's eastern border staying at the Oder, the Russians agreed to remove forces from Germany. On the same account treaties about sovereignity concerning several former Soviet Republics have been made.
    What the Russians got out of agreeing, without it being explicitly made part of binding treaties, is shown in your map snippet.
    And do we actually believe, there's a single NATO/EU country that would sign a treaty explicitly banning Ukraine membership in either organisation? I don't.

    For me the whole Crimean/Ukraine situation directly stems from the Russians, and Putin in particular, not believing a single word out of the mouth of a single western head of government. And who can seriously fault them for that attitude? [Remember: "Russian's" are traditionally stronger on historical contexts in politics, then we "Westerners" are. And they've been continuosly screwed over in the past 100 years.]

    1. They would understand the power of that bargaining chip first hand, and I presume they would expect the West to keep exploiting it.
      This is only possible until the threat has been realized.

      I looked into the 2+4 treaty recently and there's no agreement about no NATO expansion in there (the Warsaw Pact was still quite intact, after all).

  3. Regarding the 2+4: Indeed, that's what I was saying in my second Paragraph: "without it being explicitly made part of binding treaties". It seems to have been made a big point behind the scenes, though.

    That being said: What worth is a bargaining chip, that can't really be bargained with, as one side (the Russians) will believe the others will "cash in" sooner or later anyways.

  4. What about simply making Ukraine ungovernable for several years? Is Europe willing to pay to keep the Kiev government afloat?

    Could Russia regain a lot of influence on the "bounce"?

    1. Step back from the impressions of recent events.
      The new government in Kiev is only getting into the job; its ineffective appearance may be gone within weeks already.

      Russia positioned itself as enemy and reduced the share of its followers inside the Ukraine by annexing the Crimea. Its influence on domestic Ukrainian politics is likely much diminished. The new government may even crack down on Moscow loyalists in bureaucracies effectively.

  5. I'm not sure how workable Luttwak's proposal is, even if he's someone generally worth paying attention to.

    Russia in 2014 is not exactly Russian in 1998. Professional salaries in top tier Russian cities are now comparable to those of Western Europe, and conservative patriotism is increasingly common in Russia's elite. Economic growth in Russia is also likely to be stronger in the Russia than in the West for the foreseeable future, and Russia is ramping up research spending while this is stagnant in most Western countries.

    Being on the USA sanctions list is now a point of pride for the Russian elite, and the entire State Duma passed a resolution requesting that they be sanctioned by the USA.

    A possible Russian counterattack against Luttwak's strategy would be for Russia to actively recruit the Russian diaspora back to Russia. The government could offer qualified diaspora talent a $20,000 cash grant, a luxury apartment in central Moscow or St. Petersburg (perhaps Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk for second tier talent), relocation expenses, and a guaranteed position paying a competitive salary.