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Ted Kaufman: Putin really is struggling

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The situation in Ukraine is both complicated and dangerous, but I am more optimistic than most people I talk to here in Delaware. Many of them seem to think the people in eastern Ukraine are evenly split or even somewhat in favor of Russian involvement in their affairs. Others think Putin is playing a masterful chess game and will ultimately win it.

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I believe they are wrong on both counts. Pew Research Center surveys show 70 percent of Ukrainians living in the eastern part of the country say their country should remain united, rather than allow eastern provinces to secede. The percentage of all Ukrainians favoring unity is even higher — 77 percent. One of Pew’s most striking poll results is that by a majority of 58 percent to 27 percent Russian-speaking Ukrainians are for a united country. And three out of four Ukrainians view Russian involvement in their country’s affairs with suspicion.

As for Putin, the chess player implementing a grand plan to spread Russian dominance, I think it is becoming clearer every day that he badly misjudged the price he would pay for his Ukraine adventure. The incredibly expensive and corrupt Sochi Olympics fiasco upset a lot of Russians and gave some ammunition to reform-minded opponents. But Putin knew there’s nothing like fake outrage against foreign powers to appeal to nationalistic pride. He also knew he had developed Special Forces military that could take advantage of the ouster of the Ukraine’s President Yanukovych by taking over Crimea and destabilizing the rest of the country. And he bet that the Europeans, especially the Germans, would resist initiating serious economic sanctions against Russia because of their dependence on Russian oil and gas. Not looking much beyond the next couple of months, he thought he could get away with his incursions and pump up his approval numbers.

They are, indeed, at an all-time high. But foreign policy is a long-term game, and Putin’s chickens are starting to come home to roost. The huge mistake he made is not recognizing we have moved light-years away from the Cold War into a truly globalized world economy. Economic power now trumps military power, and private sector capital flow can be far more important than government actions.

In today’s world, Russia is neither a global military or economic power. President Obama was right when he said, “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors — not out of strength but out of weakness.” And John McCain, with whom I have recently seldom agreed on foreign policy, had the best line when he said, “Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country.”

From the day Putin started making trouble in Ukraine, the Russian economy has gone into free fall. Standard and Poor’s have reduced Russia’s bonds debt rating to one level above junk. The Russian stock market has had a precipitous fall, and the value of the ruble is at historic lows. Every week some corporate or financial institution has announced withdrawals from Russia. According to Financial Times, “Companies in sectors from banks to beer and cigarettes are feeling the pain from their Russian operations as Moscow’s stand-off with the west over Ukraine takes a heavier economic toll.” The European Central bank estimates capital flight from the country since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis is over $220 billion. Most economists believe the Russian economy is already in a recession.

In addition, the U.S. has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the world economy with detailed knowledge of who has the money and where they have it. The U.S.-targeted sanctions, even without European help, are having real impact on the billionaire Russian oligarchs surrounding Putin.

Putin, no doubt prodded by the oligarchs on whose support he depends, might finally have looked into that abyss and flinched. On May 7, Bloomberg reported “Russian stocks and bonds rallied the most in seven weeks and the ruble gained as President Vladimir Putin said he was pulling troops away from the Ukrainian border while urging separatists to delay a referendum to ease tension.”

The threat in Ukraine is not over. But President Putin, not much of a chess player but perhaps a reluctant realist, seems to be beginning to understand the dimensions of his blunder.

Ted Kaufman is a former U.S. senator from Delaware, and writes regularly for the News Journal. Contact Ted and read more of his work at tedkaufman.com.

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