Chance for Peace Now in Ukraine?
Andrew C. Kuchins
Center for Strategic and International Studies | Jul 22, 2014
Q1:Has the MH-17 Tragedy Changed Putin’s Strategy in Ukraine?
A1: It has, but not in a way that seems well understood by Western policymakers and in the press. The reason why Russia inserted such a powerful anti-air system such as the Buk (SA-11 Gadfly) that apparently shot down the Malaysian airliner is because the Ukrainian air force, coupled with its ground forces, was destroying rebel strongholds on the ground. This had been going on since the break of the cease fire at the end of June. Pushing the rebels out of their central base at Slovyansk on July 5th was a key moment, and by the weekend of July 12-13 it appeared that the rebels would be fighting for their last gasp at Lugansk and Donetsk. This is why Russia sent a large amount of material and men across the border starting on July 13 to prevent total defeat of insurgent forces. Fighting then intensified, especially in the air, with Ukraine losing a large cargo plane and two fighters. We know from audio clips that the rebels initially rejoiced last Thursday at what they thought was another successful shoot-down of a large Ukrainian cargo plane.
The joy quickly turned to confusion as rebels and Moscow realized that it was not a cargo plane that had been shot down, but Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH-17) bringing the horrible tragedy of the loss of 298 innocent lives. As part of the insurgent/Russian cover-up, the powerful anti-air artillery systems were dragged back across the border to Russia where they are presumably well hid. With the eyes of the world now focused intensely on the Ukrainian-Russian border, shipments since last Thursday across it have slowed. The Ukrainian military forces have taken advantage of this opportunity to continue their advances against the insurgents, including the renewed use of airstrikes.
Putin now faces an extremely difficult decision, either to accept the military loss in Eastern Ukraine or dramatically escalate Russian engagement to prevent that loss by provision of far more men and material to the insurgents to the point that it will be obvious to the rest of the world that essentially we are witnessing a war between Ukraine and Russia—a reality that has been taking place for at least a month or so in a quasi-covert way. In this instance, the West could not avoid a very forceful response of deep multi-sectoral sanctions coupled with stronger military support to the Ukrainian government.
To summarize, the MH-17 tragedy has altered the situation, but it is its near-term effect on the correlation of forces on the ground in Eastern Ukraine that is a far more important factor for Putin than whatever response the West would muster that is affecting his calculations.
Q2: What has the Russian response been so far?
A2: Alexei Kudrin’s statement today is telling. Kudrin is Russia’s former long-time Minister of Finance who resigned due to a dispute with then President Dmitri Medvedev in September 2011 over what Kudrin viewed as excessive military spending in the Russian budget. Kudrin, a long-time associate of Vladimir Putin, is a highly regarded moderate liberal political figure who has retained access to Putin, yet he had been virtually invisible in Russian media since the annexation of Crimea. That he appeared today, in an interview in the government ITAR-TASS agency, to criticize the deeply nationalistic and anti-Western course that the Russian government has taken for the past 4-5 months is very, very significant. I spent a few days in Moscow last week watching TV and reading Russian press, only to have my impression from a distance confirmed that the Russian media of late has been on an anti-Western rampage of lies and deceit, more extreme by far than anything I experienced since I started spending time in the Soviet Union in 1979. In my view, the publication of Kudrin’s statements in the state media indicates a desire on Putin’s part to really find a face-saving way out of this crisis.
In addition, when I was in Moscow last week I was informed by a credible source that Kudrin had been tasked by the Kremlin in early May to conduct an economic analysis of the costs of incorporating some of the regions of Eastern Ukraine into the Russian Federation. Of course I have no way of confirming this story, but the answer I was told was that the answer Kudrin delivered to Putin was basically “It would break the bank”.
Finally, I was struck by the release of Putin’s taped statement on Ukraine very early this morning in Moscow, basically in the middle of the night when most Russians were sleeping, that suggested a slightly more conciliatory position on his part. The timing of the release indicates it was designed more for Western consumption. What I was most struck by, and many may consider this unimportant, was how in the end of the statement he referred to “the east of Ukraine,” (na vostoke Ukrainy). He kind of audibly choked on this reference, but I interpret it as a movement on his part towards accepting Ukrainian sovereignty over the region. Probably of greater significance was the fact that Putin did not refer at all to the insurgents in Ukraine.
Q3: How Should the United States and Europe Act Now?
