Vladimir V. Putin himself is much more like another czar, Nicholas I, who stumbled into military conflict with the British and French and rejected calls for the basic reforms needed to enable Russia to compete with the world powers of the day. Nicholas had a cramped perspective and arrogant personality. Always attentive to the armed forces and the secret services, he overlooked the broader necessity to modernize Russia’s economy and society. His country paid dearly for this when his army was humbled in the Crimean War of 1853-56.--
His biggest miscalculation is about Russia itself. The emergency over Ukraine has jolted the Russian superrich to ship even more of their wealth to the West. Up to $70 billion has left the country this year alone.
Mr. Putin prided himself on bringing stability after the tumultuous years of Boris N. Yeltsin’s rule. Capital flight on this scale tells a different story. The World Bank is sounding the alarm about a halving of Russia’s growth rate if Mr. Putin continues with his Ukrainian obsession.
Just as worrisome for the Russian president should be the phenomenon of human flight. Hundreds of thousands of the brightest young Russians have packed their bags and left for Silicon Valley, New York and London. This has been happening since the collapse of Communism, but Mr. Putin has done nothing to arrest the trend.
Young people leave out of exasperation with bully-boy administrators and violent entrepreneurs. They want to live in a meritocracy where talent alone is what counts. Their model is Google’s Sergey Brin, not the seedy ministers and businessmen of Mr. Putin’s court. --
There was always skepticism about Mr. Putin’s good intentions in Eastern Europe; now there is outright hostility. Even Germany’s reliance on Russian gas imports has not stopped Chancellor Angela Merkel from rebuking Mr. Putin. The European Union is actively considering how to wean itself off dependency on Russian fuel.
Mr. Putin started the year with a display of Russian “soft power” at the Sochi Winter Olympics, where the closing ceremony presented a country of stylish, inoffensive sport and culture. The very next day, he sent troops to Crimea. And now the World Bank suggests Russia may suffer economic recession by the end of the year.
The signs are that Mr. Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov are starting to appreciate the implications of their self-inflicted geopolitical blunder. Mr. Lavrov has at least begun to talk to Secretary of State John Kerry.
Western powers are not going to start a second Crimean war, but they have more opportunities to exert pressure on Russia than Mr. Putin imagined. He would do well to consider the precedent of Czar Nicholas I.