Throw a rock into a quiet pond and you will see that ripples are created far past the rock’s impact. That’s what’s happening today as a result of decreasing oil prices across the world. I just filled up my gas tank today at Costco for $2.36/gallon! By the time you read this, prices could have fallen even further.
The Russian Central Bank also raised interest rates to stop the slide of the Russian ruble. If that doesn’t stop the Ruble’s slide, Russia could find itself in recession since 50 percent of its economy comes from petroleum production. Added to this is President Obama’s decision to add more sanctions against Russia due to its annexation of Crimea and destabilizing of eastern Ukraine. Russians are going to be feeling even more pain.
Will this cause Vladimir Putin to back off on his aggressive stance? The answer is probably no, according to a Dec. 16 article by Stratfor’s George Friedman called, “Viewing Russia From the Inside.” Russia’s history plays a bigger part in Russian decision making than do falling oil prices.
According to Friedman’s article, “There is always the expectation (in Russia) that prosperity will end and the normal restrictions of Russian poverty return.” The Russians have had 10 years of prosperity, but that will not change the country’s stance on Ukraine. Putin remains popular with poll ratings in the 70s and 80s. Russians are a people where enduring pain is part of the culture. The geopolitical importance of Ukraine as a buffer against European invasion is very real to Russians after two world wars in the 20th century, not to mention other invasions by the Swedes, the Poles, the Austrians and by Napoleon.
According to Friedman, Russia’s strength is endurance in the face of great hardship. They won’t break or back down as a result of their current pain. The sanctions that the U.S. and Europe are imposing more greatly reflect how the West would respond under the same circumstances, not how Putin and Russia will respond.
The American campaign slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid” is not how Russians think. That’s the difficulty of trying to punish anyone. We all respond differently to pain, be it on a personal or national level. Understanding this perspective helps to understand Russia’s probable response to western pressure.
Russians view Crimea as their land with the Russian navy stationed there since Premier Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in 1956. Putin’s annexation of Crimea was merely a statement of reality. Russians living in eastern Ukraine have the right to autonomy and to be protected from discrimination, just like the West accepts the fact that French Quebec wants autonomy. From Putin’s perspective, “What’s good for the goose is also good for the gander.”
What really rankles the Russians is the highhanded way Bill Clinton, in their view, gave Kosovo independence even though Russians strongly objected, but were too weak to do anything to stop it. Kosovo’s independence is no different in Russian eyes than the takeover of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, or the two Russian-dominated states in former Soviet Georgia. The Americans set the precedent but don’t like it when that pattern is repeated against their wishes.
According to Friedman, there are two perspectives working between the Russians and the Americans: the Russians see their history and the need for buffer countries to protect them from invasion. That’s why they’re doing what they’re doing in Ukraine. Putin would not object to a neutral neighboring Ukraine, but to have it be a member of NATO and the E.U. is unthinkable.
The United States has spent the last 100 years stopping a hegemon – a major world power – that threatens the U.S. This was why we entered World War I and World War II, and why we fought the Cold War from 1946-1991.
Russia’s expansion into Ukraine brings back memories of Hitler and Stalin and the Japanese conquering their neighbors. This global concept is incomprehensible to the Russians who see themselves acting defensively, not offensively, according to the Friedman. Russia doesn’t have the economy or the interest to expand their protection of Russian nationals in the Baltic States, or in the Caucasus, or Moldova.
As ripples in a quiet pond are the result of actions elsewhere, both Russia and the United States need to understand each other’s histories and experiences to know how to respond – probably the most difficult thing there is to do, for them and for us.