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Putin has new friends in the West. But what have his interventions cost him?

Russian and Ukrainian paper money and coins. Getty.

Russian and Ukrainian paper money and coins. Getty.


November 22, 2017   3 mins

No one can doubt that Vladimir Putin has extended Russia’s influence. It can be felt in a very direct way by some of his immediate neighbours – Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Further afield, there’s Russia’s pivotal intervention in the Syrian conflict – and the various rumours and allegations of interference in the democratic politics of several countries, including the United States. All in all, Putin appears to be running rings around an increasingly paranoid West.

As Michael Dempsey writes in a piece for Bloomberg, the Russian President is garnering plaudits at home and grudging respect elsewhere:

“Many Western analysts and policy makers believe that Putin has played a weak hand skillfully, evolved from a tactician into a first-rate strategist, and won a series of major victories for Russian diplomacy…

“This attitude is deeply held inside Russia as well, where recent polling shows that nearly 90 percent of the public has confidence in Putin’s handling of world affairs.”

But, Dempsey argues, this narrative is misleading:

“In my opinion, it pays too little attention to the long-term costs of Putin’s foreign engagements…”

These engagements have embroiled Russia in ongoing sets of commitments many of them military and most of them financial. Consider Syria:

“…while Assad currently enjoys the upper hand on the battlefield, there are still tens of thousands of embittered and heavily armed opposition fighters who will never accept his leadership. There are also thousands of Islamic State and al Qaeda-affiliated extremists who, despite battlefield setbacks, are likely to continue operating in Syria, meaning that Russian forces will have to remain engaged in combat there for the foreseeable future – at considerable cost and with more casualties…

“…as long as Assad remains in power, the international community is unlikely to provide significant reconstruction assistance to Syria, guaranteeing that Russia will be forced to foot at least part of the reconstruction cost…”

As for the Russian near abroad (i.e. the ex-Soviet bloc), Putin’s support for breakaway statelets like Transnistria and South Ossetia – largely unrecognised by the rest of the world – isn’t cost-free. Putin’s intervention in Ukraine was intended to shift the whole country back into the Russian sphere of influence, but has instead created two additional financially-dependent client states in Crimea and eastern Ukraine (with an on-off military conflict in the latter).

The irony is that in pushing back against the West, Putin has repeated many of the same mistakes made by America and her allies during the Bush-Blair era of ‘liberal interventionism’. Imposing oneself where one isn’t universally welcome is a high-risk strategy. Quick interventions become permanent commitments paid for in blood, treasure and international goodwill.
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There are other costs:

“Putin has turned a generation of Ukrainians against Russia – recent polling shows that while nearly 95 percent of Ukrainians viewed Russia positively as recently as 2010, that number now hovers in the low 40s, and is undoubtedly much lower than that in western Ukraine. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine also triggered a series of punishing economic sanctions from the U.S. and Europe…”

Note that these sanctions persist, despite Russia’s supposedly growing influence over Western politics. It is true that Putin has some fans in Europe and America, especially on the populist right. But on the other hand he has alienated liberal opinion – which used to be the biggest brake on the hawkish tendencies of the conventional right.

The irony is that in pushing back against the West, Putin has repeated many of the same mistakes made by America and her allies during the Bush-Blair era of ‘liberal interventionism’. Imposing oneself where one isn’t universally welcome is a high-risk strategy. Quick interventions become permanent commitments paid for in blood, treasure and international goodwill.

There are other, more effective ways of spreading one’s influence. For instance, by offering help, but waiting for an invitation before actually giving it. That way there is no diplomatic backlash, nor any long-term military or financial obligation.

In this respect the country with the smartest strategy is neither Russia nor America, but the People’s Republic of China.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Martin Z
MZ
Martin Z
3 years ago

Good article. Most of the arguments against lockdown miss the point that the impact on both the economy and healthcare system would be enormous and long lasting with no lockdown. If we are able to suppress the spread with the lockdown, and then keep infections under control with a combination of social distancing, shielding, and test and trace, that will be a much better outcome for both the economy and lives. It may be impossible, but we have to give it our best shot. We also maximize out optionality if an effective therapy is found, or vaccine becomes available.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago

“It’s better to lock down when you don’t need to, than not lock down when you do need to.” Really? So much for cost-benefit analysis. This duplicates the conclusion of Tom’s BBC documentary, and seems to simply brush off so much of the cogent argumentation against a tough lockdown that it presented. There is surely a difference between erring on the side of caution and a reckless policy of economic devastation.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
3 years ago

Another great interview. Why is the main stream media not doing this sort of thing – Rhetorical question we know why it is because they just want headline grabbing death figures to beat up politicians with.

So yet more evidence that Prof F got both R0 and IFR wrong by significant margins and when you put both of those errors together you get totally wrong apocalyptic predictions. Acting on his paper without proper peer review was a big mistake, especially given his track record of crying wolf in the past.

Yet more evidence that the Swedish approach was the right one, making all those who screamed at Sweden to lockdown harder look very silly. The German approach also locked down too hard too fast. It also goes a way towards explaining why New York was so badly hit – too many people being too loud in confined spaces.

The key question on whether we locked down too early is how close did we really come to overloading the health service? If you can find someone to answer that it would help put all this into perspective.

Rich Smith
RS
Rich Smith
3 years ago

As a counterpoint to this, the latest serological studies in NYC suggest an IFR of about 0.5%. This is close to Ferguson’s prediction of 0.6% IFR for the city.

It’s surprising that we still have such a range of predictions, but presumably we’ll get better data soon.

The article speculates that a third of people in the UK may have had it, but that doesn’t match my experience. Hardly anyone I know has had it. A huge number of people would have to be asymptomatic for that to be the case, which doesn’t feel right. The people I do know who have had it have infected people they have had contact with, who quickly exhibited symptoms.

When Boris got the thing, his fiancee, Cummings, Whitty, Hancock, and others were suddenly isolating with symptoms. You wouldn’t expect that if asymptomatic cases were a massive proportion.

Monica Elrod
Monica Elrod
3 years ago

I agree that we are operating with a lot of uncertainty, and while the virus does spread easily, not every case is lethal. So how do we balance the tradeoffs? We are bombarded daily with traumatic news about the virus, tragic cases of fatalities that leave us grieving and emotionally hungover. My concern is over the emotional impact, and more lives lost due to depression over money concerns, increased use of alcohol and drugs to get by. We are losing lives due to the shutdown as well…

Robin Bury
Robin Bury
3 years ago

It is the over 60s that covid is killing and about 95% of total deaths are in this age group. So? Well protect them and use physical distancing and not allow back to work Let the under 60s return to work and some will get sick but almost none will die according to figures I have read.