There’s No Panic! in the Kremlin Disco

As the evidence of Russian guilt for the MH17 massacre mounts and becomes irrefutable, there is widespread conjecture that Putin has been backed into a corner, and that he and the siloviki may be in a state of panic. Color me skeptical. I don’t sense any panic! in the Kremlin disco.

Of course the massacre creates huge complications for Putin. But he will not even begin to panic until he is confronted with something far more threatening than has come out of western capitals in days since the atrocity.

Yes, there have been expressions of outrage. This outrage has been intensified by the desecration carried out by Putin’s thugs on the ground. But outrage is easy. Action is hard.

Here, the signs are much more encouraging to Putin. Merkel made it plain that she still thought it was essential to maintain good relations with Russia, and did not say anything serious about an increase in sanctions. France and Italy have been almost completely silent. Even the nation that suffered worst-the Netherlands-was still willing to give Putin “one last chance.”

Obama and Cameron may actually be playing the role of B’rer Fox to Putin’s B’rer Rabbit. Obama said the US will not provide arms to Ukraine, and again stated-as if this was necessary-US troops would not be deployed. Moreover, he called for an immediate cease fire in eastern Ukraine.

Well guess what. Putin is adamantly opposed to western arms flowing to Ukraine, and is also calling for a cease fire. Precisely because this would buy time and breathing space for his increasingly beleaguered creatures in Donetsk and Luhansk, and precisely because he knows that the obligations under any cease fire would be enforced asymmetrically, with Ukraine being under much more pressure from the west to conform than  the Russian proxy forces would be.

Meaning that Putin might throw Obama just like he did in Syria with regards to chemical weapons. By agreeing to what Obama has demanded, and which Germany and other Euros have demanded-a cease fire-Putin can defuse the pressure for now, and use the respite to bolster the battered rebels, and to give them time to continue to fortify the territories they hold. So by demanding a cease fire, Obama (and other western leaders) are throwing B’rer Rabbit Putin right into the briar patch.

Cameron demanded that Russia guarantee access to the site where MH17 landed. Putin could well grab at this too, and say that the only way he can do that is if Russian “peacekeepers” move in. This is another thing he’s wanted to do. (There are many pictures of armor in Russia with peacekeeping insignia painted on them.) Again into the briar patch.

But the main thing that Putin needs to do is to stall for time. He is no doubt calculating that previous spasms of outrage have dissipated rapidly, especially when corporate champions in Europe ramp up the pressure on their governments, and that this one will too. He has heard the “last chance” mantra before, and his experience is that each last chance is followed by another one. He knows that the Euros have no stomach for a confrontation, even one conducted purely with economic weapons, and that Obama has only little more appetite.

Even while the bodies remain unburied, Europe is divided over intensifying sanctions. Those divisions will only increase as time passes. And you may rest assured that Putin’s connections and agents of influence in the west are working overtime to exploit those divisions, and stoke the well-established tendencies in western governments to procrastinate and avoid confrontation. He saw it after Georgia. He saw it after Crimea. He has seen it repeatedly in the past 3 months over Ukraine.

Certainly Putin could have done without this. The massacre served no military purpose, and has interfered with his schemes in Ukraine. But it has not created an existential, panic-inducing threat to him or his regime. He views it as a setback, but one that he can manage with his usual mixture of double-talk, pacific gestures, and behind the scenes pressure exerted by his corporate allies in Europe and to a lesser extent the US.

The only thing that has the possibility of inducing anything approaching panic in Putin is for Obama and Merkel and the lesser lights in Europe to upset his calculations by playing against type. Impose crippling sanctions with the promise of removing them if Putin essentially capitulates on Ukraine, rather than threatening to impose more costs if he keeps it up.

That is, all the talk about a cornered, panic Putin is so much wishful thinking. It presumes that the shock of the event has caused western governments finally to see Putin as a monster who must be confronted robustly. There’s no evidence that this is the case even while emotions are running their hottest. And past experience suggests that the image of Putin as a monster can actually work to his advantage, because it makes timorous governments all the more intimidated from confronting him.

I would like to believe that the deaths of 298 innocents has not been in vain, and that their murders will resolve western leaders to do what it takes to confront Putin’s aggression. But I’m betting on form. And I am sure Putin is too.  He has weighed his foes, and found them wanting.

About Craig Pirrong 228 Articles

Affiliation: University of Houston

Dr Pirrong is Professor of Finance, and Energy Markets Director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston. He was previously Watson Family Professor of Commodity and Financial Risk Management at Oklahoma State University, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Washington University.

Professor Pirrong's research focuses on the organization of financial exchanges, derivatives clearing, competition between exchanges, commodity markets, derivatives market manipulation, the relation between market fundamentals and commodity price dynamics, and the implications of this relation for the pricing of commodity derivatives. He has published 30 articles in professional publications, is the author of three books, and has consulted widely, primarily on commodity and market manipulation-related issues.

He holds a Ph.D. in business economics from the University of Chicago.

Visit: Streetwise Professor

2 Comments on There’s No Panic! in the Kremlin Disco

  1. Hi,
    I am apt to agree with you and think that your view is balanced.
    Trouble is that Putin is a history buff when the leaders in the West are not and are being urged to scoop up the Ukraine by the US using NATO as a weapon
    he will see this as close to an invasion. Please also note that the masters
    of the Kremlin have had to face the Golden Horde, Napoleon and Hitler so
    when things get too close uncomfortable things occur.
    I think that all should back off and take stock and let the Dutch investigate
    the air crash as best as they can noting that this is a war zone so the
    usual rules do not apply.
    You see although the President is legal his government in the Ukraine
    has still to be confirmed by the electorate and the eastern people see
    the leaders in Kiev as being stooges of the EU and not representative
    of them.

  2. We supported the side that overthrew the elected government in Ukraine. Now we’re shocked and horrified at the twist and turn of events. I’m tired of the implied need to conduct foreign policy in Iraq,Afghanistan,Ukraine et al.

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