An imaginary memo to President Putin from an Old Friend:
Subject: Don’t overplay your hand
Your magnificent speech of March 18 announcing Crimea’s annexation hit the right notes: legitimate grievance, the greatness of Russia, personal glory. For the moment, everyone is looking at Moscow, everybody fears Russia. (It’s almost like old times.)
But remember, history is dialectical. Victory leads to defeat; defeat turns the tables. (As the Americans say, “What goes around comes around.”)
So think again about your initial triumphalism. Crimea is annexed, even though almost every other country rejects this. Some people think you’ve played from geopolitical weakness, that you are not a conqueror but simply making the best of a bad situation. You saw Russia hemmed in, crucial Ukraine on the verge of defection to Europe, the West ever more at Russia’s doorstep. You were desperate to block the Ukraine/EU “association” agreement, a catastrophic loss you had to stop or Russia’s greatness could never be redeemed. Which is it, strength or weakness? Perhaps even you are not sure. Crimea is ours but have we given ourselves a poisoned gift?
Beware the temptation of “splendid isolation.” Ultimately, no country can survive permanent ostracism. Russia’s suspension from the G-8 should not be worn as a merit badge. If we play our hand wrong, we could accumulate many such merit badges.
Beware overestimating your own sophistication. Kissinger says you are a genuine strategic thinker, not a mere improviser. That’s an impressive endorsement. But even strategists can push things too far. Remember that, as the British say, it’s possible to be too clever by half. In our case, backlash has only begun and even Russia’s capacity for suffering is not infinite.
Don’t confuse words and deeds. Words can always be manipulated (you’ve done a remarkable job) but behavior has consequences, and consequences also have consequences. (It would be great if Garry Kasparov were with us rather than against us.)
In particular, have you adequately measured second-order consequences? Has Crimea made an Iran nuclear agreement with the West more or less likely? Have you given Tehran cover or pushed it toward Washington? Have you made an Israeli-Palestinian agreement more or less likely? Which is better for Russia? Are you now obliged to support Assad more than ever to show Russia’s reliability? Even if he survives in power he’s a loser Russia should unload.
China is most important of course. Always remember their long-term interests lie more with the West than with us. Certainly they will get more Russian oil and gas as Europe diversifies against us. But Beijing has taken a quiet half step away from us politically. President Xi Jinping’s comment is an understatement: “…it matters if traditional friends cannot express support for (the other’s) actions.” Even comrade Lukashenko in Belarus is nervous: “Crimea is not dangerous, because it is now (safely) a part of Russia. (But) What is important is the precedent.” This is understandable. He’s got a lot of ethnic Russians on his side of the border with us. Altogether, you’ve burned a lot of bridges. No foreign leader can trust you going forward. You have become a rogue leader; Russia should not become a rogue state.
An obvious constraint on our freedom to maneuver is that any strong foreign policy requires a strong economy to undergird it. Russia’s, however, is fragile, not impervious to collapse. You must be cautious: our petro-state has clay feet standing in oil and gas.
Can we withstand hard sanctions? Inside our closed group in power, there are some who might jump ship. Your old KGB friends are solid because their basic desire is power not money. But your policy of “nationalizing the elite,” encouraging our rich Oligarchs to reduce their exposure to Western pressures, may not hold. Our stock market and the ruble have crashed, every month at least a billion dollars flee the country, assets are frozen, family members want to stay permanently in the West.
At this point you must even measure your own safety in power. Today you’re a hero but what goes up must at some point come down. Remember Caesar and the Ides of March. Is your own position absolutely impregnable?
The Chinese party has created stable succession at the top. We have a constitutional process but you made a mockery of it. (This is another precedent that could come back to haunt you.) Is it really unthinkable that you could be ousted?
And then there are the People, the Great Russian people you want to ‘gather in.’ For the moment you are a Russian hero, but Machiavelli was right in advising the Prince. The People are fickle. So long as times are good they are with you but watch out when times are hard. To be both loved and feared is best. If you must choose then fear is more powerful than love. Above all, avoid being hated because hatred is even stronger than fear and breeds rebellion. (Look at Maidan.)
Altogether, you have launched a dangerous game for Russia. If you know what you’re doing then Russia is back. If you play badly, things will end badly, for you as well as Russia.