At first look, Russia seems to be in a bind. By the end of 2014, international sanctions had finally taken a toll. Moscow has suffered currency flight, inflation, and an economic slowdown that could quickly turn into a recession. Apple stopped selling its products in Russia, and lines for other consumer products stretched outside store entrances, deep into the street.
Now in 2015, it should be game, set, match, right? Hold that thought for a minute.
The consensus at this point (if such a thing really exists) is that President Valdimir Putin will soon cave in response to these financial pressures and moderate his extraterritorial ambitions. Russia's newest strongman will see the light, cry "uncle," and become a more docile, agreeable member of the international community. The Russian bear has been caged, so to speak.
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting in Samara, Russia, Monday, July 21, 2014. AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service
That's one way of thinking, and let's hope it's correct. But it seems far too optimistic given recent Russian history.
Here's a different outcome - one we can summarize as "nobody puts Putin in a corner."
What if Putin doubles down? And take it a step further - what if this former KGB officer, who poses as a populist and acts as an authoritarian - is playing an entirely different game, with different rules, than those assumed by the international community?
There are really only two options on the table for Putin - give-in to his detractors, or double-down on trouble-making. And if he goes with the latter, it means more militarism, more land-grabs, and the sorts of destabilizations that can lead to disaster.
Indeed, Crimea could just be the appetizer; maybe the Baltics are on the menu. Maybe even more after that.
A quick look at the scoreboard, apart from Russian stock prices and the falling ruble, tells a disturbing tale.
Despite all the tough talk from the European Union and the Obama administration about repercussions for Putin's action in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Putin is winning in both of those arenas. Crimea is now a province of Russia, and the unrest in Ukraine has created a conception of "NovoRossiya," or "new Russia." Putin himself has used it to refer to those areas, in public, and it was definitely not a slip up.
Putin was conveying a message, and crazy as it seems, he is definitely thinking big picture. If you put aside for a moment the idea that Russia's economic woes will dictate policy, the path forward for Putin becomes clear. He has above 80 percent support in recent polling, so clearly, the Russian people aren't holding him responsible for their financial woes.
In fact, they blame the West. Putin's propaganda, often laughed off in this country as silly and ham-fisted, is not meant for us. It is meant for the Russian people - and it has largely worked.
Big Vlad is now considered the defender of Russia's heritage and history in the face of continued insults from America, Europe, and the rest of the wimpy bourgeois non-Russians out there. Russia is economically boxed in, but Putin remains Russia's choice to break out of these internationalist constraints and restore Russia to its former glory.
That last part - about the reconstitution of the Soviet Empire - is really what we are talking about here. More and more analysts speak about it openly, and given Russian's trajectory over the last few years - blocking the U.S. at every turn while aggressively pushing its own ambitions - is a line of analysis that must be taken very seriously.
A piece-by-piece restoration of Soviet glory makes perfect sense for an unabashed strongman like Putin. His moves are much more about geography, resources, and the great game of civilization vs. civilization than any concerns over economic hardship or angry United Nations resolutions.
And though he is often described as a "thug," Putin's long term plan may in fact be paying attention to basic geopolitics. Halford John Mackinder, one of the first and greatest analysts of modern geopolitics, wrote in 1919 in his "Geopolitical Pivot of History":
"Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;
who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;
who rules the World-Island controls the world."
Putin is pushing Russia's influence outside its borders, pressing into Eastern Europe, and effectively seizing land on its immediate periphery. In fact, in Mackinder's "Pivot of History" theory, Russia falls in the "pivot area" - the centerpiece to the struggle for world dominance. This is all based in geographic determinism. Putin certainly knows this, and so is willfully building up geopolitical capital as a tradeoff for financial capital.
He is not the first dictator to act in this fashion, and ride the waves of populism and nationalism in pursuit of some greater glory for his people. The questions that remain are, how far will he go, and will anyone stop him?
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