A3: If there is any chance to peacefully resolve Ukraine, the West would need to act very quickly to engage the Ukrainian government and the Russians in a diplomatic solution that would provide a face-saving way out that Putin could find acceptable. The danger is that if the Ukrainian military operation continues its destruction of insurgent forces, Putin would face the very difficult decision I referred to in the first answer that could possibly lead to a dramatic escalation of Russian military intervention that would be a catastrophe for all parties involved.
Unfortunately the Obama Administration and our European allies appear to continue to be mainly engaged in discussions about how to further punish Russia, and all governments are under a lot of domestic pressure to do so. What we actually need to do now is to pivot to seriously press all parties for a peaceful resolution. There is no guarantee this is possible, but if ever there were a real chance it is now. Frankly, as I see things going on the ground in Eastern Ukraine, I am skeptical that the window of opportunity will last longer than this week.
The good news is that the framework of a solution has been floating out there for months and may not be all that complicated. It would likely involve some guarantee that Ukraine would not become a member of NATO at least for some clearly stated period of time and that its increasing economic ties to Europe would not preclude a continuing strong economic trade and investment relationship with Russia. It would also include a commitment on the part of the Ukrainian government to re-open the constitutional question of the federal structure of the government such that a greater degree of autonomy were allocated to Eastern and other areas of the country where larger numbers of Russians and other ethnic minorities live. This would include a guarantee of Russian language and other cultural rights.
Finally, there would have to be an agreement that the future of Crimea will be resolved only through political, diplomatic, and non-military means. Yes, I understand that many will say this amounts to a diminution of Ukrainian sovereignty, but I do not really believe that needs to be the case. The Ukrainian government must very carefully weigh the pros and cons of what measures it would be willing to accept in order to make sure it avoids a full-scale war with Russia that it would almost certainly lose and would cause unacceptable loss of life and damage to the country.
Very often the challenge in life is to avoid making the better the enemy of the good, and this may well be one of those instances. Taking such action would require real leadership in Washington and Europe. Because this exercise must be face-saving for Putin, a hard pill to swallow for sure, it cannot be presented as an ultimatum, but rather as a negotiated solution to meet interests of all parties. If Mr. Putin were to refuse, then a course of action involving much deeper sanctions coupled with much more significant aid for Ukraine could and probably should be pursued with all due fortitude on the part of the West.
Andrew Kuchins is the director of the Russia & Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Putin Crosses The ‘Lockerbie Line’
Brian Whitmore / The Power Vertical
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty | July 22, 2014
After getting pounded in the information war in the immediate aftermath of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Russia struck back this week — albeit in a pretty unconvincing way.
The Kremlin released an odd video statement early on July 21 in which a visibly haggard Vladimir Putin blamed Kyiv for the disaster, called for negotiations to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and warned that "nobody has the right to use this tragedy to achieve selfish political ends."
Later in the day, the Russian Defense Ministry dialed it up a bit. At a briefing in a slick high-tech conference room, generals spoke before flashing radar images on giant screens in a scene reminiscent of "Dr. Strangelove."
They claimed that an Su-25 Ukrainian fighter jet had tracked the Boeing 777 passenger jetliner prior to its crash and denied that Russia had provided separatists with antiaircraft systems — or any other weapons.
The generals overlooked the fact that an Su-25 can fly at a maximum altitude of 7,000 meters without a payload of weapons and at 5,000 meters when fully armed. MH17 was flying at an altitude of 10,000 meters.
Nevertheless, the allegation managed to muddy the waters for a bit. But hijacking a news cycle here and there won’t be enough to change the predominant narrative that is quickly hardening as the evidence accumulates that MH17 was downed by a Buk surface-to-air missile fired by pro-Russia separatists.
"Although the Crimean and Ukrainian operations have shown how effective even seemingly crude information warfare can be in distracting, bamboozling, and blunting Western concern, it is hard to see how Moscow can spin this one away," Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s security services at New York University and co-host of the Power Vertical Podcast, wrote in "Foreign Policy."
On last week’s podcast, a recurring theme was that Putin had crossed something that Kirill Kobrin, co-editor of the Moscow-based history magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas," called "the Lockerbie line," in reference to the terrorist attack that downed Pan American Flight 103 in 1988.
That is, that, like Muammar Qaddafi then, the Russian president may have crossed the psychological point where it becomes very difficult — if not impossible — to even pretend that he is a respectable leader anymore.
"It is going to be very difficult not to regard Putin’s Russia as essentially an aggressive, subversive, and destabilizing nation after this. This one plane becomes symbolic of so much more," Galeotti said on the podcast.
