Despite the apparent deadlock in armed clashes in eastern Ukraine, an idea to bringing together the presidents of Russia and Ukraine, together with their peers from Belarus and Kazakhstan as well as the leaders of France and Germany, gained momentum at the end of last week. Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev made an unscheduled visit to Berlin on Friday (January 9), seeking to persuade German Chancellor Angela Merkel that a summit in Astana on January 15 could make sense to break the Russian deadlock in the talks, and he then had a telephone conversation with President Vladimir Putin (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, Kremlin.ru, January 9, 2015). A day before that, Merkel held talks with Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and made a firm statement that the third package of sanctions on Russia could be lifted only after Moscow ensures the full implementation of all ceasefire provisions as agreed in Minsk in September 2014 (Newsru.com, January 8, 2015). The same position was taken by Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who also mentioned some “positive signals” on changes in Russia’s position; but neither Merkel nor Mogherini expressed any interest in a summit (RIA Novosti, January 8, 2015).
Putin has remained mute about the Ukraine crisis since discussing the issue with Nazarbayev and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka at the summit of the Eurasian Economic Union, in Moscow, in late December 2014 (Polit.ru, December 23, 2014). It is entirely possible that Lukashenka (who had travelled to Kyiv a day prior) expressed, in no uncertain terms, his disapproval of Russia’s dismemberment of Ukraine, while Nazarbayev offered to perform a round of multilateral mediation (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, January 4, 2015). Indeed, Russia’s two closest allies have good reason to feel concerned about Russia’s behavior—the situation is progressing from difficult to desperate and is further exacerbated by the repercussions of the deepening economic disaster. Russian officials may dismiss the new cuts in Russia’s sovereign credit rating as “politically motivated,” but Belarus and Kazakhstan cannot ignore the consequences for their own investment climate (Gazeta.ru, January 10, 2015).
A diplomatic way forward in this crisis assumes that Putin has already recognized the perils of his aggressive course and is now ready to retreat. French President Francois Hollande, for that matter, confirmed his readiness to partake in the Astana talks and spoke in favor of lifting the sanctions because the crisis in Russia was bad for Europe. Putin had paid a high price for his actions in eastern Ukraine and had no intentions to annex it, Hollande asserted (Novaya Gazeta, January 5, 2015). Merkel, however, remains skeptical about Putin’s backpedaling and insists on focusing on practical steps in Russia’s withdrawal from Donetsk and Luhansk rather than on debates about who was responsibility for the confrontation, of which she has had enough (Moscow Echo, January 2, 2015). Putin is clearly not ready to commit to any such steps and aims to turn the talks into a means of accentuating the disagreements among his opponents, who are, in his opinion, increasingly divided by economic problems and preoccupied with various domestic disturbances.
The most shocking case of such troubles was certainly the terrorist attack in Paris last week, which generated a massive defiant and soul-searching response across Europe, but much less so in Russia (Gazeta.ru, January 10, 2015). Putin expressed the proper condolences, but he is apparently primarily interested in diverting global attention away from the Ukraine crisis and toward the threat of Islamic extremism, which, in his opinion, has been effectively deterred in Russia by the means of an “iron fist.” Inside Russia, mainstream debates on the tragedy in Paris focus on the responsibility of journalists, the virtues of self-censorship, and the inadmissibility of blasphemy (Grani.ru, January 8, 2015); while the official discourse sticks to the rich theme of a “crisis” in the European culture of tolerance. Professional “patriots” who steer the machine of Russian propaganda seemingly cannot understand how France can unite around values that are scornfully rejected in Putin’s Russia (Slon.ru, January 9, 2015).
The Kremlin is worried that the liberal opposition may rally around the cause of freedom of speech and connect with the Western empowerment of free media. Ramzan Kadyrov, the despotic ruler of Chechnya, has taken upon himself the role of champion of Russian conservatism and declared dissident former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky a “personal enemy” for his appeal to international newspapers to reprint the offending satirical cartoons from Charlie Hebdo (Open Russia, January 9, 2015). Even more threateningly, Kadyrov claimed that the Moscow Echo radio station has become Russia’s “main anti-Islamic horn” and he strongly hinted that Russian Muslims would not tolerate the behavior of its chief editor Alexei Venediktov (Kavpolit, January 9, 2015). In response, Russian liberals are coming together with the simple statement: “I am Venediktov” (Moscow Echo, January 11, 2015).The initiative for the Chechen leader’s sharp comments probably came from Kadyrov himself. He is apparently eager to claim a special role in the Russian political arena and believes that Moscow would be reluctant to reprimand him, particularly since 20,000 paramilitary members in Chechnya took an oath of loyalty to Putin (Novaya Gazeta, December 28, 2014). The mobilization of these “loyalists,” in fact, adds to the smoldering instability in the North Caucasus.
It has become clear on this tragic turn in European unity-forging that Russia has drifted too far in the direction of authoritarian de-modernization to be a partner to the West even in the struggle against terrorism, which used to be a key part of their common political agenda. Putin’s corrupt regime can only prolong its existence by stirring the ugliest nationalist instincts, suppressing dissent, and engaging in aggressive actions that leave Russia isolated and sanctioned. Were the Russian ruling elite less committed to control through confrontation, the economic crisis might have had a more sobering effect. But the Kremlin-connected security service personnel (siloviki) are firm supporters of “patriotic mobilization.” Sufficient militaristic mobilization amid Russia’s negative economic situation remains questionable. Nevertheless, it is unrealistic to expect any readiness to compromise from Moscow. The regime is afraid to show any sign of weakness, knowing that the populist enthusiasm for defying the “decadent West” could evaporate in a matter of weeks. Putin might agree to a round of talks in Astana as he seeks to buy time for his strategy of pushing the troubled Ukraine ever deeper into economic disaster. But the Russian leader cannot afford to make a deal that would reveal the depth of his own blunder.