How to Solve the Putin Problem
Especially when dealing with Russians, subtlety gets you nowhere; you must tell them, bluntly, what you want to happen. For example, when someone asked President Reagan to explain the objective of his Cold War strategy he replied: We win, they lose.
As President Reagan might have put it: Well, here we go again....
Last month’s shoot down of Malaysia Air Flight 17 over Ukraine has made clear to just about everyone -- certainly to President Obama and even to some of Western Europe’s most feckless leaders -- what should have been obvious a long time ago: Russian President Vladimir Putin is a serious threat to world peace.
Belatedly, but now with considerable precision and skill, the president and his European counterparts have begun to impose a range of financial sanctions against Russian energy companies, banks, and even against some of those individual Russian billionaires known as oligarchs. Imposing sanctions is the right strategy; what they haven’t got right is the objective of these sanctions.
Based on statements from the president, from administration officials and from European leaders including British Prime Minister David Cameron and Germany’s Angela Merkel, the purpose of these sanctions is to punish Putin and make him see the error of his ways. More precisely, they’d like him to be satisfied with Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and to not gobble up the rest of Ukraine. Above all, they want him to not go beyond Ukraine -- to not threaten the independence of any other countries in Europe, for instance Latvia or Estonia.
Fat chance. If there is any lesson to be learned from studying European history -- or from growing up in a Brooklyn school yard as opposed to, say, attending the most exclusive prep school in Hawaii -- it’s that thugs like Putin don’t stop because they’ve been punished or because they see the error of their ways. Thugs have a high tolerance for pain, and they are incapable of changing their behavior. They keep going until someone takes them out -- permanently -- with a knockout punch.
That’s why the objective of our sanctions strategy should be to get the Russians who’ve been keeping Putin in power, or tolerating Putin in power, to throw that knockout punch.
They’d Rather Take Over Kaiser Aluminum than Kiev
The key to forcing these Russians to act, and thus to making the sanctions strategy succeed, will be to rapidly widen the gap that already exists between their financial interests and Putin’s political ambitions. Russia’s corporate business leaders don’t really care about Ukraine, or about Putin’s lunatic dream of re-creating the old Romanov Empire. They fight in boardrooms, not on battlefields; they would rather launch a hostile takeover bid for Kaiser Aluminum than for Kiev. Russia’s oligarchs are among the most pushy, self-indulgent, thoroughly unpleasant bunch of billionaires in history; the old phrase nouveau riche doesn’t come close to evoking their ostentatious behavior. All they care about are their yachts, their private jets, and the blonde-bombshell-shopoholic mistresses they stash at their multi-million-dollar condos in London, New York, and on the Riviera, and like to flash around at swishy restaurants.
Are they really willing to give up all this for -- Donetsk? Or for Riga, or Tallinn? Are you kidding?
That’s why the sanctions will work if the president and his European counterparts will keep tightening the screws; if they keep making commerce more difficult for Russia’s serious business executives, for instance by blocking their access to capital, and if they keep making life more miserable for Russia’s playboy oligarchs, for instance by canceling their credit cards and denying landing rights to their private jets. And if the president and European leaders keep telling these Russians -- bluntly and publicly -- that all this will end the moment Vladimir Putin leaves the Kremlin for good.
Russia after Putin may not be a Western-style democracy -- at least, not for a while -- but without Putin in power Russia won’t be a threat to world peace. That’s because today’s Russia is less like the old Soviet Union and more like a 1950s-style Latin American dictatorship. The old Soviet Union was a top-to-bottom police state in which the Communist Party, led by the Politburo, dominated every aspect of public and personal life throughout the country. Not much changed when one General Secretary of the Communist Party replaced another. The new Russia is more of a one-man show; although Putin likes to think of himself as another Joseph Stalin, he’s more like Argentina’s Juan Peron (well, Juan Peron with nuclear bombs) and it’s highly unlikely than any successor would pick up where Putin left off by continuing to go after Ukraine or otherwise threatening Europe’s political stability. Putin’s immediate successor may not be one of Russia’s emerging democracy-minded superstars like Gary Kasparov, the former chess champion. But he’s more likely to focus on keeping Russia’s economy afloat than on recreating the old Romanov Empire.
Putin’s Their Problem, Not Ours
Simply put, we should make clear to the Russian business executives and oligarchs who are the target of Western sanctions that Putin is their problem, not ours. These people may lack the spark of political genius or the high-minded patriotism that drove our country’s Founding Fathers -- but they aren’t stupid. It won’t be long before a bunch of them get together for a quiet conversation -- perhaps in a Moscow board room, more likely on a yacht anchored off the Cote d’Azur -- to, um, decide what might be best for Russia’s future.
Since subtlety doesn’t work with Russians, the president and his European counterparts should also make absolutely clear that we have no interest whatever in how these people solve their Putin problem. If they can talk good old Vladimir into leaving the Kremlin with full military honors and a 21-gun salute -- that would be fine with us. If Putin is too too stubborn to acknowledge that his career is over, and the only way to get him out of the Kremlin is feet-first, with a bullet hole in the back of his head -- that would also be okay with us.
Nor would we object to a bit of poetic justice.... For instance, if the next time Putin’s flying back to Moscow from yet another visit with his good friends in Cuba, or Venezuela, or Iran, his airplane gets blasted out of the sky by some murky para-military group that somehow, inexplicably, got its hands on a surface-to-air missile.
Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and Vice Chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council. He is author of How to Analyze Information and The Cure for Poverty.