Merkel Is Playing Long Ball With Putin
I wrote a post yesterday that said the contemptuous treatment of President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 meeting was juvenile and counterproductive. I knew I would get a reaction. I have received dozens of e-mails stating that Putin got what he deserved and decrying what the writers saw as my support for appeasement. There also have been messages from people who agreed with me for the wrong reasons: These correspondents see Putin as leading a righteous fight against U.S. imperialism.
As a Russian who, thanks to Putin's policies, can't imagine a future in Russia, I take these e-mails to heart. I would like Putin's regime to fall and be replaced with a liberal, pro-European government that would put Russia on a convergence path with the European Union. I don't condone Putin's actions in Ukraine, starting with the annexation of Crimea and continuing with his support for separatist goons in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Still, baiting Putin isn't the right thing to do.
And that's what German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had the longest meeting with the Russian president at the G-20, thinks, too.
Yesterday, Merkel gave a lecture in Sydney, laying out a detailed vision of the Western strategy for dealing with Putin. Merkel has a unique perspective: She spent more than half her life in communist East Germany, a country controlled by Putin's colleagues from the KGB and the Soviet ruling elite. She sees Putin's attack on Ukraine as a return to Soviet-style strongman tactics.
Her proposed strategy stems from her experience:
We know that even small conflicts may have big complications very quickly, so we drew the conclusion from the past that this conflict cannot be resolved by military means because that would lead us into a military conflict with Russia, which would almost certainly not be of a limited geographical nature. On the other hand, that we cannot solve it militarily doesn't mean we can't solve it at all. So what sorts of instruments do we have at our disposal? Well, we have economic strength. We are called on to accept some disadvantages, but I do think economic power is one of our fortes as Western nations and I think we should use this, though not as an end in itself. The question is, how long do we wait for this to take effect? It's my personal experience from the history of the German Democratic Republic is that one should not lose hope too quickly. For 40 years we heard radio broadcasts about the imminent collapse of the GDR, and after 40 years, when everyone had lost hope, it happened.
In other words, Merkel hopes Western economic pressure will eventually force the Putin regime to back down and could even destroy it, as was the case for the Soviet Union. That's why the chancellor is a firm believer in sanctions, and that's why Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are wrong to believe the economic restrictions against Russia won't last.
Taking the long view allows Western leaders to feel free to insult Putin: It's politically popular and in 40 years other presidents and prime ministers will reap the fruit of victory, anyway. But that's not Merkel's way. She is willing to talk with Putin for hours. Her attitude shows she has absorbed the lessons of German history. In her lecture, she said World War I erupted because of a "lack of communication among the elites of almost all European states."
Merkel's expectations are rooted in history. Yet the world, and Russia, have changed since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Russian economy is no longer saddled with central planning or weighed down by a nuclear arms race. The price of oil is unlikely to fall to $10 a barrel ($22 in today's dollars), as it did in 1986. In fact, it could rebound next year. Besides, the current Western sanctions are in no way as isolating as those imposed on the Soviet Union. The world is bigger now, and large developing nations such as China, India and Brazil are still willing to work with Putin.
Under these conditions, the famed ability of Russians to put up with hardship for the sake of questionable ideals may allow Putin to hold out for a very long time. That would be bad news for most Ukrainians and for Russians who believe Putin is taking their country in the wrong direction. They shouldn't have to wait 40 years.
Merkel's determination to dig in for the long haul means Western leaders don't have a quick solution to the Ukraine crisis. That makes baiting Putin especially counterproductive: There may be a bigger crisis to resolve down the road, and solutions will be as limited as they are now. That's why Merkel is maintaining a respectful, if tense, dialogue with the aggressor, looking for an opening to achieve something that will work faster than economic pressure.
That is true leadership. Jibes and jeers are just cheap politicking.
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