Putin The Rational Actor?
Things are moving quickly in Ukraine, and it seems that everyone has an opinion. Many of the long-time Russia watchers have been saying “I told you so”, but as usual, that is annoying and unhelpful.
At this point, the question must be asked, “What if Putin is not a rational actor?” And if he is not a rational actor, what happens then? Does Russia’s Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, follow through anyway? My gut says yes. And after the heights of pandering that were reached at the Federation Council on Saturday night [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlc4-VMDlOM&feature=youtu.be], it is safe to say that there are no checks on Putin’s power. And who can or will challenge Putin at this point? It is becoming clear that the West will not or cannot act in a meaningful way. There were rumours floating around last night about Germany dragging their feet on revoking Russia’s membership in the G8. And NATO’s statement last night echoed support for Ukraine’s sovereignty [http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_texts_107681.htm], but gave no consequences for what would happen if Russia did not honor it.
Lithuania and Poland reportedly called for consultations according to NATO’s Article 4 [http://www.lithuaniatribune.com/64476/lithuanian-polish-presidents-call-for-nato-treaty-article-4-consultations-201464476/], but the Rasmussen denied this at a press conference last night.
Even the option where Tymoshenko goes to Moscow and hands over Crimea to Putin, but heroically averts World War 3, is off the table. But I would not exactly discount that at this point. Maybe it would not be Tymoshenko, but another Ukrainian politician.
So the answer lies with Dmitry Medvedev’s government. But it has been declawed and defanged. The final humiliation in September 2011 was… well, it was final. Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin threatened dire economic costs for taking Russia to the brink of war [https://twitter.com/Aleksei_Kudrin/status/439774457453092864], but he is not even in the Government anymore. The current Finance Minister, Anton Siluanov, is probably also unhappy, but he doesn’t have much clout either.
The Ministry of Defence is probably eating this up. I imagine that they have dreamed of this for years.
And who else is there? There isn’t anybody. There is no respected voice of reason in the Russian establishment who is willing to speak up and call this a massive miscalculation.
Even if there were a group large enough or powerful enough to oust Putin, who would or could they replace him with? How do you reconstitute Putinism without Putin [https://twitter.com/MarkGaleotti/status/440015534533660672]? You cannot. It is impossible. The whole system (and all that lovely money) would collapse. But it may do so anyway.
In the end, Putin has fractured his own elites to such an extent that a coup is nearly impossible. They could not coordinate an overthrow because they’d be too busy bickering over who got what and how much. And forget an agreement on a replacement. They had a compromise figure in Medvedev, and that completely failed.
So where does this leave us?
Putin sits down for talks, pushes the Western powers as far as he can (everything east of the Dnipro?), and declares himself “satisfied”. Then whatever is left of Ukraine becomes a kind of buffer state with Polish and Lithuanian troops protecting it. And this becomes the status quo until something else goes wrong.