The global chessboard
Barack Obama may not think he is playing on “some global chessboard,” but it is pretty clear Vladimir Putin does. The contest is no longer an ideological one between the “free world” and Communism. It is a pragmatic one between democracy and authoritarianism. Which one can satisfy stakeholders sufficiently to survive the long run? There is nothing inevitable about the triumph of democracy, though associated with wise economic management it is difficult to beat on the merits.
Authoritarians tend to abuse their political power for economic benefit. There can be no clearer illustration of this phenomenon than erstwhile Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, whose palatial abode and documented graft are now open for all to see, even if the man himself has disappeared. It isn’t pretty. He seems to have lost even Russia’s backing, which has now been reduced from a $15 billion loan to a few fulminations from Prime Minister Medvedev.
If Moscow is going to act against the parliamentary takeover that Ukraine has witnessed, it won’t be to put Yanukovich back on his gold-plated toilet seat but rather to seize control of Crimea and perhaps a few provinces of eastern Ukraine. The precedents are clear: Trans-Dniester in Moldova as well as South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia host Russian troops, supposedly to protect them from their Russian-speaking inhabitants from the depredations of the authorities elected to serve in their capitals. Moscow could easily trump up that scenario in Crimea, where most of the population is Russian-speaking and loyal to Moscow rather than Kiev, which has been their capital only since 1954.
Another of Putin’s friends is at risk in Caracas. Despite expectations, at least some Russian interest in Venezuela survived the death of Hugo Chavez. His successor, President Maduro, visited the Kremlin last July amid speculation about increased Russian investment in Venezuela’s vast oil reserves. The two countries have also signed defense and security agreements, likely more important as symbols than military capability.
Maduro is now the target of gigantic demonstrations, sparked by students but sustained by unhappiness with rampant inflation, arrest of opposition politicians, crime, corruption and government ineffectiveness. Maduro has a lot more popular support, especially among Venezuela’s poor, than his counterpart in Ukraine, who relied on russophilia and brutality rather than handouts and counterdemonstrations. But Venezuela is in deep economic trouble, despite its vast oil wealth. Maduro is going to need a good deal more help than Putin is likely to offer.
Putin may abandon Yanukovich and Maduro, but he seems determined to continue to back Syria’s Bashar al Asad. This is puzzling, as Russia experts assure me Putin doesn’t like Asad or even what he is doing. Moscow has even gone along with a UN Security Council resolution that puts the weight of the blame for humanitarian abuse on the regime.
But the Russians see no preferable alternative. They aren’t willing to risk the uncertain outcome if the opposition wins, because of the growing predominance of extremist fighters in its midst. They appear impervious to the argument that continued fighting is creating more extremists than it is killing, some of whom are Chechens and Dagestanis who will no doubt want to return to their Russian homeland to wreck havoc once they are finished in Syria. Nor do they listen when Westerners tell them the Sunni world will long remember and resent the support Moscow has given to Damascus.
From the American perspective, none of these places is all that important. Ukraine is rightfully a European more than an American problem, and there is little we can do short of war to block Moscow if it decides to seize a piece of Ukraine’s territory. Venezuela is a pain in America’s derriere, but it needs desperately to continue sending 40% of its declining production of heavy oil to specially designed Gulf Coast refineries. Syria is not an imminent threat to the US, though the growth of extremism and spillover to Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey increasingly threaten American interests. We can ill afford to allow al Qaeda to solidify a foothold in eastern Syria, where it already controls territory.
The trouble is that even pawns are valuable in chess. Losing them, or causing your adversary to lose them, can make all the difference. If Putin loses in Ukraine, he is likely to double down in Syria. He doesn’t care much about Venezuela, which is in the US “near abroad.” So the current chess game boils down to whether the US can do something to help the Syrian opposition, and in so doing serve US interests in blocking extremists and avoiding spillover of Syria’s devastating war. President Obama has more options than the Administration has been willing to acknowledge. He needs to decide which ones to adopt.