Comments on the developing crisis in Ukraine
July 29, 2014
The US and Europe have no solution to the Russian problem. Their persistent refusal to perform even a superficial analysis of what the endgame in Ukraine might look like in Moscow is compounded with a consistent policy of self-delusion, wishful thinking, and self-defeating actions. If this sounds harsh, let me recap what we have seen over the last several months.
The Ukrainian opposition, with a hefty dollop of moral and perhaps even some material support from the West toppled the pro-Russian government. The trajectory was clear: Ukraine would move toward closer integration with the West, reviving talk of possible membership in NATO, and eventual accession to the European Union. Moscow was being asked to accept all of this without lifting a finger. In fact, it seems that the West had managed to persuade itself that Russia would not act because it could not be threatened by these developments. The illogic of this position is astounding albeit not new: since we do not harbor particularly aggressive designs on them today, they must know this and cannot possibly feel threatened; if they claim that they are threatened and act to counter these fears, then they must be lying and they must have some other, ulterior and sinister, motives. Sound familiar? It should. This is what both sides did to each other during the Cold War. The problem, of course, is that sometimes the fear is real and sometimes it is just a pretext. So the issue, really, is to figure out whether there might be something to it.
When Ukraine took a sharp turn to the West, Putinís policy there was in tatters. He moved quickly to salvage whatever he could with the largely improvised annexation of the Crimea. Irrespective of how popular this assertion of Russian power has been domestically, it did not solve his basic problem with respect to Ukraine: the country could not be allowed to move to the Western camp. (I hope no one seriously doubts that Russia sees such a camp despite the end of the Cold War.) This meant that Russia would use economic, diplomatic, and military pressure to influence Kiev. The West has grown accustomed to disregarding Russian wishes, as we did when we brushed away Yeltsinís protests about the enlargement of NATO and Putinís protests about abandoning the ABM treaty. (These chickens are also coming home to roost: having accused the US of violating the arms control regime in Romania, the Russians have now also violated it by testing medium-range cruise missiles.) This not only does not make them any less real, it actually aggravates the Russians who cannot but feel that the West only understands one language, the language of force.
As I argued months ago, the endgame here should be clear. There are only two ways for Ukraine to retain its remaining territorial integrity: it either obtains direct military assistance (including ground troops) from NATO or its government sharply turns pro-Russian. It would have been easier, of course, had the West moved before the Russians could arm the separatists with heavy weapons, helped them organize, and assisted them with intelligence and strategy. This would have secured the eastern provinces, making infiltration and communication much more difficult, which would have prevented any large-scale fighting. Instead, the West opted for limited sanctions.
As I have said before, sanctions will not only fail to stop Putin, they will strengthen his grip on power. How, exactly, does the West expect sanctions to work? If they are supposed to hurt people in Putinís inner circle or among the oligarchs, then what is their goal? That Putin suffers from pangs of conscience about some billionaires losing several millions and reverses his geopolitical strategy? Surely not. That these people somehow pressure him into reversing his strategy? By what means? Deliberation? Unlikely. Threatening to withhold their support? Not when they are so afraid of him that they would not even publicly acknowledge they are hurting. Ousting him in a palace coup? Not with Putin controlling the security apparatus and the armed forces. Maybe the military could depose him? Highly unlikely given the level of popular support he enjoys --- which has been increasing with Russiaís assertiveness --- and the resources he has poured into the military itself. No, the army and the police will stand behind him, which means any notion of an internal forcible removal is out of the question. Thus, there is absolutely no reason to expect that Putin would respond to such sanctionsÖ and the West should have known it.
After weeks of delusion in the West and deception in the East, Putinís behavior seems to have finally convinced the US and EU that these targeted sanctions are not going to do the trick. While Russia armed separatists and indirectly contributed to the (probably accidental) downing of a civilian airliner, the West was content to interpret any vague statement by Putin about resolving the crisis as an indication of his move toward a solution that would only favor the West. I hope that putting this in writing reveals just how misguided such an approach must be.