"I do think that Russia’s position in the world will have changed irrevocably. I do think people will be thinking of Putin and the Putin regime as a problem. And the inclination is going to be: What do we do about this problem?"
Others, like "Washington Post" columnist and author Anne Applebaum, have picked up on the Lockerbie metaphor.
"When the Libyan government brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, the West closed ranks and isolated the Libyan regime," Applebaum wrote in a recent column.
Even before the downing of Flight MH17, Kremlin watchers like Alexander Motyl of Rutgers University were arguing that Russia’s proxy war in eastern Ukraine amounted to "state-sponsored terrorism" (by U.S. law’s definition of the term) and should be treated as such.
Meanwhile, Reuters reported, quoting Western diplomats and officials, that the Red Cross has made a confidential legal assessment that Ukraine is officially in a war and shared that assessment bilaterally. The move opens up the possibility for future war crimes prosecutions, including potentially for the downing of Flight MH17.
"Clearly it’s an international conflict, and therefore this is most probably a war crime," an unidentified Western diplomat told Reuters.
And even if it never comes to that, Putin is already losing a degree of the soft power he had been accumulating — particularly in Europe.
"If it turns out — as appears to be the case — that Russia supplied air defense systems to the separatists and sent crews to man them (since operating those systems requires extensive training), Russia could be held responsible for shooting down the plane," George Friedman wrote in Stratfor.com.
"And this means Moscow’s ability to divide the Europeans from the Americans would decline. Putin then moves from being an effective, sophisticated ruler who ruthlessly uses power to being a dangerous incompetent supporting a hopeless insurrection with wholly inappropriate weapons."
Speaking on July 22, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite criticized European leaders for sacrificing their values and their security for the sake of doing business with Putin, who she said operates according to the principle of "buy and rule."
"We see the Mistralization of European policy," Grybauskaite said, in reference to France’s $1.6 billion deal to supply Russia with two Mistral warships.
Hours later, French President French President Francois Hollande said he was prepared to back out of part of that deal.
Hollande said he was ready to cancel the sale of the second Mistral — which is not yet paid for and is due to be delivered in 2016 — if the European Union decides to expand its sanctions against Moscow, Bloomberg reported.
"I don’t think there is any way that Putin can phoenix-like emerge from these flames as some kind of reinvented and reborn friend of the West and ally," Galeotti said on last week’s Power Vertical Podcast.
"No politician is going to be saying they peered into his eyes and looked into his soul and thought he was a wonderful chap."
But if Putin has truly become that toxic, what effect will that have on Kremlin policy? Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky is not optimistic.
"If he feels the pressure increase on him, he may boost help for the separatists, stoke up the confrontation with the West, thereby raising the stakes of the game," Belkovsky wrote in "Snob."
Putin may have passed point of no-return over Ukraine
Jul 29, 2014
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Vladimir Putin risks becoming an international pariah over the Ukraine crisis but the Russian president is battening down the hatches for the gathering economic and political storm.
The United States and the European Union saw the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 as a chance for Putin to distance himself from pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine and seal the border across which they say arms are reaching the rebels.
Instead Putin has stood firm, blamed the crash on his pro-Western antagonists in Kiev and signaled no change in his stance, leaving Russia facing the threat of much tougher international sanctions and economic and political isolation.
With an about-turn all but impossible for Putin after a fierce media campaign that has demonized the West, painted Ukraine’s leaders as fascists and backed the rebels to the hilt, he appears to have passed the point of no-return.
"I think our state leadership is very experienced but I don’t think it assessed the West’s mentality properly," veteran political commentator Nikolai Svanidze told Ekho Moskvy radio.
"We know the character of the people we are talking about, President Putin’s character," he said. "There will be no apologies."
The deaths of 298 people on flight MH17 on July 17 have hardened the West’s stance, narrowing differences between the EU and Washington over sanctions and, importantly, reducing the resistance of the powerful German business lobby.
Despite this, Putin looks unwilling or unable to change a strategy that has sent his popularity to record highs in Russia, particularly since the annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in February fueled a wave of patriotic fervor.
The president showed one, rare moment of uncertainty after the airliner went down, looking tired, pale and unusually unsure of himself in a television appearance in the early hours of July 21.
But he came out fighting at a meeting with security chiefs the following day, saying he would use Russia’s influence with the rebels but also launching a diatribe against the West. He said Kiev was to blame because it had resumed military operations after a ceasefire. He neglected to say the rebels had defied the truce.
Since then Putin has said little on the crisis in public beyond suggesting Russia’s defense industry must become self-reliant and stop using Western parts.
