To contain Putin on Ukraine, regulate his supply of money.
If you follow the debates about Ukraine, you can see three trends: those who use the crisis for humour, those who use it to reinforce preconceived views and those trying to figure out if it’s telling us something new about today’s world.
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For humour, I like Seth Meyers’s line: “Despite the fact that the Ukraine has been all over the news for the past few weeks, a survey found that 64 per cent of US students still couldn’t find Ukraine on a map. Said Vladimir Putin, ‘Soon nobody will.’ “
For self-reinforcement, the oped pages are full of the argument that Putin’s seizure of Crimea signals a return of either traditional 19th-century power politics or the Cold War — and anyone who thought globalisation had trumped such geopolitics is naïve.
For new thinking, I’m intrigued by an argument made by Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist, and Nader Mousavizadeh, a geopolitical consultant and Reuters columnist, in different ways: That Putin represents a new hybrid — leaders who are using the tools, and profits, from globalisation to promote, as Mousavizadeh put it, “strategic choices in direct opposition” to Western “values and interests.” Or as Gessen said in The Washington Post: “Russia is remaking itself as the leader of the anti-Western world… This is exactly how Russians see the events in Ukraine: The West is literally taking over, and only Russian troops can stand between the Slavic country’s unsuspecting citizens and the homosexuals marching in from Brussels.”
My own view is that today’s global economic and technological interdependence can’t, of course, make war obsolete — human beings will always surprise you — but globalisation does impose real restraints that shape geopolitics today more than you think. The Associated Press reported from Moscow last week that “recent figures suggest that Russia suffered roughly $70 billion of capital outflow in the first three months of the year, which is more than in all of 2013.” Putin didn’t miss that.
For reinforcement, I’d point to the very original take on this story offered by Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins foreign policy expert whose new book, The Road to Global Prosperity, argues that while global economics does not eliminate geopolitics, it does indeed trump global geopolitics today. It’s the key to trumping Putin, too. Putin runs a petro state. If it were not for the growth in the global market that globalisation created and the energy revenues that it produces for Russia, Putin and the oligarchs who form his power base would be living off exports of vodka and caviar.
And that tells us how to “end Putinism,” says Mandelbaum, “which would be good not only for the world, but also, and especially, for Russia. The tools are primarily economic: denying Russian oligarchs access to the Western financial system and reducing the energy revenues flowing into Putin’s coffers.”
It is a new kind of containment. When containment was primarily military in the Cold War, America bore a disproportionate share of the Western burden. Now that it’s economic, “the Europeans will have to contribute much more,” argues Mandelbaum. “The Germans will have to be willing to forgo their sales of machine tools and cars to Russia, the French will have to cut back or give up arms sales to the Putin regime, and the British will have to stop the Russian oligarchs from using London as a playground and money-laundering site. Most importantly, the Europeans will have to wean themselves from Russian gas.”
“In the age of globalisation, when the tools of geopolitics are more economic, everyone needs to sacrifice a little — rather than just a few of us giving up a lot — to sustain a global order where our values predominate,” said Mandelbaum. Crimea is not a test of whether globalisation is still enormously powerful in shaping today’s world, he added, “that is already clear. It is a test of the West and whether we will use this system to shape events our way.”