Putin Comes to a Decision Point on Ukraine—and Falters

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 108

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Normandy, June 6 (Source: Reuters)

For the last month, important engagements have filled Russian President Vladimir Putin’s schedule: the official visit to China, the signing of the treaty on the Eurasian Economic Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, the trip to Normandy for the celebration of the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Each of them required restraint in managing the dangerous Russian-Ukrainian crisis, and Putin has been backing off from his aggressive stance, even acknowledging the legitimacy of the newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Now the deals are done and the photo-ops taken, so there is no more delaying the decision on exploiting or putting an end to the smoldering civil war in eastern Ukraine, but Putin remains incapable of making it.

Hardly any doubt remains that the violent unrest in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions is being fueled by an influx of “volunteers” and weapons from Russia, and the arrival of three T-64 tanks last Thursday was merely the brashest recent manifestation of this interference (RIA Novosti, June 12). A few day later, the rebels positioned anti-aircraft guns around the Luhansk airport and, on Saturday night, downed a landing Ukrainian military Il-76 transport aircraft, resulting in a loss of 49 lives (Newsru.com, June 14). Meanwhile, the Ukrainian forces cannot give the rebels respite to consolidate their positions. The country’s military continues to shell Slovyansk, which has become the focal point of the uprising, and the army is policing the recaptured Mariupol on the Azov Sea (Moskovsky Komsomolets, June 13). In this military deadlock, terse phone conversations between Poroshenko and Putin produce no détente: the former demands a cessation to Russia’s military support for the rebels, and the latter insists on the termination of Ukraine’s “anti-terrorist operation” (RIA Novosti, June 12).

Putin has apparently abandoned plans for a military intervention in eastern Ukraine as too risky, but he likely fears that washing his hands entirely of the separatists will damage his credibility in the eyes of the hyper-excited “patriotic” electorate and pull down his stellar approval ratings (Moscow Echo, June 13). At the same time, he probably understands that declarations on “disowning” the evolving civil war depart too far from the reality on the ground. The Kremlin pins its hopes on the strategic partnership with China, but Beijing prefers to focus on the economic matters of bilateral relations and has not uttered a word of support for the Russian course in Ukraine. The warnings from the United States and key European states are coming in various forms every day, clearly holding Putin responsible for the violent clashes in the two Ukrainian regions (Vedomosti, June 11). US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have essentially given up trying to have a meaningful dialogue with Putin, who told them too many blatant lies during the lengthy telephone conversations in the early phase of the crisis. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is travelling non-stop around Europe, finds too few exploitable divisions among the usually disagreeable European Union members (Kommersant, June 11). Whereas Russia’s military exercises in the Kaliningrad region only add urgency to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) plans for bolstering containment (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 11).

The outgoing President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso called Putin last Friday (June 13) in order to confirm that Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine will be signing association agreements with the EU later this month and to reiterate that “counter-measures” from Russia would be highly inappropriate (Gazeta.ru, June 14). The Kremlin has long prepared instruments for punishing the three attempted escapees from its imaginary Eurasia to Europe; but it will have to be extra cautious with applying those because the Russian political class is far more concerned about possible new sanctions than the country’s defiantly anti-Western public opinion (Levada.ru, June 11). Although the stock exchange has recovered to the pre-Crimea level on the expectations that no new sanctions would be imposed, Russia’s economy shows no signs of vitality (RBC, June 11). Until now, concerns about reinforcing the worrisome drive for diversification in the EU energy policy have dictated Russia’s uncharacteristic caution in using the “gas weapon” against Ukraine (Kommersant, June 13). Though this cautious approach may finally have ended, however, with Monday’s (June 16) declaration by Gazprom that it would be turning off the gas to Ukraine for failure to pay for previous deliveries (Kyiv Post, June 16).

One new development during the hard first week of Poroshenkos’ presidency was the severe deterioration of the security situation in Iraq, which might implicitly help Moscow, even if only by distracting the US attention. There is plenty of gloating in the Russian media in tune with Lavrov’s statement on the “illustration of the failure of adventure launched by the US.” But in fact, Russia’s own interests are also in grave peril (RIA Novosti, June 12). The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists that routed Iraqi forces in Mosul have deep networks in the Russian North Caucasus, where a low-intensity civil war is raging (Moscow Echo, June 12). Iraqi Kurdistan can use the opportunity for gaining real independence and bankroll it by increasing the export of oil and gas to Turkey (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 11). Iran is set to exploit its capacity for preventing state failure in Iraq by possibly gaining more concessions in the six-party talks on its nuclear program and freeing itself from the sanctions regime (Newsru.com, June 14). The ISIS offensive could turn out to be a unique case when an escalation of instability in the Middle East leads to an increase of oil supply and a corresponding fall in prices—and this would deliver a cruel blow to Russia’s petro-economy.

Moscow likes to pretend it plays a major role in the Arab world, but it finds itself completely marginalized in the Syrian corner, while potentially having a lot to lose from the interplay of forces it has few connections with. It also cannot hope that the threat from Islamic extremists will make the separatists in eastern Ukraine look like freedom fighters, because their aims go no further than spreading violent chaos. The dilemma for the European politicians who are committed to resolving the Ukrainian crisis is that it cannot be done without Russia—but Putin cannot be a part of the solution. He has caught himself in the trap of Crimean annexation and can neither let Ukraine proceed with its European choice nor execute his own choice of adding new bastions to “Fortress Russia.”