No, this is not about Stig Traavik, the Norweigian ambassador to Jakarta, who is an Olympian. It’s about that other judoka with the love handles, Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin, the Russian president who, in the eyes of the West, is the tsar of an empire struggling to be reborn.
Some “former Obama diplomat” has been quoted describing Putin as a judo master. “And judo masters,” he says, “are famous for standing on the mat for one hour, waiting for a one-second opportunity.” Let’s see how the metaphor works.
As a geopolitical judo player, what has Putin been doing? He hasn’t been just standing on the mat. Against the West he has scored a yuko, a fraction of a point, by annexing Crimea. He has been making a lot of probing feints on Ukraine, but he’s not attempting a shoulder throw, the big ippon seio nage that’ll win him the match.
He’s not going deep into Ukraine, or even marching in the general direction of the small Baltic states: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—the equivalent of taking down the contest to grappling on the mat. Ground play in judo is a beastly exhausting business, and Putin, cumbered by a wounded Russian economy, doesn’t have the stamina for that. In fact, on my scorecard, Putin is trailing.
The overall impact of the sanctions that the US and its allies have inflicted on Russia is the equivalent of a waza-ari or half point. Another strong round of sanctions, including a lock-out of Russia from the Society of World Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), compounded by sunken oil prices and the erosion of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves because of maturing debts, will constitute a second waza-ari that will probably crush the Russian economy.
This will be a hollow victory for which the Western economies—and even those not involved in the contest—will pay a heavy price in terms of concomitant damages they will themselves sustain. This is where geopolitical disputes differ from competitive judo: there are no clear winners. Either everybody wins to some extent or everybody loses something. The only way towards a win-win situation for all is through diplomacy.
It’s tough engaging Putin in diplomacy. Sometimes he looks erratic, sometimes inscrutably clever. It’s easy to portray him as, in the words of Germany’s Angela Merkel, “out of touch with reality.” Sure, he has been reckless and irresponsible with the Russian economy. But he’s no madman with an evil streak in his DNA.
In the end, he’s just like anyone driven by fears and grievances, and an anger born of what he feels to be cruel humiliation. He was a KGB operative in East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. He must be nursing bitter memories of how Gorvachev was outmaneuvered and treated like a beggar by the West on the question of German unification and NATO expansion.
The world, including East Asia, is watching how wisely the West deals with Putin today. And how rationally Putin deals with the West, and with his truckloads of domestic problems.
A keen keeper of that vigil must be China, now a close friend to Russia. A China with imaginings that the South China Sea is its own version of Russia’s Crimea, would be interested to learn from unfolding events what Putin can get away with by chipping away at his western borders.
Putin will be well advised to suppress his hang-ups and become less adventurous at those borders. I think the US and its allies will welcome every good reason for lifting the sanctions that Putin can provide. The sanctions are also hurting them and creating risks.
It’s best for both sides, then, to engage in serious diplomacy. No matter how tough it may be, it beats competitive judo.