April is the Coolest Month — If You’re Vladimir Putin

Things are going Vladimir Putin’s way these days.

If you’re Prime Minister Putin, you’ve got to be humming snatches of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from the musical Oklahoma! these days.

Oh, what a beautiful morning

Oh, what a beautiful day,

I’ve got a beautiful feeling

Everything’s goin’ my way!

A few short weeks ago, the US MSM could barely contain itself over the triumphs of Barack Obama, when – “all in one week!” – he got to sign Obamacare and announce a new START treaty.  Since then, however, Putin’s Russia has been on a roll that frankly dwarfs Obama’s Big Week, racking up a series of geopolicy victories that will have significant long-term consequences, for Europe in particular.

If there is a tide in the affairs of men, it’s approaching mean low-low for individual liberty and national sovereignty.  If, on the other hand, you’re in favor of Russia exercising a veto over US and NATO defense arrangements, and admire the thought of Russia gaining the leverage over much of Europe that she has exercised over Ukraine through natural gas politics – well, then, your boat is bobbing and the tide is high.

April 2010 has seen the culmination of multiple Putin policy thrusts, efforts he has been working on for years – all in the period of just a few weeks.  Here is a list of the key ones.

1.  The US has agreed that Russia can withdraw from the New START treaty any time her leaders consider developments with our missile defense program “destabilizing.”  This is an unprecedented concession.  Even George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who famously disappointed missile defense hardliners over the modus vivendi they achieved with Russia on the matter, bargained harder than that.  Russia also got a US agreement that we will not convert any ICBM silos to use for missile defense while this treaty is in effect, and got us to agree to revert to encrypted telemetry data for test launches.  I outlined here and here the evidence suggesting that Obama stepped in to make these concessions in March, after months of negotiations that remained fruitless because the US team was holding to our more traditional position on these topics.

Given Obama’s decision to abandon the missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, precisely because of Russian objections, who thinks he will display any backbone at all when the Russians threaten to scuttle the New START treaty over our missile defense plans?

2.  Ukraine, under the new leadership of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich, agreed on 21 April to extend the Russian navy’s lease on Sevastopol for another 25 years, and to relinquish all pretense of national sovereignty over natural gas policy.  In exchange, Gazprom will sell gas to Ukraine at a 30% discount – instead of raising the rate as it did in 2008 and 2009, and pressuring Ukraine’s finances to near collapse as a means of gaining leverage over the previous Yushchenko government.

Both Yushchenko and his prime minister (and Yanukovich rival in the February election), Yulia Timoshenko, had resisted renewal of the Russian military lease on Sevastopol.  (Russia has a major port – Novorossiysk – on her own Black Sea coastline.  Keeping a lease on Sevastopol is a power move, not Moscow’s sole option for a naval base.)  The Ukrainian “Orange Revolution” of 2004 is dead, at least in the halls of government in Kiev.

3.  Not one but two of the hold-outs against the Gazprom “South Stream” gas pipeline project in Southeast Europe have agreed, in the last week, to join it.  Romania and Austria will host sections of the pipeline, putting in even greater question the viability of the competing “Nabucco” pipeline long in planning by a European consortium.

4.  Speaking of Nabucco, key players in it are Turkey, which holds a pivotal geographic position for pipelines bypassing Russia, and Azerbaijan, considered for several years the most likely source of gas for it.  Russia has been working to preempt the Azeri gas by the simple expedient of having Gazprom buy more and more of it, at top prices; but the threat of an independent rapprochement between Turkey and Azerbaijan has been giving hope to Nabucco backers for some months now.  The two nations have been on the verge of celebrating a joint diplomatic triumph this spring:  a reopening of the long-closed border between Turkey and Armenia, with the deal involving an Azeri commitment to grant Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh the maximum possible autonomy, and negotiate its status with Armenia.

The Armenian parliament voted last week, however, somewhat unexpectedly, against going ahead with the much-awaited agreement to reopen Armenia’s border with Turkey.  It appears that the moment of diplomatic celebration for Turkey and Azerbaijan is postponed indefinitely.  To the surprise of few regional observers, the Armenian vote occurred coincident with a visit to Moscow by Armenia’s new president, Serzhe Sargsyan, and was headlined next to the promise of a visit to Armenia by Dmitry Medvedev.  As this writer for the Russian office of the Heritage Foundation points out, Russia prefers to keep the nations of the Caucasus at odds with each other, as a method of maintaining her leverage with all sides.  Heading the Armenian deal off at the pass keeps alive one of the most effective means of averting too close a partnership between Ankara and Baku, should Moscow want to use it.

A delightful element of this saga, it’s worth mentioning, is Iran’s standing offer to step in and mediate the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, renewed with vigor earlier this year.

