Potemkin Village

I am most assuredly among in that camp which regards the current sanctions against Russia as edentulous, token, perfunctory, superficial, tepid, symbolic, and benign. The limited travel bans and asset freezes against certain individuals are certainly pathetically inadequate to register what should be West’s unremitting disgust at – and implacable opposition to – the invasion and annexation of part of a sovereign state. Moscow’s occupation of Crimea (not to mention its brazen machinations in eastern Ukraine) should be answered with diplomatic and economic measures so staggering, muscular and disruptive as to make any probable Western military response seem utterly superfluous.

Although I do not want to run afoul of PETA or offend the ASPCA, the bear’s snout needs to be relentlessly whacked with a Sunday edition of the New York Times – tightly wound and liberally doused with pepper spray – while teeming colonies of mites, ticks, and fleas are released into its coat. The rogue carnivore’s predatory instinct must be cured. It must be convinced that it is now confined to a far smaller habitat and it can no longer gluttonously forage in the forests of others… no matter how familiar the landscape may seem… even if the strategic setting of a ring of steel jaw traps is required to prevent its unseemly intrusion. Moreover, it must learn that we no longer live in the Neolithic Era and bears no longer spark a primal collective sense of fear and panic in human communities; however, in this modern, civilized global suburbia, stakeholders consider it a nuisance when wayward bears trespass on their property and rifle through their garbage. Often disproportionate steps are utilized to deter such encroachment; and, incorrigible interlopers are sometimes neutralized and banished to the remote wilderness.

OK, I realize that this ursine analogy of breaking the beast of bad habits is becoming contrived, gratuitous, and digressive; however, I am sure that you get my point: Far more exacting penalties should be imposed! Moreover, these structures should be specifically aimed at reminding Putin that Russia is not a superpower; nor, for that matter, a great power. The land mass over which he (mis)rules, is at best, a regional power… and, increasingly a rogue state at that. In that regard, it was especially appropriate that Russia should be suspended (hopefully permanently) from the G8. Moscow should have never been inducted to the globe’s most exclusive fraternity in the first place. Its chronically “immature” economy disqualifies it from such an exalted affiliation.

Indeed! Although patently puny, the current sanctions – as everyone, outside the shadow of the Kremlin’s onion domes, has acknowledged – have subjected the Russian economy to palpable convulsions. And, that such relatively innocuous measures have precipitated significant capital flight; riveting stock market corrections; sharp slides in the ruble; dramatic rating agency downgrades; and, in general, have so shaken investor confidence – obviously these dislocations betray the fragility and vulnerability of an anemic system already in decline. Also clearly exposed is the conspicuous lack of economic development and diversification – anachronistically reminiscent of the prescribed mono-crop plantation model of colonized states in the 19th century – as Russia’s revenue largely dependent on the exploitation of raw material resources such as oil and gas. John McCain was quite correct in his characterization of Russia as “a gas station masquerading as a country.” And, the Senator’s commentary became even more incisive when he clarified that the enterprise is “run by a mafia…”

I also very much concur with those analysts who describe the Putin regime as nothing more than a rapacious kleptocratic clique whose raison ďêtre is to systematically fleece the captive system of every single kopeck it can possibly extract from the nation which it regards as its own private ATM. Obviously such a corrupt, avaricious and cannibalistic criminal syndicate masquerading as an economy is an anomaly which is highly unstable and would be acutely susceptible to external strictures.

It would appear that Pentagon is not the only bureau of the US government which retains a vast arsenal of formidable weapons. Experts agree… a la Juan Zarate… that the Treasury Department has its own armory of financial arms which can deliver similarly destructive “shock and awe” on the economic battlefield. Treasury’s capability to ostracize foreign banks from international credit markets can eventually exert suffocating pressure even on national economies which are advanced, diversified and resilient. Considering that the Russian pseudo-economy is none of these, Treasury should readily possess the potential to bring it down overnight.  At the very least, Moscow should be afforded a demonstration of Treasury’s firepower.

Speaking of firepower, much has been made of the newly reinvigorated Russian army which is entrenched in Crimea and massed on Ukraine’s eastern border. Some observers acknowledge that it is the product of Putin’s overhaul of the military and concede that it is an effective fighting force. Others seem to marvel at the new and improved hardware it self-confidently displays. But, there have been far more skeptical assessments as well which even question the extent to which the modernization policy has actually been implemented. And, one must wonder if the persistent gremlins of low morale; logistical overreach; and deficiencies in communication between HQ and the field; have finally been exorcised. Moreover, we have not seen how the Russian units perform in actual combat. Even an army comprised of octogenarians equipped merely with water pistols and grocery carts will appear to be a triumphant conquering juggernaut when its forward march is not challenged in any meaningful way. Georgia is not a latter-day Sparta nor is Ukraine a contemporary incarnation of Prussia. Would Moscow actually prove a competitive conventional match to a less asymmetrically arrayed opponent?

