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#4603, 12 August 2014
Obama’s Russian Dilemma
Amit Gupta
Associate Professor, Department of International Security, USAF Air War College, Alabama

Has the shooting down of MH-17 heralded the start of a new Cold War? Observers in the west have likened the situation in Europe to 1914 and the hawks in Western Europe and North America have been calling for tougher sanctions against Russia. Caught in the middle of all this is President Obama who would prefer that Russia and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin just went away.

From an American perspective, Vladimir Putin has become an irritant for while not posing an existential threat to the US and Western Europe, he does create enough waves to require some form of international action. After the annexation of Crimea, President Obama declared Russia to be a regional power and said that he was more concerned about a dirty bomb going off in New York. The American president was doing his best to minimise the American reaction to the events in Ukraine given his domestic political compulsions. First, the US is recovering from two wars the long term costs of which are over US$3 trillion.  Second, despite all the hype from Wall Street and the stock market, the economy remains fragile and cannot be pushed off the cliff by another conflict. Third, Americans have war fatigue as witnessed by the reluctance to get involved in Syria, and lastly, no one, except perhaps John Simon McCain, wants to get into a shooting war with the Russians.

Nor, in actual fact, do the Europeans, despite their protestations, want to do much about Russia. They depend on Russia for 30 per cent of their energy supplies and in an age of globalisation, Russian capital has penetrated the financial and real estate markets of the European continent. More importantly, the Europeans took the peace dividend from the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and drastically slashed their militaries. Despite events in Ukraine, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy - the big four - are not seriously discussing raising defense expenditures. Nor can they. Their aging populations and generous social welfare programmes require shifting money from guns to butter and not the other way around. So the question then arises, what to do about Russia?

Both the US and Europe are implementing harder sanctions that no doubt will hurt the Russian oligarchy.  There may also be a possible push from Europe to have the 2018 World Cup taken away from Moscow.  It that were to happen it would be a huge propaganda defeat for Putin since he used the Sochi Olympics to boost his international image. Having said that, there is a genuine danger that this will blow up in the face of the west because the Russians will turn the energy screws on Ukraine, and while the EU was very keen on having Ukraine move out from under the Russian umbrella, it is unlikely to foot the large bill for Ukraine’s economic problems and its energy supplies. 

Further, the Russians have the option of looking east although this is something that goes against the recent history and cultural mindset. Historically, the Russians have sought to be a western nation with the earthy Nikita Khrushchev telling them to be western and not perch on their toilet seats like eagles. Under Yeltsin and Putin the drive to become western has continued with the Russians being openly dismissive of the BRICS in public forums and claiming that they are a western nation. Yet, in the current climate of growing sanctions, it is the BRICs, particularly China, that can save Vladimir Putin’s regime - the recent US$40 billion energy deal with Beijing being a case in point. China, in fact, can be the driver for greater economic growth for Russia through the building of pipelines and infrastructure but Moscow must worry at the same time that this will make it economically dependent on its eastern neighbour. 

What is likely to happen, now that tighter sanctions have been implemented, is that after a decent waiting period the west can cool down the rhetoric about Russia while Moscow itself will be able to work around the sanctions. And given how every week a new issue catches the attention of the US media, Ukraine will be consigned to the back pages where it was before the shootdown of MH-17 put it back in the news as a crisis. Neither Europe nor the US is likely to push for military actions since it the one scenario that no one in Europe wants. 

Ironically, the real winners in this may be China and India. The Chinese have been worried about the US pivot to Asia and events in Ukraine take the heat off Beijing as it solves to deal with the Senakaku-Diaoyu islands and tensions in the South China Sea. India too can be a winner if it is able to use the Ukraine crisis to better engage Russia on issues of energy supply and arms sales because Russia desperately needs friends right now. India-Russia trade is pledged to cross the US$9 billion mark but it is a far cry from a figure comparable to India-China trade. This could be easier to do because Russia’s limited options in light of the sanctions force it to look east and to strike potentially lucrative deals with the very countries it once rejected as eastern and backward. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.

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