Putin Is Trying to Outcrazy the West

With his annexation of parts of Ukraine on Friday, Vladimir Putin has set in motion forces that are turning Russia into a giant North Korea. It will be a paranoid, angry, isolated state, but unlike North Korea, the Russian version will be spread over 11 time zones — from the Arctic Sea to the Black Sea and from the edge of free Europe to the edge of Alaska — with thousands of nuclear warheads.

I have known a Russia that was strong, menacing, but stable — called the Soviet Union. I have known a Russia that was hopeful, potentially transitioning to democracy under Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and even the younger Putin. I have known a Russia that was a “bad boy” under an older Putin, hacking America, poisoning opposition figures, but still a stable, reliable oil exporter and occasional security partner with the U.S. when we needed Moscow’s help in a pinch.

But none of us have ever known the Russia that a now desperate, back-against-the-wall Putin seems hellbent on delivering — a pariah Russia; a big, humiliated Russia; a Russia that has sent many of its most talented engineers, programmers and scientists fleeing through any exit they can find. This would be a Russia that has already lost so many trading partners that it can survive only as an oil and natural gas colony of China, a Russia that is a failed state, spewing out instability from every pore.

Such a Russia would not be just a geopolitical threat. It would be a human tragedy of mammoth proportions. Putin’s North Koreanization of Russia is turning a country that once gave the world some of its most renowned authors, composers, musicians and scientists into a nation more adept at making potato chips than microchips, more famous for its poisoned underwear than its haute couture and more focused on unlocking its underground reservoirs of gas and oil than on its aboveground reservoirs of human genius and creativity. The whole world is diminished by Putin’s diminishing of Russia.

But with Friday’s annexation, it’s hard to see any other outcome as long as Putin is in power. Why? Game theorist Thomas Schelling famously suggested that if you are playing chicken with another driver, the best way to win — the best way to get the other driver to swerve out of the way first — is if before the game starts you very conspicuously unscrew your steering wheel and throw it out the window. Message to the other driver: I’d love to get out of the way, but I can’t control my car anymore. You better swerve!

Trying to always outcrazy your opponent is a North Korean specialty. Now, Putin has adopted it, announcing with great fanfare that Russia is annexing four Ukrainian regions: Luhansk and Donetsk, the two Russian-backed regions where pro-Putin forces have been fighting Kyiv since 2014, and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, which have been occupied since shortly after Putin’s invasion in February. In a grand hall of the Kremlin, Putin declared Friday that the residents of these four regions would become Russia’s citizens forever.

What is Putin up to? One can only speculate. Start with his domestic politics. Putin’s base is not the students at Moscow State University. His base is the right-wing nationalists, who have grown increasingly angry at Russia’s military humiliation in Ukraine. To hold their support, Putin may have felt the need to show that, with his reserve call-up and annexation, he is fighting a real war for Mother Russia, not just a vague special military operation.

However, this could also be Putin trying to maneuver a favorable negotiated settlement. I would not be surprised if he soon announces his willingness for a cease-fire — and a willingness to repair pipelines and resume gas shipments to any country ready to recognize Russia’s annexation.

Putin could then claim to his nationalist base that he got something for his war, even if it was hugely expensive, and now he’s content to stop. There is just one problem: Putin does not actually control all the territory he is annexing.

That means he can’t settle for any deal unless and until he’s driven the Ukrainians out of all the territory he now claims; otherwise he would be surrendering what he just made into sovereign Russian territory. This could be a very ominous development. Putin’s battered army does not seem capable of seizing more territory and, in fact, seems to be losing more by the day.

By claiming territory that he doesn’t fully control, I fear Putin is painting himself into a corner that he might one day feel he can escape only with a nuclear weapon.

In any event, Putin seems to be daring Kyiv and its Western allies to keep the war going into winter — when natural gas supplies in Europe will be constrained and prices could be astronomical — to recover territories, some of which his Ukrainian proxies have had under Russia’s influence since 2014.

Will Ukraine and the West swerve? Will they plug their noses and do a dirty deal with Putin to stop his filthy war? Or will Ukraine and the West take him on, head-on, by insisting that Putin get no territorial achievement out of this war, so we uphold the principle of the inadmissibility of seizing territory by force?

Do not be fooled: There will be pressure within Europe to swerve and accept such a Putin offer. That is surely Putin’s aim — to divide the Western alliance and walk away with a face-saving “victory.”

But there is another short-term risk for Putin. If the West doesn’t swerve, doesn’t opt for a deal with him, but instead doubles down with more arms and financial aid for Ukraine, there is a chance that Putin’s army will collapse.

That is unpredictable. But here is what is totally predictable: A dynamic is now in place that will push Putin’s Russia even more toward the North Korea model. It starts with Putin’s decision to cut off most natural gas supplies to Western Europe.

There is only one cardinal sin in the energy business: Never, ever, ever make yourself an unreliable supplier. No one will ever trust you again. Putin has made himself an unreliable supplier to some of his oldest and best customers, starting with Germany and much of the European Union. They are all now looking for alternative, long-term supplies of natural gas and building more renewable power.

It will take two to three years for the new pipeline networks coming from the Eastern Mediterranean and liquefied natural gas coming from the United States and North Africa to begin to sustainably replace Russian gas at scale. But when that happens, and when world natural gas supplies increase generally to compensate for the loss of Russia’s gas — and as more renewables come online — Putin could face a real economic challenge. His old customers may still buy some energy from Russia, but they will never rely so totally on Russia again. And China will squeeze him for deep discounts.

In short, Putin is eroding the biggest source — maybe his only source — of sustainable long-term income. At the same time, his illegal annexation of regions of Ukraine guarantees that the Western sanctions on Russia will stay in place, or even accelerate, which will only accelerate Russia’s migration to failed-state status, as more and more Russians with globally marketable skills surely leave.

I celebrate none of this. This is a time for Western leaders to be both tough and smart. They need to know when to swerve and when to make the other guy swerve, and when to leave some dignity out there for the other driver, even if he is behaving with utter disregard for anyone else. It may be that Putin has left us no choice but to learn to live with a Russian North Korea — at least as long as he is in charge. If that is the case, we’ll just have to make the best of it, but the best of it will be a much more unstable world.

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