The Russian leader hates being lectured. A change of tack could persuade him to disown Ukraine’s rebels
The Guardian | Monday 21 July 2014
Reading Vladimir Putin’s mind is notoriously difficult. But watching his latest video address, devoted to the aftermath of the Malaysia Airlines catastrophe, I was struck by his appearance. The video was recorded hurriedly, at 1.40am, straight after Putin had been subjected to a barrage of not-very-diplomatic telephone calls from world leaders, threatening reprisals if he did not force his proxies in eastern Ukraine to act in a civilised manner regarding the victims of MH17.
No Botox could hide the bags under his eyes, nor powder his sweating skin, and his demeanour suggested he was fizzing with rage.
I suspect his fury is aimed not only at the Ukrainian government, which he continues to blame for creating the situation that led to the downing of the jet, and not only at the west for demonising him as a monstrous killer – but also at the band of rag-tag Russian separatist gangsters whose sheer incompetence has landed him in such deep ordure.
It is, of course, ordure of his own making. The rebels in eastern Ukraine took their lead from Putin’s annexation of Crimea; they derive succour from the Russian media; and they are fighting for a cause Putin backs. His security services provide intelligence and military supplies – including, most likely, the Buk missile that brought down the plane.
Whatever theories the Russian media may be spreading about Ukraine’s responsibility for the disaster, Putin himself must know the truth – that the bandits operating in his name are responsible.
The fact that they did it by mistake only makes things worse. It turns out that the Kremlin handed missiles to a bunch of drunken, gun-toting hotheads, incapable of doing what anyone with a smartphone app can do – identify a plane flying overhead.
This is not what Putin wants to align himself with, and I suspect he’s had fears about the leaders of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” all along. Back in May, he asked them to postpone their referendum on independence, and when they went ahead with it he declined to recognise its results.
The fact is, Putin does not want the Russian-speaking regions to break away from Ukraine. He has always spoken in favour of a federalisation of the country which would guarantee the language and civil rights of Russians living there.
This in itself is enough to infuriate Kiev, which sees the demand as interference in its internal affairs or as the thin end of a wedge. But the suggestion itself is not unreasonable. And it could provide the kind of get-out clause that would prevent the current terrifying situation from careering out of control.
The west needs to put pressure on Putin – but it needs to be the right kind of pressure. If there’s one thing I took away from three years of working closely with Kremlin officials, it was that Putin detests being lectured by outsiders, and tends to react badly to all criticism. There is not a single instance of his bowing to criticism by doing what the west demanded. There are plenty of instances of his doing the opposite. So David Cameron was right this weekend to combine his threats of further sanctions with a recognition that “there must be protections for Russian-speaking minorities” in Ukraine.
Putin must be looking, desperately, for a way to save face. If the MH17 trail leads, as it surely will, back to the rebels, he may disown them and say it had nothing to do with Russia itself.
The trick then will be for the west to steer him towards real engagement by promising constitutional talks with Ukraine, provided he takes resolute action to kick out the separatists – who, he has now discovered, are nothing but a liability.
Putin could well be president for the next 10 years, and we cannot afford a decade of cold war. It’s time to swallow hard, and bring the region’s dominant powerbroker inside the tent, to help ensure the integrity of Ukraine – and peace in Europe.
Blurred Lines Between War and Peace
Ukraine, Russia, and the West all have their own reasons for not calling the ongoing conflict a war, just as they all have different views of what would constitute an acceptable peace
The American Interest | July 11, 2014
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has kicked off his “Peace Plan” by ending the ceasefire and resuming military actions against pro-Russian forces. True, he promises to continue negotiations with the separatists, but this looks more like an attempt to soothe an openly irritated Kremlin, as well as grumpy Berlin and Paris. War and Peace in Ukraine have now acquired a paradoxical dimension: Not all efforts to pursue another ceasefire would be a step in the direction of achieving a sustainable peace.
Once upon a time it had seemed that, by creating (EU and NATO) mechanisms to prevent wars, Europe had found a remedy to the problems that had plagued the continent over the course of the blood-soaked 20th century. But the events in Ukraine have exposed a fundamental flaw in these efforts that Europe, and the West as a whole, isn’t ready to deal with. The flaw is plain for all to see: Russia and Ukraine maintain diplomatic relations. They participate in international forums together. They cooperate on economic matters, albeit less actively now. People and goods cross the border. Their leaders talk on the telephone. And yet these countries are at war with one another, and this is not just a war of soft power (information warfare) but hard power as well. How else would you describe Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory than as a hard power conflict? How else to describe an armed struggle conducted on one side by Russian citizens, on Ukrainian territory, under Russian banners, with weapons and funding supplied by Russia? Dozens of paratroopers from the 45th Guards Spetsnaz airborne regiment have been buried recently in Moscow—where and why did they suddenly die in such numbers?
