Derailing De-Escalation, Moscow Drives the Ukrainian Crisis to the Brink of War

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 78

Pro-Russian violent demonstrators in Donetsk, April 28

The week following Easter (April 20) saw some signs of restraint in the behavior of the key parties to the Ukrainian catastrophe, but each of the last ten days has further undermined hopes the crisis could be managed. The unexpected Geneva deal of April 17 was definitely not in the “too good to be true” category—the foreign ministers of Ukraine, the European Union, the United States and Russia found no ground for resolving the crisis, but merely stated the common interest in its de-escalation (Kyiv Post, April 17). Meanwhile, Ukraine has been subsequently sinking deeper into the maelstrom of violent clashes. Yet, this has not been due to the self-propelling dynamics of domestic quarrels or the rash actions of Ukraine’s politicians, who are in fact acting far more responsibly than one could expect from leaders emerging from the revolutionary Maidan movement ( Ukraine’s arrival to the brink of civil war has been primarily the result of conscious choices made in Moscow, where the narrowest circle of decision makers around President Vladimir Putin has concluded that the Kremlin does not actually want the crisis to de-escalate.

Indeed, every step toward establishing a legitimate state authority in Kyiv by holding the presidential elections, scheduled for May 25, brings Russia closer to the strategic fiasco of winning Crimea while losing Ukraine. Crimea was never the major goal in the “geopolitical battle” imagined in the Kremlin, and the problems of absorbing this “prize” into Russian economic and social structures are becoming an irritating bother. “Proper” border control was established last week on the extra-narrow land connection with Ukraine, and in response Kyiv duly stopped the supply of water to Crimea, which is crucial for its agriculture; while electricity and gas supplies would probably be cut this week (Kommersant, April 26). Moscow is hard pressed to do something about this, but a compromise is hardly in the cards.

Another factor propelling escalation is Moscow’s poor control over the various militias that have formed around the small detachments of Russian special forces, deployed to capture administrative buildings in several towns in the Donetsk region and left without reliable communications. By sponsoring the recruitment of these “minutemen,” Putin has de facto sidelined the Donetsk business-political clan, exploiting the pronounced discontent among the local “have-nots” but pushing the elites to reach an accommodation with Kyiv. Opinion polls show that up to 38 percent of respondents in this eastern region would support the confiscation of the fortunes accumulated by the “oligarchs,” while only 18.5 percent would welcome Russian troops ( Armed thugs are eager to trade fire with the reluctantly advancing Ukrainian military units, while Moscow, instead of keeping them on a short leash, finds itself compelled to respond to Kyiv’s “punitive operations” (Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 25).

What makes these local skirmishes into effective triggers for a major confrontation is the hysterical intensity of Russia’s propaganda offensive, which portrays Ukraine as a battlefield in the existential clash between a resurgent Russia and the malicious West. This blending of geopolitics and conspiracy theories generally reflects Putin’s obsessive idea about the US administration manipulating the “color revolutions.” But the elevation of this nonsense to a central guideline for Russia’s foreign policy makes normal dialogue all but impossible ( Warnings from US President Barack Obama were first dismissed by the Russian media as empty rhetoric, and presently the progressive tightening of sanctions by the G7 is presented as proof positive of the United States’ desire to weaken and subjugate Russia (Kommersant, April 26).

Putin’s readiness to maintain the initiative on escalating the Ukraine crisis is based on the assumption that the EU is unable to forge a common position and is unwilling to follow US leadership. Old networks are persistently used to engage German business and political interests that have serious stakes in continuing the traditional Verflechtung (interdependent business links) (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 25). Experts from the Valdai Club were also deployed to Paris in order to argue the case for avoiding unnecessary complications and to argue the need to accept new realities, such as the Russian annexation of Crimea (Novaya Gazeta, April 24). Putin counts on the fact that for many European states the flow of Russian money is no less important than the flow of Russian gas, but he apparently fails to see that key European elites have recognized the need to curb the export of Russian corruption, which has grown into a true security challenge.

Sanctions, meanwhile, are inflicting far greater damage to the Russian economy than their still limited scale would account for. Massive capital flight has tipped the balance from sluggish growth to a pronounced contraction, bringing tangible declines in disposable incomes (RBC Daily, April 22). Putin’s economic advisor Sergei Glazyev produced a list of recommendations for reviving the economy by withdrawing from the global financial system, including impressing upon the citizens the urgent patriotic need to convert their savings from US dollars into rubles (Vedomosti, April 25). Putin remains reluctant to follow such radical advice, so he conveyed a late-night council with economists, inviting his still-trusted confidant and former finance minister Alexei Kudrin (Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 23). Enjoying the freedom of his retirement Kudrin ventured an opinion that the proposed “de-dollarization” would inflict far greater economic damage than any forthcoming sanctions (RBC Daily, April 25). The government is yet to internalize the plain fact that Russia’s deeply corrupt and crony-controlled economy is incapable of mobilizing to the levels necessary for sustaining Moscow’s policy of confrontation with the West (Vedomosti, April 25).

It is possible that the looming inevitability of a medium-term economic implosion has become another driver propelling Russia along the path of crisis escalation in the short term. The battalions stationed along the border with Ukraine are weary from staying for weeks in set-to-go readiness. But returning them to their barracks would mean accepting the prospect of strategic failure. And this failure would further be aggravated by the spread of domestic discontent fueled by disappointment that Russia had not carried out the promised “liberation” of Ukraine from pro-Western “fascists.” The separatist movement in the Donetsk oblast resembles a cheap farce performed by an assemblage of impostors and violent thugs, but it serves as a prologue to the high drama of dismembering Ukraine, which Moscow is about to stage. This enterprise is certain to be back-breaking if not self-destructive for Russia, but its predatory and self-serving regime has matured to the phase where it cannot stop.