Climate change is real.
And not just in the physical sense; political climate change is clearly upon us, with potential consequences nearly as dire.
A quick glance at the landscape tells us that not all the players involved are playing the same game. The West, particularly since the ascension of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States, and the economic fallout across Europe after the Great Recession, has opted largely for “soft” power; an alternating mix of sanctions and bribes, but with little to no application of military force.
Russia, clearly, is playing by a different set of rules.
Not so much in the sense that the Russian Army invaded Crimea. It’s almost certainly the case, of course, despite the ridiculous response from the Kremlin that those troops wearing Russian uniforms (with patches removed), driving Russian vehicles (with markings removed, but apparently in some cases plates intact), were not Russian soldiers, but local “volunteers”, who sprang up out of the ground as a fully-equipped modern military force without anyone in Ukraine having the foggiest idea that they even existed.
Rather, it’s the game that Russia has been playing for some time now, particularly since their invasion of Georgia. There was another murky situation; a breakaway region of a former Soviet state, with ethnic Russians involved. Russia cloaking its actions under the mantle of humanitarian intervention. Georgia, in effect, served as a proving ground for what may turn out to be the means by which Russia takes back a significant amount of the territory it lost in the fall of the Soviet Union.
Consider: Putin has stated that Russia will not invade Ukraine. For some people, this was a reassuring statement.
Some people are hopelessly naive.
Putin doesn’t have to invade Ukraine. All Putin has to do is to be ready to invade Ukraine, and politically undermine the new government in Kiev. With a little time, some careful propaganda, and the reassuring (to separatists) presence of Russian troops on the border, a healthy chunk of eastern Ukraine will, in effect, ask to be invaded. They’ll hold a referendum, secede from Ukraine, and become part of Russia.
Consider: Russia has been advocating a federal system in Ukraine, with each region being granted a significant amount of political autonomy. Some people view this as a means of making sure that ethnic minorities will have their rights protected.
Some people remain hopelessly naive.
In pushing for a federal system, Russia is, in effect, slicing up the pizza that is Ukraine. Once it’s all sliced up, the only remaining action is to eat the pieces you want. Russia has a clear interest in obtaining the predominantly-Russian slices of the country. Now, it could be argued that those regions are only predominantly-Russian because Stalin either intentionally or inadvertently starved a significant portion of the local Ukrainian populace to death decades ago, but that’s not really relevant to the situation at hand. Those regions have a high percentage of ethnic Russians now.
These are actions that could arguably be accomplished through the application of “soft” power, but Russia has elected to back them up with a military presence. That presence serves as a catalyst, enhancing the reaction to the gentler reagents of soft power.
The West has chosen to act purely through soft power in this crisis, to an almost ridiculous level of “softness”. I’m fairly certain there are fluffy kittens out there somewhere in the world that are gentler to the touch than the targeted sanctions of the West, but I suspect you might find them difficult to locate. It makes a sort of sense; rather than punish Russia as a whole, given that the state functions to an extent as a rather despotic plutocracy, these sanctions target individuals.
Unfortunately, what it amounts to for most of those individuals is… an inconvenience. Akin to being told that a particular restaurant is closing early for the evening; you may have had your heart set on that perfect plate of tiramisu, but you can find something nearly as good elsewhere.
I’ve heard the situation compared to poker on a regular basis, with Putin hoping that the West will not call his bluff. The failure of that analogy is that this is a game where all the cards are clearly in view. Putin doesn’t have to bluff; he has the winning hand. Even in terms of soft power.
Enact serious sanctions on Russia? Enjoy the coming winter without your gas supplies. Oh, and that whole Iran thing? Yeah, you can just forget about that. Oh, and look, China doesn’t have any interest in supporting your sanctions, so it’s not like I don’t have a potentially massive trading partner in a reasonably convenient location.
Militarily the situation is even worse. Russia has deployed a tithe of their military to the Ukrainian border, yet that tithe is sufficiently large that cash-strapped Europe would have a difficult time responding. This isn’t a situation where you can just send in air strikes with minimal risk; unlike previous opponents, these aren’t half-trained recruits in poorly maintained units crippled by graft and corruption, using decades-old Soviet hardware. While it’s doubtful that they’re up to the standards of the best the West has to offer, these are trained soldiers using reasonably modern equipment. Barring the sort of overwhelming force applied in the first Gulf War, there would be significant casualties.
Which brings us to the whole “massive nuclear weapons stockpile” bit. That sort of large-scale conflict raises the specter of a nuclear standoff, with Putin likely (and probably rightly) convinced that the West simply doesn’t have the stones to play that particular game of roulette.
Now, this isn’t the Return of the Cold War: Putin Strikes Back. Russia simply doesn’t have the economy to compete with NATO in any real sense. What they do have is revealed most tellingly in the public persona of their president. The bare-chested bear-wrestling persona of Putin.
Suffice to say that what Russia has, in this particular euphemism, is made of brass and comes in pairs.
And confronted with a war-weary United States and a stereotypically ineffectual Europe, that may be all they need.