A dangerous game
“Humility” and “humiliation” may share a common linguistic root, but they convey different, even opposite, meanings. Although the first is usually admired, the other is always feared.
As his aggressive handling of the crisis in Ukraine has reminded us, humility is not part of Vladimir Putin’s personality. But he has made it clear that he believes he and Russia have suffered so much unjustified humiliation since the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s that he’s made it a personal priority to consign that international embarrassment to history.
At the same time he is not shy about harnessing that humiliation to power his whatever-it-takes campaign to restore Moscow and its subjects to their former glory, even if that glory is ultimately recognized only in the minds of fellow Russians. And so, although the tensions and uncertainties so unpleasantly common during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies may not be matched in this new international climate, there are certainly reasons to fret that the relationship between Putin and his exasperated critics will be strained by competing ambitions and conflicting priorities.
So far the United States and its European friends have been so concerned about the possible unappealing consequences of a major confrontation with Putin over Russia’s recent behavior toward Ukraine — and especially his hugely controversial annexation of Crimea — that the penalties assessed against Moscow have consisted of relatively mild economic sanctions.
That is, President Obama and his European friends have chosen to take the more humble diplomatic path for the time being, sparing Putin further humiliation.
That makes sense because they recognize that in the near term they must still work with Russia, no matter how awkward that may be, on prickly international issues such as the civil strife in Syria and the delicate relationship with Iran.
The risk in that approach is that it may overlook what Putin has in mind in Africa. When Boris Yeltsin was the president of Russia, he more or less abandoned Moscow’s economic ambitions in that area.
Peter Pham, who directs the Africa Center for The Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, has written that “in Putin’s 14 years at the center of power in Moscow, he has methodically revived a robust, strategic push for influence in sub-Saharan Africa,” where the attraction is oil and gas.
“Over the past decade, Russia has drawn on its reservoir of experience and contacts from the Soviet era to develop political, military and economic links to an array of African leaders,” Pham recently wrote, adding that some of these leaders “are no more dedicated to democratic norms than is the Kremlin.”
Furthermore, he observed, Moscow has recently sought to take advantage of oil and gas exploration programs as it seeks to strengthen its ties with Algeria.
The consequences of such an alliance could be significant: Together, Russia and Algeria would have the potential to control as much as 40 percent of Europe’s natural gas supplies. And so fuel is a key element in advancing Putin’s post-humiliation agenda.
Indeed, access to natural resources has always been a primary motivation for imperial competition, and so the West should not be surprised that Russian hunger for access to additional reserves of fossil fuels remains strong. At the same time, Russian designs on Ukraine evoke memories not so much of the Cold War as of the territorial rivalries that existed among the great powers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
When Catherine the Great carved up Poland or extended Russia’s realm to the Black Sea, she forced Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, France and Germany all to respond. It is not unreasonable for Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to be nervous today. Accordingly, Americans, too, have reason to be nervous. NATO expansion, a seemingly obvious thing to do when Russia was on its heels, means that the U.S. and NATO have pledged themselves to defend the territorial integrity of the three Baltic states. It is power politics of a dangerous kind.