This is a war that no one wants to name as such. The West doesn’t want to call it war, since it would then have to take concrete measures against the aggressor, a nuclear state. Who would dare to do that? Ukraine isn’t ready to press the world to call the conflict a war out of fear of contradicting the West. And it’s quite clear why Russia wouldn’t want to acknowledge that it’s fighting a war: Moscow retains room for maneuver as long as the war goes undeclared, retaining the ability to switch out its aggressor’s hat for the peacemaker’s hat at will.
While the Kremlin will not recognize that Russia is at war with Ukraine, it won’t normalize relations with Kiev either. This blurring of the lines between war and peace when it comes to states parallels the blurring Putin has done within Russia itself, by turning to militarism and coercion to sustain the Russian System. The ongoing crisis merely represents the application of this model to Russia’s relations with Ukraine. And Ukraine isn’t an end in itself for Russia, but merely an instrument for the Kremlin. By destabilizing Ukraine, Russia is fighting a proxy war with the West. Putin has been perfectly candid about his reasons for wanting to do this, stating time and again that Russia is a unique civilization that seeks to contain the West not only inside Russia but outside it too.
The current developments should not come as a surprise to anyone. The blurring of the borders between war and peace occurred as Europe entered a phase after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that many have described as postmodern. This phase has been characterized by furtiveness on the part of the liberal democracies when it comes to living up to their principles in crafting policy: “Nothing’s sacred, everything is on the table,” Europe has seemed to say. After it lost its great rival and adversary, it no longer wished to focus any time or effort on preaching values. But the postmodern, transactional leaderships of Europe today find themselves poorly equipped to respond to the challenges posed by the Russian System, which is why their responses inevitably slide into accommodationism.
Western leaders are only too willing to be convinced that Kiev’s problems are merely an internal affair and nothing more, and they have pressured Kiev to accept the same assessment. While the West has demanded that Moscow end its support for the separatists, it refuses to name Russia as a party in this conflict and therefore does not consider it an “aggressor.” The West’s leaders believe (or pretend to believe) that if they talk to the Kremlin and engage Russia, they will change the Kremlin’s behavior. And Putin, a master at pretending to be accommodating while in fact forcing others to play his game, has offered his Western counterparts all the evidence they need to satisfy themselves that they’re right: See, he isn’t invading Ukraine after all! Nor is he supporting the separatists. Western decisiveness has prevented a new Russian incursion, Western observers gleefully say. In fact, Putin never intended to annex Ukraine’s southeast; he doesn’t need the added headache! It’s sufficient for Kremlin purposes to turn the southeast into a new Transnistria. If he can remove the threat of new sanctions and other troubles by “conceding” something he never wanted in the first place, why not let the Western leaders think it was their decisive leadership that made him change course.
Thus today the Kremlin actively supports Ukraine’s peace talks. Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov says that the rebels are “ready for constructive dialogue,” and that Ukrainian authorities should not try “to subordinate them to Kiev.” To whom, then, should they subordinate themselves?
Who wouldn’t support the idea of ending all combat operations? No one, of course—except we’re missing something, aren’t we? The recent truce Poroshenko declared at the end of talks initiated by the Europeans with OSCE participation has actually benefited the separatists. They refused to recognize the truce and continued attacking Ukrainian forces. They breached the ceasefire constantly. Thus, the truce worked against Ukraine and aided those who were undermining its territorial integrity. Facing a loss of popular support and the further demoralization of the Ukrainian army, Poroshenko had to end the ceasefire. Now Berlin, Paris, and Moscow are once again urging Kiev to renew the ceasefire, just as Ukrainian forces are beginning to gain the upper hand against the separatists. Would Moscow still be calling for a truce if the separatists were the ones capturing Ukrainian cities?
What would a new truce mean now that the Ukrainian army is beginning to liberate territory from the separatists? Poroshenko would be doomed! He would lose the support of those who want the country to remain unified. A new truce would evaporate the Ukrainian army’s recent morale gains, and it would allow the separatists to regroup and establish new supply lines. Moreover, including the separatists in the negotiating process would legitimate their political role and force Kiev to make concessions to them on the subject of Ukraine’s future constitutional structure, where they see themselves as independent actors.
Moscow, meanwhile, is attempting to wear the peacemaker’s hat without ever doffing its battle helmet. It may indeed succeed in this attempt, given that the lines between war and peace remain fuzzy, and given that the Europeans are ready to involve the Kremlin in the negotiating process at any cost. (Sometimes I’m not certain who wants the “peace” agenda most: Moscow, Berlin, or Paris?) With some help from the Europeans, Moscow may also be able force Kiev to agree to the special status of the Donbass region, thus lodging a permanent thorn in Ukraine’s side. The list of concessions that would be expected from Kiev could be long, and it may include energy deals and carve-outs of the juiciest chunks of Ukrainian territory.