What, then, is the natural response to a failed strategy? More of the same, of course. This time, entire economic sectors will be targeted. Now the Russian economy is going to be badly hurt. How, exactly, does the West expect these sanctions to work? If they are supposed to impoverish Russia and spread misery among its citizens, then what is their goal? That Putin suffers from pangs of conscience about the plight of the Russian people and reverses his strategy? When has that ever happened with a ruler? That his popular support would crumble and either encourage the military to stage a coup or the populace to stage a revolution? First, either of these would require the relevant agent of change to blame Putin for the misery, and, as I have argued elsewhere, they will not. They will blame the West, and this will only solidify Putinís rule. Second, even if they did blame him, the military is unlikely to act. Russian military, like its Soviet predecessor, has been apolitical for a very long time, has no tradition of interference in politics, and has actually done very well under Putin. This can work to the advantage of pro-democracy forces, as it did when the military refused to support the palace coup attempt in 1991, but it can also work for pro-authoritarian forces, as it did when the military allowed itself to be violently purged by Stalin without doing anything to stop it. Without military support, no popular revolt is likely to succeed in anything other than having protesters killed by security forces. Third, even if the elites somehow topple Putin, there is no guarantee that it would not be the nationalists that come on top. After all, when Khurshchev fell mostly as a result of his domestic politics but partly as a result of the debacle in Cuba, his successor ramped up the military buildup, transforming the Soviet Union into a global superpower at the expense of its citizens. One interpretation of a Putin failure would be that he had overextended Russia. But the other would be that he had not gone far enough. Thus, there is absolutely no reason to expect that Putin would respond to these sanctions eitherÖ and the West should know that.
Sanctions, targeted, limited, and wide, will not coerce Putin into abandoning Ukraine to the West. Neither Kiev nor the West has offered an alternative that might tempt Putin into abandoning the separatists. He will stay the course despite recent hiccups like the accidental downing of the Malaysian airliner. The West must devise another strategy to influence him.
Putinís strategy in Ukraine is actually quite difficult to implement because contrary to many interpretations, it is not a war by proxy. Putin has no interest in a war in Ukraine. He has no interest in dismembering Ukraine. He has no interest in destabilizing Ukraine. He has no interest in independent eastern provinces of Ukraine. He is not supporting the separatists to enable them to rule these provinces but to put pressure on Kiev. What Putin wants is for Ukraine to return to the Russian fold. No more and no less. I am willing to bet that he would not care one bit which government rules in Kiev as long as it hews to the economic and security line that Moscow wants. This means no NATO and no EU.
Putin wants the separatists to be strong enough to survive Ukrainian military attempts to subdue them but not so strong that they might defy his wishes. This is very different from the usual ďwar by proxyĒ scenario, which involves using such groups to compensate for military weaknesses. The analogy here is not Pakistan in Kashmir but the USSR in Iran in 1946.
Putin needs the separatists to be independent from Moscow so that the faÁade of plausible deniability could be maintained. It matters not a hoot whether everyone in the West sees through this charade. It is not meant, at least not primarily, for the West. If Putin commits openly to the separatists, then he would burn his bridges should the conflict escalate. There would be no way out if Russian prestige and the credibility of his entire regime is on the line. If Russia enters this, it will have to fight because failure to do so would mean the end of Putin domestically. Having staked his rule and the legitimacy of his semi-authoritarian regime on rebuilding Russiaís military power and ensuring its rightful place under the sun, Putin would not survive an open capitulation to the West over Ukraine. He will enter openly only if this is the last choice or if he is reasonably sure that NATO will not intervene to help the Ukrainians.
How do we know any of this? Consider Putinís recent TV appearance in the early hours of the morning regarding the downing of flight MH17. One might read into the odd timing of this address a sense of urgency, but another interpretation readily suggests itself. Putinís weird choice of timing was meant for domestic consumption, or, more appropriately, for its lack thereof. Russian citizens are fed a steady diet of increasingly bizarre explanations for the incident, complete with lunatic conspiracy theories that make a splash and their subsequent retractions that go unnoticed, all of which happens during prime time. Putinís early morning statement is not only unlikely to be seen by most Russians, it is likely to be discounted as unimportant even if it gets subsequently reported in the press. After all, if it were important, surely he would have gone on TV when all of Russia could see him. The inference we should be making from this is that Putin is not serious about restraining the separatists. In fact, in case the separatists read this the wrong way, he is very likely to escalate his support for them, especially now that the Ukrainian army is practicing unilateral restraint in the area.
Putinís hold over the separatists is indirect: he will use them as long as they are useful and will abandon them without compunction when they cease to be. But he has to enable them to survive Ukrainian military attempts to suppress them. If Kiev does not subdue them or does not turn pro-Russian, the eastern provinces will remain in limbo: a murderous chaos that Putin could use to keep up the pressure on Ukraine because Kiev would not be able to simply abandon its claims to these territories and the separatists would have to export their violence in an attempt to battle the government. My hopes that Kiev would subdue the separatists on its own flickered and died: Putin acted more quickly and decisively than most had anticipated.
There is really only one way to put an end to this if Ukraine is going to continue on its westward path, and it involves using Putinís deniability against him. Just consider the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO and then invoking Article 5 against the separatists. Putin does not want war in the Ukraine, and he certainly does not want war with NATO. Deprived of his support, the separatists will crumble very quickly. Kiev would then extend autonomy to the provinces to ensure local government, and Ukraine can go back to its divisive politics and integration with the West.
Unfortunately, this is not what I think is going to happen.
Branislav L. Slantchev
Professor of Political Science
University of California, San Diego