What Game Is Putin Playing?

David Goldman, aka Spengler, has published a thoughtful piece about Putin, Ukraine, and the future of Russia. I say “published,” but “republished” is more accurate.  It first appeared nearly six years ago, in August 2008.  But “Americans Play Monopoly, Russians Chess” is as pertinent today as it was when it was first published.

Some scene setters:

1. On the night of November 22, 2004, Vladimir Putin watched the television news in his dacha near Moscow. People who were with Putin that night report his anger and disbelief at the unfolding “Orange” revolution in Ukraine. “They lied to me,” Putin said bitterly of the United States. “I’ll never trust them again.” The Russians still can’t fathom why the West threw over a potential strategic alliance for Ukraine.

2. Demographics. Goldman reminds us of the dismal truth: “The United Nations publishes population projections for Russia up to 2050, and I have extended these to 2100. If the UN demographers are correct, Russia’s adult population will fall from about 90 million today to only 20 million by the end of the century. Russia is the only country where abortions are more numerous than live births, a devastating gauge of national despair.”

Sure, extrapolation from present trends to future realties is always hazardous. But those present trends are also present realities, and in the case of Russia’s population they pose an existential threat. Putin has tried mightily to increase natality, and has had some modest success. But Goldman provides the demographic backdrop: “demographers observe that the number of Russian women of childbearing age is about to fall off a cliff. No matter how much the birth rate improves, the sharp fall in the number of prospective mothers will depress the number of births. UN forecasts show the number of Russians aged 20-29 falling from 25 million today to only 10 million by 2040.”

Yikes.  And what does this mean? It means that “Russia has passed the point of no return in terms of fertility. Although roughly four-fifths of the population of the Russian Federation is considered ethnic Russians, fertility is much higher among the Muslim minorities in Central Asia. Some demographers predict a Muslim majority in Russia by 2040, and by mid-century at the latest.”

3. And this brings us to the Ukraine. Goldman, remember, was writing in 2008, but he might have been writing yesterday.

The place to avert tragedy is in Ukraine. Russia will not permit Ukraine to drift to the West. Whether a country that never had an independent national existence prior to the collapse of communism should become the poster-child for national self-determination is a different question. The West has two choices: draw a line in the sand around Ukraine, or trade it to the Russians for something more important.

My proposal is simple: Russia’s help in containing nuclear proliferation and terrorism in the Middle East is of infinitely greater import to the West than the dubious self-determination of Ukraine. The West should do its best to pretend that the “Orange” revolution of 2004 and 2005 never happened, and secure Russia’s assistance in the Iranian nuclear issue as well as energy security in return for an understanding of Russia’s existential requirements in the near abroad. Anyone who thinks this sounds cynical should spend a week in Kiev.

Is Goldman right?

I do not know. Personally, I tend to regard Putin as an ex-KGB thug with an unfortunate nostalgia for the Soviet Leviathan. But Henry Kissinger had a point when, earlier this month, he observed that “for the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.” The Manichean temptation should be resisted in world affairs as well as in matters of theology. It is easy and dramatic to draw up armies of angels and devils. The actual troops on the world stage are seldom that easy to distinguish.  In the case of the Ukraine, Kissinger is probably correct: “Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West. But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.” Kissinger warned that Moscow must not move to force the Ukraine into satellite status “again.”  At the same time, he wrote, the West “must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then.”

Which leaves us where? Without as neat a story as we have been telling ourselves about Vladimir Putin and the Ukraine. Goldman ends with more food for thought: “If Washington chooses to demonize Russia, the likelihood is that Russia will become a spoiler with respect to American strategic interests in general, and use the Iranian problem to twist America’s tail. That is a serious risk indeed, for nuclear proliferation is the one means by which outlaw regimes can pose a serious threat to great powers. Russia confronts questions not of expediency, but of existence, and it will do whatever it can to gain maneuvering room should the West seek to ‘punish’ it for its actions in”— well, Goldman wrote “Georgia,” for this was 2008, remember, but were he writing today he would have written “Ukraine.”

Goldman’s scenario, like Kissinger’s, lacks the gratifying simplicity of an Us-versus-Them morality tale.  Like so many dramas on the world stage, it is really, if we could but scratch the surface, a case of Us playing alongside the other chaps, who are also Us.  It’s up to us — all of us, not just us in the West — whether that degenerates into and Us-versus-Us that is an Us-against-Them. “The test,” as Kissinger wrote, “is not absolute satisfaction but balanced dissatisfaction. If some solution based on these or comparable elements is not achieved, the drift toward confrontation will accelerate.”  He ends with a sober observation: “The time for that will come soon enough.”  As they used to tell us unruly boys at my Jesuit school Ver. Sap. Suff. — Verbum sapienti sufficit: “a word to the wise is sufficient.”  It seldom was, because we were seldom wise.