predominantly American entity – had expanded too close to Russian borders. Georgia tried to join NATO, but Russia put a quick end to that. Russians felt they extended a friendly hand to the U.S. after 9/11, but in response America was arraying missiles around its borders. (The U.S. says they are defensive, not offensive; Russians don’t see the distinction. They are probably right.)
The true colors of this new cold war came to light recently. In August 2008, according to Henry Paulson, the U.S. Treasury secretary at the time, “top level” Russian officials approached the Chinese during the Olympics in Beijing and proposed “that together they might sell big chunks of their GSE (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) holdings to force the U.S. to use its emergency authorities to prop up these companies.”
This incident took place just weeks before the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The U.S. economy was inches from revisiting the Stone Age. The proposed Russian-Chinese maneuver could have made such an outcome more likely. The Federal Reserve would have had to step in and buy Fannie’s and Freddie’s debt, and the dollar would have taken a dive, worsening the plunge in the U.S. economy. Our friend Putin wanted to bring the U.S. economy down without firing a single shot, just as he annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
Today anti-American sentiment is much greater in Russia. European sanctions are seen as entirely unjustified. Here is why: Crimea had a “democratic referendum,” and the Ukrainian conflict is believed to be not of Russia’s doing but rather an American attempt to destabilize Russia and bring Ukraine into NATO. In his annual speech at the Valdai conference last month, Putin said America had pushed an unwilling Europe into imposing sanctions on Russia. America is perceived as an imperialistic bully that, because of its economic and military power, puts its own self-interest above everyone else’s, and international law.
Putin uses anti-Americanism as a shiny object to detract attention from the weak Russian economy and other internal problems. In the short run, sanctions provide a convenient excuse for the weakening Russian economy and declining ruble. They have boosted Putin’s popularity (at least so far). As the Russian economy gets worse, anti-American sentiment will only rise.
This new version of the cold war has little in common with the one I grew up in. There are no ideological differences, and there is no arms race (at least not yet, and let’s be honest: Today neither country can afford one, especially Russia). At the core of it, we don’t like what Russia is doing to its neighbors, and Russia doesn’t like what we do to the rest of the (non-EU) world.
The criticisms of U.S. foreign policy voiced by Putin in his latest Valdai speech are shared by many Americans: The U.S. is culpable in the unresolved, open-ended Afghanistan adventure; the Iraq War; the almost-bombing of Syria, which may have destabilized the region further; and the creation of the Islamic State, which is in large part a by-product of all of the above. Yet Putin’s abominable Ukrainian excursion and the thousands of lives lost were never mentioned.
But there is also something less tangible that is influencing Russia’s behavior: a bruised ego. During the good old Soviet Union days, Russia was a superpower. It mattered. When it spoke, the world listened. The Russian people had a great sense of pride in their Rodina (Mother Russia). Today, if Russia did not have nuclear weapons, we’d pay much less attention to it than we do. Pick a developing country without oil whose president you can name. (Okay, we Americans can’t name the president of almost any other country, but you get the point.)
Anti-Americanism and Putin’s popularity will both rise as the Russian economy weakens. For instance, Putin took his own people hostage when he imposed sanctions on imports of European food. The impact on Europe will not be significant (the Russian economy is not very large in comparison to the European Union), but Russia is very dependent on these imports. In the U.S. consumers spend about 13 percent of their earnings on food, but in Russia that number is almost three times larger. Therefore, food inflation hurts Russians much more. Yet as food inflation spiked, so did Putin’s popularity and anti-Americanism. Even declining oil prices will be explained as a anti-Russian manipulation by the U.S.
Unfortunately, the only thing Russia has going for it today is its nuclear weapons. Russia has started to remind us of its military recently. According to NATO, the alliance “has conducted over 100 intercepts of Russian aircraft in 2014 to date, which is about three times more than were conducted in 2013.”
Every article needs a conclusion, but this one doesn’t have one. I am not sure what this new cold war means for the world. Will Russia start invading other neighboring countries? Will it test NATO resolve by invading Baltic countries that are part of NATO? I don’t know. Economic instability will eventually lead to political crises. We have plenty of economic instability going on around the world.
I’ll leave you with this thought: On March 7, 1936, the German army violated the Treaty of Versailles and entered into the Rhineland. Here is what Hitler later said:
“The forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in my life. If the French had then marched into the Rhineland, we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance.”
Those two days determined what Germany would do next – build out its army and start World War II.
Comparing Putin with Hitler, as one of my Russian friends put it, is “absolutely abominable” because it diminishes Hitler’s atrocities and overstates by a mile what Putin has accomplished to date. Yet it feels as if we are at a Putin-of-1936 moment. Will he turn into a Putin of 1939 and invade other countries? I don’t know. But the events of the past nine months have shown Putin’s willingness to defy international law and seize the advantage on the ground, betting – correctly so far – that the West won’t call his bluff.
As Garry Kasparov put it, while the West is playing chess, responding tactically to each turn of events, Putin is playing high-stakes poker. We ignore Putin at our own peril.
Vitaliy Katsenelson, CFA, is Chief Investment Officer at Investment Management Associates in Denver, Colo. To receive Vitaliy’s future articles by email or read his articles, click here.