Western leaders would like to believe he is rethinking his strategy and looking for a way out of the crisis after boxing himself into a corner, but opinion polls suggest Russians want Putin to do exactly the opposite.
He is more likely to hold out against what he and state media have depicted as a Western-inspired coup d’etat that toppled a Ukrainian president sympathetic to Moscow and, using a phrase from the Cold War, was intended to "contain" Russia.
Political analyst Alexander Morozov said Putin could have headed off the West by distancing himself from the separatists but he saw no political dividends from doing so and it may already be too late for this. He has missed the moment, Morozov said.
New research by the independent Levada Centre polling group shows 64 percent of Russians blame the West for the Ukrainian conflict, 61 percent are not worried by sanctions and 63 percent think Russian media coverage of the crisis is objective.
"Everything so far points to a further hardening in Russia’s stance. Mr Putin has too much invested – both from a geopolitical and, just as importantly, domestic political standpoint – in his standoff with the west to be swayed by sanctions alone," said Nicholas Spiro, Managing Director of Spiro Sovereign Strategy, a London-based consultancy.
"The MH17 crash… is forcing him to harden his anti-Western stance much sooner than he would have liked. Mr Putin doesn’t want to burn his bridges with Europe’s main economies – but he may now be forced to do just that."
THREAT TO RUSSIA’S ECONOMY
Putin’s dilemma is that if he adopts a Plan B on Ukraine now he risks looking weak in Russia and could suffer a fall in public support that could damage his chances of re-election for a further six years in 2018.
But failing to change tack could have a detrimental impact on Russia’s economy if the United States and EU push ahead with tougher, sectoral sanctions against Moscow.
This could put at risk the improvement in living standards and the financial well-being of many urban Russians, one of the pillars on which Putin built his support during his first spell as president from 2000 until 2008.
It could underline his opponents’ concerns that Putin’s third term as president, which began in 2012, is undoing some of the progress made toward financial stability and Western-style democracy since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
It is, however, a gamble he seems prepared to take.
Russia’s $2 trillion economy is already teetering on the brink of recession and recorded zero growth in the second quarter of this year. The rouble is shaky and capital flight has accelerated to $75 billion this year.
But, for now at least, Russian business leaders are not speaking out against Putin because alienating the president could cause more damage to their firms than the sanctions themselves. Many back him anyway.
There was, for example, a defiant reaction on Tuesday to a ruling by an international arbitration court in The Hague that Russia must pay $50 billion for expropriating the assets of oil company Yukos, whose former owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky fell out with Putin.
On his radio show "Fifth Argument", host Vladimir Averin asked whether it was time for Russia to pull out of such international courts in The Hague, Stockholm, London and Vienna. In a spot poll, more than 78 percent of listeners said "yes".
One respected figure has, however, spoken out about the growing threat of isolation.
"I have serious concerns that the escalation of the conflict around Ukraine will be followed by conclusions … that we do not need the world’s best practices," former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said last week. "Such an attitude, of course, inhibits seriously the modernization of Russia."
As a friend of Putin, Kudrin is almost alone in being able to issue such criticism without paying a political price. But there are also other, clear signs of companies and institutions planning for tough times ahead.
Russia’s central bank raised its key interest rate on Friday in a sign of concern that new sanctions could speed up capital flight from Moscow’s already struggling financial markets.
Russia’s biggest oil producer, Rosneft, said the same day that it had been working on a plan to offset the negative effect of sanctions – something other firms are sure to have been doing as well.
Kremlin officials last week poured scorn on Kudrin’s warning, saying growth was intact and suggesting his comments were overly dramatic.
But in a new sign of the looming problems, oil and gas producer BP – by far the largest investor in Russia with its 19.75 percent stake in Rosneft – said on Tuesday further Western sanctions could affect its business in Russia, where it makes about a third of its crude oil output.
Foreign equity and bond investors, who had tentatively ventured back into Russia after a huge early-2014 selloff, are also again cutting their holdings.
"The expansion of personal sanctions … is the most painful answer so far to the actions of the Putin regime," Boris Vishnevsky, a St Petersburg regional politician, said of the latest list of individuals close to Putin who face asset bans and visa freezes under sanctions.
"Economic sanctions … will inevitably affect not so much ‘Putin’s friends’ but all other Russian citizens. Because it will lead to the collapse of the Russian economy and living standards."
(This story has been refiled to fix word in paragraph three)
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper and Lidia Kelly; editing by Janet McBride)
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