THE BLOG
12/16/2014 11:54 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

Putin's Next Throw of the Dice -- Prepare for the Unexpected

Falling oil prices combined with sanctions push Russia's President Putin into a corner. Do not expect him willingly to accept that. Judging his actions over recent years, it is almost certain that he will try to regain the initiative.

For a long time, indeed years, President Putin has conveyed suspicion of an American design to subdue Russia, engineer regime change or even plan a war, most recently in his State of the Union speech December 4, 2014. Belligerent statements have come from people known to be close to Putin including Foreign Minister Lavrov upholding the Russian tradition of superb diplomacy on a tactical level. The proclivity to depict Russia as an innocent victim is evident. As the message turns more and more vociferous, odds are that Putin draws the conclusion that he is not being heard, pushed aside, or misunderstood.

The West (the U.S. and the EU) is analyzing what he is saying; we are blessed with a conveyor belt of newspaper columns, articles in journals, and analyses of various sorts. Most depict him as an aggressor determined to roll back some, but not all of Russia's losses after the end of the Cold War, dividing the Europeans, a person ready and willing to contest the existing world order, throwing out legal and moral pledges when opportune.

If that is the case an appropriate policy answer is on the shelf however unwelcome it may be for Western democracies surmising that confrontations, conflicts, and wars belonged to the dustbin of history after the collapse of the Soviet and Russian Empire in 1991. It consists of tit for tat which is simply speaking to respond with measures on the same level forcing Putin to escalate further or back down. Economically and militarily Russia is no match for the West. The Kremlin knows that. So Putin will blink first provided that the countermeasures are credible meaning that the West will not eschew armed conflict if so be it. Under the Cold War the communist leadership did back down every time the West responded in this way. From the textbook of history: The Berlin crises, the Cuba crisis, and the NATO Double-Track Decision in 1979 (offer the Warsaw Pact a mutual limitation of medium-range ballistic missiles and intermediate-range ballistic missiles combined with the threat that in case of disagreement NATO would deploy more middle-range nuclear weapons in Western Europe). It worked. Both sides behaved rationally, accepted common rules of the game, and knew pretty well where they had each other.

There is, however, another possibility, which is that Putin genuinely believes that the West and in particular the US are out to get him in one way or another. According to reports in the media, Germany's Chancellor Mrs. Merkel tried recently in a meeting lasting several hours to find out what he wanted in order to reconnoiter possibilities for a deal. In vain. Putin did not tune into the same wavelength, but ventured forth repeating accusations.

If the reality is that Russia under the leadership of Putin with the support of the country's elite and the large majority of the population takes this view, the West and indeed the rest of the world are in trouble. So is Russia, but let's put that aside for a while.

This is unknown terrain. The two sides' analysis and reading of each other is not congruous and offer no spectrum of common ground. Russia feels threaten; the West does not harbor any design of attacking Russia. Russia sees events in Ukraine, Caucasus and certain other areas part of the Soviet Union before 1991 as a plot unfolding to draw out its teeth and render it unable to defend itself; the West looks at it as the wheels of history with people throwing away the yoke after being subjugated by a political system they intensely disliked and forced into a Russian sphere of interest -- a Russian world -- foreign to them. Russia more or less agreed to or acquiesced in a number of Western operations in the former Yugoslavia, Libya, Iraq, and Syria, but concluded that the West did not honor what Russia saw as commitments to show restraint and draw the further conclusion that it must be due to a hidden agenda and that can only be crippling Russia; the West is perplexed because it did not want to antagonize Russia, but felt that the two parties shared a strategic design even if not completely analogous.

The Western analysis may be summarized in the following way. Russia is a backward country relying on export of resources -- more than 80 percent of total export -- with the only hope of getting out of this straitjacket modernizing through entering into a close economic relationship with the West having the financial resources, the technology and markets. No other country or countries around the world can match that. Russia may sell its energy to China and India, but it will take time to re-orient logistics and they have not so much to offer in return except of course money to pay for oil and gas. Strategically Russia is living in the shadow of terrorism and in particular sponsored by Muslim fanatics. As a reminder an attack in Chechnya linked to radical groups in the Middle East took place simultaneously with Putin's speech.

The U.S. and EU cannot understand why Russia does not share that analysis and instead of coming round to enter into some kind of partnership chooses the exact opposite interpretation depicting the West as a villain.

In a best case scenario it is talk at cross-purposes. In a worst case scenario it is a recipe for disaster.

President Putin has not given any clues telling which one of the above policies are the one in his drawer. Maybe he does not know. Maybe he does and finds them not mutually irreconcilable at least not in the short term pursuing both keeping options open.

For the West the dilemma is that any openings for a solution involve concessions deemed unacceptable, sacrificing principles and beliefs, abandoning, yes betraying, people and countries. If the West bites this bullet, it will not any longer be true to moral principles defended with pride during the Cold War.

The best hope for the West is to continue the sanctions, which combined with the falling oil price, may entice Putin to change track. Again when flipping the coin we find an ugly side. Namely that cornered, Putin may react violently.

The Prussian strategist von Clausewitz writing after the Napoleonic Wars spelled out what may happen:

When the disproportion of forces is so great that no modification of our own object can ensure us safety from a catastrophe, or where the probable continuance of the danger is so great that the greatest economy of our powers can no longer suffice to bring us to our object, then the tension of our powers should be concentrated for one desperate blow; he who is pressed on all sides expecting little help from things which promise none, will place his last and only reliance in the moral ascendancy which despair gives to courage, and look upon the greatest daring as the greatest wisdom -- at the same time employ the assistance of subtle stratagem, and if he does not succeed, will find in an honorable downfall the right to rise hereafter.

Putin's next throw of the dice may conform to this Clausewitzian behavior. It may be desperate, and designed to take the West with surprise, while not antagonizing China and India. The West may see Russia more and more isolated, but as long as Russia maintains good relations with China and India this is not how Moscow sees it. Or in other words: Chinese and Indian reactions -- not the West -- determine Putin's room of maneuver. Another element of a gradually changing world order.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller
Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.
Adjunct Professor Singapore Management University & Copenhagen Business School.
Honorary Alumnus, University of Copenhagen.