The most dramatic turn in the protracted Ukrainian calamity last week was the decision of President Petro Poroshenko to end the ceasefire and resume the offensive against separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Poroshenko had every reason to conclude that the cessation of combat operations plays into rebel hands, since Ukraine’s control over the border with Russia was not restored and reinforcements from Russia were pouring into the motley gangs of pretentious warlords (RBC Daily, July 2). Heavy fighting brought casualties among civilians, so Poroshenko had to dismiss the top brass and appoint a new defense minister, while insisting on forceful measures (Polit.ru, July 4). The success of this new attempt to bring the “civil war” to an end was by no means guaranteed, but on Saturday the government troops scored a major victory by capturing Slavyansk, which had been a symbolic stronghold of the separatist cause (Gazeta.ru, July 5).
This determined offensive has caught Moscow by surprise, since its working assumption was that Poroshenko would keep extending the truce, thus allowing the conflict to “freeze” and making possible the establishment of a de-facto independent “Novorossiya” in eastern Ukraine (Kommersant, July 5). There was a stream of official statements condemning the resumption of hostilities (which in fact had continued during the ten days of ceasefire), but the tone of state propaganda has noticeably softened, so that terms like “junta” or “fascists” have nearly disappeared from the still aggressive discourse (RBC Daily, July 2). The usual cheap talk about “muscular counter-measures” has continued, but the military exercises that started on June 22 were swiftly concluded—and even explained away as training for possible contingencies related to Afghanistan (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, July 4). At the same time, Russia’s Black Sea fleet has started large-scale exercises centered on missile and air strikes on a fleet of “enemy” ships—clearly in response to NATO’s Breeze-2014 naval exercises, which are of a smaller scale this year and hosted by Bulgaria (Newsru.com, July 5).
This Russian military demonstration is intended as a supplement to the Kremlin’s diplomatic campaign aimed squarely at undermining Western unity in support of Ukraine. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is conducting relentless “shuttle intrigue” seeking to impress upon France and Germany that Russia’s prime aim is the cessation of violence through renewed talks with the separatists (Kommersant, July 3). President Vladimir Putin delivered his traditional address to the Russian ambassadors on July 1 and justified Russian actions in a remarkably cautious manner, avoiding any belligerence and denying any intention to exploit the Ukrainian crisis (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 4). Declaring Russia’s commitment to cooperative solutions, he claimed that Europe “is becoming a hostage of someone’s near-sighted ideologised approaches” and accused the US of blackmailing France to break the deal on delivering to the Russian Navy the first Mistral-class amphibious assault ship (President of Russia, July 1). His very dry message to US President Barack Obama on July 4 expressed hope for the development of bilateral relations “on a pragmatic and equal basis, despite the current differences and difficulties” (President of Russia, July 4).
The Kremlin’s pseudo-pacifist tone reflects its growing worries about NATO’s new commitment to restoring its military capabilities for containing Russia’s aggressive behavior (Slon.ru, July 4). The pronounced anti-Americanism probably reflects Putin’s personal idiosyncrasies, but it is also instrumental in deflecting the looming threat of economic sanctions (Ezhednevny zhurnal, July 4). There is indeed strong opposition in Europe to interrupting valuable economic ties with Russia, but the reiterated political commitment to tightening the sanctions regime hits two raw nerves in Russian economic policy. The first is the growing realization that the economic slowdown is not a temporary quandary, but the beginning of a protracted recession shaped by the massive outflow of capital (Gazeta.ru, July 4). No amount of reassuring rhetoric can get the economy on the growth track, but reforms are out of the question as ideologically incompatible with the prevalent “conservatism.”
The second sensitive spot is the deepening discontent among the elites, which are upset with the personal character of the sanctions and are increasingly uncertain about their future with a regime locked in a new confrontation with the West (Vedomosti, July 3). Putin cannot count on the loyalty of Russia’s elites because the beneficiaries of his reign keep evacuating their fortunes to Europe. He can rely neither on the top bureaucracy, worried about investigations into the origin of their fortunes, nor on the top brass, irked by the strategic fiasco in Ukraine and getting obsessed with its personal safety (Slon.ru, July 2).
Much the same way as the Kremlin cannot comprehend the driving forces of the Ukrainian revolution, it has failed to grasp the dynamics of the “civil war” in eastern Ukraine. Thus, instead of playing the role of a skilled conflict manager, Putin has come out as a loser. He was just about to convince his peers in France and Germany that Russia could become a key peace-maker when the plan for organizing yet another “frozen conflict” collapsed. He cannot snatch any victory out of the Slavyansk defeat, and even the promise to slam Ukraine with trade tariffs rings false, because Belarus and Kazakhstan have refused to approve them (Forbes.ru, June30). The smart maneuvering aimed at preventing new Western sanctions is now seen by the outraged “patriotic” fringe, which has entered into the political mainstream, as an outright capitulation (BestToday, July 6). The spectacular consolidation of the tired regime around the Crimean “triumph” can quickly unravel and the disillusioned “volunteers” returning to the bleak normalcy in many depression-hit Russian regions could become street fighters in mini-Maidans (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 2).
The Ukrainian crisis has made such a heavy, and in many ways, ugly impact on Russian society, that Putin does not have much of a clue about how it will respond to his failure to deliver the promised victory. His “majority” has always included an assortment of mutually disagreeable support groups, which are now variably alienated and mistrustful in his arbitration. One thing he cannot be, under any circumstances, is a reliable partner for the West.