Putin Keeps Retreating from War but Cannot Accept Peace

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 118

Credit: Stripes.com

The big picture of the Ukrainian conflict has changed significantly during the last week as this troubled state confirmed its hard-made European choice. The hundreds of rebels fighting in the trenches around Slavyansk and the hundreds of thousands of civilians, who are trying to make sense out of the violent disorder in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, are probably unaware of this change and may not know that the non-existent ceasefire is extended to Monday evening. Nevertheless, the signing of the association agreement with the EU was a major breakthrough in the efforts to pull Ukraine from the quagmire of state failure and give it a meaningful future (Polit.ru, June 28). President Petro Poroshenko had an emotional moment in Brussels making a promise to join the EU when Ukraine is ready, but he keeps a cool head trying to sustain pressure on the separatists and win hearts and minds in Eastern Ukraine (Moskovsky Komsomolets, June 28).  

Every step forward in isolating the epicenters of civil war in the two easternmost regions becomes possible because of the curtailment of Russia’s support for the separatist cause—and this retreat is ambivalent and reluctant. President Vladimir Putin’s first reaction to Poroshenko’s peace plan was to reject it as an “ultimatum” and to announce new military exercises in the Central Military District (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 24). In a couple of days, however, he changed his mind and gave the plan a lukewarm approval while ordering the military to shift activities toward the Urals (RIA-Novosti, June 27). His request to the Federation Council to withdraw the resolution granting him the right to move troops into Ukraine was hardly anything more than a symbolic gesture (Slon.ru, June 26). Thus symbolism was continued in the traditional speech to the graduates of military academies, where Putin did not mention Ukraine or NATO at all and stayed clear from the theme of “color revolutions” that are officially defined as a new form of warfare (Prezident Rossii, June 26).

Putin cannot fail to see that the Ukrainian problem has come the full circle since November when he resolutely blocked the EU association agreement, while now the same deal is signed with the same pen (Kommersant, June 28). Back then, it was not a very meaningful document, but now Ukraine, even struggling with the civil war, is really committed to reforms and more united around the European choice. Russia, on the other hand, has entered into a dangerous confrontation with the West and worked itself into a “patriotic” frenzy, which has become a powerful political force. Putin has unleashed this wave of righteous rage and his aides are still talking about “fascists” and “genocide” making his backpedalling really awkward. He has promised to punish Ukraine for signing the deal with the EU—but finds himself on stern notice not to undermine the international efforts at rescuing the devastated Ukrainian economy (RBC Daily, June 27).  

The EU has given Putin three days to prove his commitment to de-escalating the crisis in more than hollow declarations—and he resents deeply this blunt pressure, but has few means to counter it. He has held the European “peers” in very low esteem as far as their ability to unite for a meaningful joint action is concerned, but now he has to measure very carefully the consequences of new sanctions. His visit to Vienna last Tuesday went smoothly and nobody talked about sanctions there—only about gas supplies and the South Stream pipeline (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 25). Gas trade indeed firmly anchors Russia to Europe, but sanctions are increasingly aimed at the export of Russian corruption and this undercuts the access of Russian companies to crucial sources of credit (Slon.ru, June 27). Gazprom may try to blackmail and blackguard Ukraine, but it will have to accept a compromise, because its positions on the European market are far more precarious than it admits while the dependency of the Russian energy complex on Western technologies is fast increasing (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, June 25). The weakness of Russia’s economy inevitably diminishes every assertive stance that Putin assumes, and the failure to launch the new Angara space rocket was such an unfortunate reminder, that his televised supervision over this fiasco never made it to the presidential website (Kommersant, June 28). 

The decision-making in the Kremlin on annexing Crimea and destabilizing Donbas was done in bold disregard of financial costs but now Putin knows that the recoil from the long-planned trade tariffs and migration barriers against Ukraine would be damaging for Russian business (Forbes.ru, June 26). He hardly finds it amusing that public opinion in Russia has shifted strongly in favor of providing economic aid and even direct military support to the separatists in eastern Ukraine exactly when he needs to curtail the former and completely exclude the latter (Levada.ru, June 27). Fanning anti-American sentiments remains a useful method of explaining away the setbacks on the international arena, but the growing resolve in NATO to focus efforts on containing Russia and the profound disappointment in the EU with engaging Russia are taken very seriously by those in Moscow who are sobering up from patriotic intoxication (Gazeta.ru, June 26). Stepping back from the risks that are explained to him in no uncertain terms by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in several recent phone conversations, Putin has to measure them against the domestic risks posed by outraged “patriots” and downsized middle classes (Novaya gazeta, June 28).

De-escalation was initially a smart tactical move, but it has turned into a track from which the Kremlin cannot afford to deviate, while it also cannot accept the kind of peaceful settlement that Kyiv aims for. The problem is not only that Putin remains emotionally committed to the struggle against “color revolutions,” in which Ukraine is the decisive battlefield. It is also the plain Realpolitik assumption that a Europe-oriented Ukraine achieving a new national unity around a program of reforms constitutes an existential threat to Putin’s Russia. Poroshenko has effectively outplayed Russia, because he has the mandate to execute a plan for moving his country forward, while Putin only has approval ratings inflated by longing for the Soviet past.