Graphic from Wikimedia Commons; by Sam Bailey

5.  Over in a less complex region – Poland – the first fallout from Lech Kaczynski’s untimely death, in the 10 April plane crash near Smolensk, is giving gas industry observers whiplash.  Russian gas crosses Poland into Central Europe through the Yamal-Europe pipeline, and for years a Polish holding company and Gazprom have maintained equal 48% shares in it.  Kaczynski, determined to retain gas policy independence from Russia, guarded that equality closely, standing up to Russian pressure and seeking diverse sources of energy to forestall Ukraine-like situations arising between Moscow and Warsaw.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk, however, has carved out his political niche as a more pro-Russian politician.  Within days of Kaczynski’s death, Poland began talks about Gazprom obtaining a 50% share of the Yamal-Europe pipeline.

Polish and Russian gas negotiators had – after prolonged and difficult talks – already agreed to a new contract for delivering Russian gas to Poland before Kaczynski’s death, and there is no way of knowing at the moment if Tusk made any unadvertised concessions to get that deal.  Putin did display a startling level of fraternal solicitude for Tusk, at both their groundbreaking joint commemoration ceremony at Katyn on 7 April and a joint visit to the site of the presidential plane crash a few days later.

But the signal of real change is that little 2% of the Yamal-Europe pipeline that Poland is now willing to cede to Gazprom.  Western observers got excited about the announcement in early April of Poland’s immense reserves of shale gas, but I was skeptical at the time that Putin’s Russia would simply accept an independent outcome in that regard.  The loss of Lech Kaczynski will almost certainly tilt Poland’s calculations more in Russia’s favor in the coming months; I wouldn’t count the shale gas chickens – as an advantage for Western companies or an independent Poland – until they’re hatched, grown, and sent to market.

It’s been a fine month’s work for Putin, who laid a wreath today at a memorial to the Soviet liberation troops in Austria, during his visit there to sign the South Stream pipeline agreement.  This swing through Europe will reportedly include stops in Italy and Ukraine.  The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye for Vladimir Putin in this historic April.  Everything’s going his way.

Cross-posted at Hot Air.

5 thoughts on “April is the Coolest Month — If You’re Vladimir Putin”

  1. The new START treaty must pass in the Senate and that is where our only certain hope lies that this incremental surrender can be stopped.

    If that fails we may get lucky and the Russians decide to abrogate the treaty. Finally, in 2012 a new President might purposely decide to ‘destabilize’ the nuclear equation, to compel the Russians to pull out of the treaty.

    Obama has no backbone, he’s an invertebrate.

  2. I’ve been pining for some time for the US to start drilling for all the oil & gas that we have on/off shore. One of the reasons is so that the price of oil/gas would drop substantially, thus starving Russia of its primary source of cash. With Russia in the poor house, Putin would be a lot less able to intimidate and bully. I’d love to see him humbled.

    “Obama has no backbone, he’s an invertebrate.”

    I’m not so sure Geoffrey. He seems to show some pretty good backbone when opposing allies or domestic opponents.

    1. Ritchie,

      There’s no backbone involved when he ‘stands up’ to those whom he knows won’t or can’t hit back. He ‘won’ remember? His domestic opponents had no ability whatsoever to stop any part of his domestic agenda for almost a full year.

      Has he ‘stood up to Iran, Russia, China, Venezuela or even little Cuba? So far, in the foreign arena he’s ‘stood-up’ to our allies, who are not going to hit back. Even Netanyahu is constrained and can only refuse to ‘cooperate’.

      He’s a narcissistic bully. A poseur and a fraud. Put him in a situation that calls for a real backbone and he’ll fold like a house of cards. Bullies always look tough until real fortitude is called for and then, they always capitulate because the ‘toughness’ they project is always a facade to cover up insecurity.

  3. “He’s a narcissistic bully.”

    I think you may be giving Obama a little bit of a pass here. I think he is not merely narcissistic, but a full blown *narcissist*. As in he’s not just showing narcissistic characteristics, but is a clinical narcissist. Even putting Bill Clinton to shame.

    This is a little lengthy, but if you have the time/desire….


    1. I didn’t mean to understate my view of Obama’s narcissism. It may well border on sociopathic. Sociopaths exhibit many of the same symptoms as narcissists, in fact they may both be different ends of the same spectrum, a matter of degree of psychological dysfunction and trauma.

      Several psychologists who blog, such as;
      neo-neocon; http://neoneocon.com
      Dr Sanity; http://drsanity.blogspot.com/
      and Shrinkwrapped; http://shrinkwrapped.blogs.com/blog/
      all fine, perceptive bloggers have speculated that there are indications in Obama’s behavior and past that make that a real possibility. (its speculative, because they can’t offer a diagnosis without personal contact)

      So I fully agree, that at the least, Obama is a full blown narcissist.

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