In fact, an endless negotiating process is in Moscow’s interests (provided the separatists helped by constantly fanning the flames of conflict). To the Kremlin, “the goal is nothing, the movement is everything,” as a famous German Social Democrat Eduard Bernstein once said. Moscow clearly hopes that the Ukrainians will soon grow unhappy with the country’s new leadership, thus giving Russia more tools for influencing Ukrainian developments.
This scenario requires that Europe make Poroshenko come to the negotiating table before Kiev concludes its anti-terrorist operation. Here is what one Ukrainian observer wrote on this account:
It turns out that the EU leaders have short memory. What is surprising, apart from their lack of resolve to impose sanctions on Russia, is that they seek to turn the situation in Donbass into a strictly Ukrainian problem. Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande are vigorously twisting Petro Poroshenko’s and Pavlo Klimkin’s arms demanding that they restrain their military, apparently forgetting how Russia occupied Crimea and ignoring the flammable concoction of weapon shipments and mercenary missions that the Kremlin generously poured onto the smoldering Donbass region.
Peace talks would be productive if a compromise between the warring factions were possible. But if Moscow isn’t about to stop destabilizing Ukraine, and if the separatists are intent on occupying part of the Donbass region, then what can they accomplish? Any Ukrainian leader who agreed to a compromise under these terms would immediately lose his legitimacy and popular support. The only talks that are possible aren’t truce talks, but talks for a separatist surrender. Anything else would just prolong the confrontation and continue the disintegration of an already fragile Ukrainian state.
Western leaders find themselves in a difficult situation. On the one hand, they want to return to the past format for dealing with Russia and are already looking for ways to bring Russia back into the G8. On the other hand, they are trying to find mechanisms that will force Putin to stop his bullying. The peace talks that Moscow insists on would give the West and the Kremlin a chance to return to business as usual and forget the recent past. One can’t help feeling that Europe is eager to make a deal endorsing the new status quo. Thus, Poroshenko has to agree to legitimizing the separatists and granting a special status to the territories they control (and other concessions too). If Kiev balks at this proposal, Europe may drag its feet on providing financial aid to Ukraine. What would the Kremlin have to do? It would merely have to pull its troops away from the border and promise not to repeat the Crimea scenario, which Putin had no plans to do anyway. A deal would thus give the Kremlin the tactical advantage through a negotiation process supported by the European leaders and an international institution (the OSCE).
It’s possible that Kiev may be forced to support the idea of granting Donbass “special status.” There are still powerful figures in the region, including the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, who would like to secure autonomy and continue their dialogue with the Kremlin. The Ukrainian authorities may decide to get rid of the chaos-plagued part of Donbass that would resist transformation. But this scenario would not strengthen Ukrainian statehood. The separatist-controlled territory would become a black hole—a breeding grounds for violence that would spread to the neighboring countries, including Russia.
Incidentally, Moscow does not want the separatists it has nursed to become too strong. If they grew too powerful, they might draw Russia into their risky business. But Moscow doesn’t want the separatists to lose either. I believe that legitimating the separatists by means of their installation as heads of local governments, virtually independent from Kiev, is actually Moscow’s best-case scenario. In any event, Moscow will close Russia’s borders to its mercenaries and will not allow them to return to Russia. What are they going to do in Russia? Accuse Putin of betraying the cause of the Russian World? No—rather, Moscow will try to keep them in Donbass, which will allow the Kremlin to constantly destabilize the Ukrainian state.
Now Moscow is trying to undermine pro-Russian warlords who went rogue and raised their voices against Putin and the Kremlin for betraying them and idea of the “Russian Spring” —among them Igor Girkin (Strelkov), self-proclaimed Commander in chief of the Donbass separatist forces. You can begin to see the first brushstrokes of the master plan: Setting aside the warlords, he’ll now turn to a new kind of figure: political technologists with management experience and hands untainted in the recent bloodshed, most of them Russian citizens, are now prepared to take part in the negotiations process. Among this new set are the head of the Lugansk People’s Republic, Marat Bashirov, and the head of the Donetsk Republic, Alexander Borodai. Moscow is prepared to undertake its New Project in Ukraine, and one can’t exclude the possibility that this project will gain the approval of the Western peaceniks.
All of the above explains why allowing Kiev to restore the country’s territorial integrity is the best way to bring real peace to Ukraine. Pressuring Kiev to declare a new ceasefire that will give the rebels another break will only prolong the conflict. True, after winning the war with the pro-Russian forces, Kiev will have to win another war—for the trust of those Donbass people who don’t trust Kiev today.
Of course, if Kiev were successful in its “anti-terrorist operations,” this would raise another interesting question: What would it do with the pro-Russian rebels and their leaders? It would hardly want to detain all of them. Russia, for its part, wouldn’t want to let them return home; the Kremlin has no interest in welcoming home a slew of frustrated mercenaries who not only have proven themselves willing to fight for the idea of the Russian World but also view Putin as their betrayer. This means that they will have to die where they are fighting for the “right cause”, and after their deaths they will be used as martyrs in Russia to beef up the waning military-patriotic mobilization.
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