And, for that matter, how fares the homefront? Obviously Putin has very artfully cultivated the image of a unified and stable Russia; and, ostensibly, the shambolic internal upheavals of the Yeltsin era are far less evident. Yet, the Russian state has become increasingly authoritarian under Putin who exhibits a nefarious nostalgia for Stalinist repression.  Media outlets which fail to tow the party line have been systematically shuttered and there is a curiously high mortality rate among investigative journalists. Non-state-sponsored demonstrations which do not showcase effusive popular support for the regime are quickly dispersed by the police; and, perhaps the most lenient punishment for challenging the Kremlin is house arrest – a sentence to which the few more prominent opposition politicians are routinely subjected. Yet, even though dissent has been largely banned and is ruthlessly suppressed whenever it emerges, resistance to the regime has hardly been extinguished.  On the contrary, despite his draconian decrees to eradicate it, Putin remains uncomfortably apprehensive of its next recurrence. And, the fact that he has in effect declared an eccentric female rock group to be Public Enemy #1, very tellingly reveals the immense depth of his insecurity. Indeed, at least one commentator has rather insightfully suggested that Putin’s determination to dismantle the democratic revolution in Kiev has far less to do with geopolitics than his own desperate objective to ensure his own survival by sending a preemptive warning to domestic dissenters not to attempt to replicate the populist uprising of the Maidan in Red Square. It is certainly interesting that so many Russian critics of the regime have unambiguously endorsed the current sanctions and that some would even welcome a dramatic expansion of the list of those apparatchiks affected. They realize that sanctions hit the crooked oligarchy where it hurts the most – in the bulging purse of its ill-gotten gain.

Although Putin has driven it underground, I detect the reverberations a wide reservoir of discontent… seething, festering, raging, swelling… beneath the surface for now, yet probing for an aperture through which to release its constrained fury. More robust economic sanctions will inevitably precipitate fissures in the decadent larcenocracy; indeed, as their capacity to steal is inhibited and the enormity of their take is limited by dwindling revenue, Vlad’s self-serving cronies may begin to regard Novorossiya as an increasingly inconvenient concept as the erstwhile enabler of oligarchic graft has now become an impediment. There has even been speculation that Putin may find himself the victim of a palace coup. At the very least, complications in the elite and incestuous bastions of his authority, will limit Putin’s room to maneuver. He will be weakened along with the entire rotten establishment over which he presides. There could be a demotic corollary as well. When those ordinary Muscovites who so giddily celebrated the “restoration” of Crimea realize that the unanticipated costs of the real estate acquisition will now be absorbed by them in the form of a plummeting ruble, inflation, and further economic downturn – they may realize that the price of Putin’s imperium is far steeper than they can afford to pay. Instead of rallying around the flag, the cash-strapped masses may become profoundly alienated from the regime. Propaganda is far more persuasive on a full stomach. This defection of Putinite loyalists, both high and low – and the rapidly eroding facade political unity as well as that of Putin’s own well-choreographed aura of invincibility and public adulation – could well be the signal for the legion of anti-regime activists to mobilize and exploit the cracks in a compromised cabal.

Although Catherine the Great may have been impressed by Grigory Potemkin’s elaborate fabrications of a prosperous, secure, and vibrant society – let us not fall so foolishly for the monumental Potemkin Village which is Putin’s Russia. The economy is as sclerotic as ever; its military prowess greatly exaggerated; and its domestic situation on the verge of tumult. And, if I might allude to another period in Russian history, more stringent economic sanctions might well serve as the catalyst to reduce the country to another, more debilitating, Time of Troubles which would make the turn of the 16th century look like the golden age in retrospect. And, I think it is this prospect of the wholesale destabilization of the Russian state – and the unfathomable chain of events which such a collapse might unleash – that realistically explains Washington’s hesitation to impose harsh economic sanctions. Considering its enormous nuclear stockpile, the potential of chaotic state failure immiserating Russia is a source of infinite anxiety to me… it is truly what keeps me up at night. However, I am no less alarmed by Putin’s demagoguery; duplicity; addiction to brinksmanship; and the provocative, reckless, and high risk, adventurism he is willing employ in order to achieve his compulsive and hegemonic mission to revive what he sees as Russian imperial glory. His behavior more closely resembles that of a gangster and gambler… not the responsible conduct of a national leader. Putin is not someone with whom the West should be doing business; and, the sooner his regime is consigned to the cesspool of Soviet history, the better. As more economic severe injunctions against Russia would certainly usher Putin & company more closely towards the door of nevermore, the much threatened embargos on the energy, mining, banking and arms sectors should be put firmly into place without any further delay.

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