The most recent Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit attracted a sizeable crowd of world leaders to Milan last week (October 16–17), but the formal agenda was overtaken by the efforts to manage the violent conflict between Russia and Ukraine and facilitate dialogue between presidents Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko. The European Union sought to deploy every instrument of “soft power” in its arsenal in order to turn the fragile ceasefire in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas into a stable compromise. But it failed to find any common ground with the recalcitrant Russia. Putin used the rare summit opportunity to demonstrate his defiance under the pressure of sanctions and ostracism, while hitting at every point of weakness and discord in the joint Western position (Kommersant, October 18). However, what transpired through the disappointment, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel likely felt more than most after devoting two and a half hours to a failed face-to-face with Putin, was the recognition that the EU is, in fact, quite a lot stronger than it is often perceived, while Putin is in a far weaker position than he fancies (Novaya Gazeta, October 18).
The EU was largely successful in reassuring Poroshenko about the reality of European support, which comes not only through new credit lines but also via multiple tangible networks, including by providing for monitoring the ceasefire and observing the forthcoming parliamentary elections. Putin keeps denying responsibility for the actions of the Moscow-backed rebels, but even his maverick Belarusian ally, Aleksyandr Lukashenka, confirmed that without Russian support, the phony Donbas “republics” would not last a day (Moskovsky Komsomolets, October 17). European politicians were encouraged by Putin’s promise to not turn the rebel enclave into another “frozen” quasi-state, even if his words in this hybrid war have, in the past, simply been an alternative means of waging it (Polit.ru, October 17). Russians actually see such a dismemberment of no-longer “brotherly” Ukraine as the most probable outcome, and while they express a strong positive attitude to the current truce, they do not expect it to last long. Nevertheless, according to recent polls, as many as 63 percent of respondents oppose the use of Russian troops when the probable new phase of hostilities erupts (Levada.ru, October 16).
For anxious Europe, a new rebel offensive (spearheaded by Russian tank battalions) would mean an interruption of gas supplies in the coming winter season, and several emergency plans are in preparation (RBC Daily, October 17). The gas problem was one of the key issues of discussion in Milan, and the technicalities of Russian export to and transit through Ukraine were successfully ironed out (Newsru.com, October 18). This does not mean, however, that Putin has given up on the “gas weapon”—more likely, he merely seeks to achieve an element of surprise and draw as much money out of Ukraine as possible before the timing for again turning off the spigot is deemed perfect (Kommersant, October 17). Yet, what may irritate him the most in this gas-strategizing is the steadily sliding oil price. And even if, to Putin, the fundamentals of the global market look rather dubious, the geopolitical intrigues aimed at denying Russia the due revenues are taken in the Kremlin particularly seriously (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 16).
Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council and one of Putin’s loyal lieutenants, revealed the depth of the Kremlin’s Washington-obsessed conspiracy thinking in a recent interview. In particular, he reflected on the collapse of the Soviet Union (allegedly master-minded by Zbigniew Brzezinski) but refused to admit present-day Russia’s far greater weakness of a stagnating economy (Forbes.ru, October 16). This weakness, however, manifests itself in many plain indicators, such as the falling ruble, which cannot be corrected by political will or furious propaganda (Polit.ru, October 17). There is a fundamental incompatibility between the politics of aggressive self-isolation and the economy of market transactions (even if deeply deformed by corruption), and Putin cannot find a way of squaring this circle. He seemingly does not dare to introduce a fixed exchange rate and regulated prices, instead persisting with exorbitant defense spending and mammoth energy projects—which are beneficial only for China—while ignoring the damage to state finances (Slon.ru, October 16). Moody’s decision to lower Russia’s sovereign credit rating with a negative forecast thus appears well justified (RBC, October 19).
This unfolding economic disaster renders ineffectual and unsustainable the government’s “patriotic” mobilization of the population, which has been driven by the swift annexation of Crimea. Putin may draw confidence from the fact that his approval ratings are much higher than those of any European politician, but the meetings in Milan likely left him in no doubt about the joyless status of an outcast, which is set to continue even if the sanctions regime is softened (Gazeta.ru, October 16). He was also probably irked by the expressed interest in Europe toward Russian opposition politicians like Alexei Navalny (under house arrest) and Mikhail Khodorkovsky (in exile), who are trying to shape public debates on the Crimea issue in different terms (Moscow Echo, October 15). Kremlin court aides are probably reluctant to tell their leader that his public performances have not exactly been stellar. But Putin’s political instincts are still sharp enough to make him realize that any pause in the Ukraine conflict is detrimental to his own inflated authority. His need to demonstrate continued strength is obvious, but his preference for military instruments produces such unfortunate effects as the high-profile hunt for a Russian submarine in the Stockholm archipelago (BestToday, October 19).
Putin cannot afford a decline in Russia’s over-boosted public mobilization because the stakes in the struggle for regime survival are too high for his predatory siloviki (security services personnel) and corrupt subordinates (Gazeta.ru, October 19). Exploiting anti-Americanism is easy—but it cannot address public concerns over such mundane issues as shrinking disposable incomes. It is true that embracing nostalgia for the “glorious” Soviet past has been ideologically profitable for the Putinist regime, but it has simultaneously accentuated the lingering suspicion that Putin’s Russia has no future. The space for compromises, which so many European politicians are eager to explore, is thus not just limited but, for all intents and purposes, non-existent for the Russian president. He needs to score new victories over the inherently hostile West, and the warm welcome he received in Belgrade (where the Serbian leadership matter-of-factly confirmed its country’s strategic choice to join the EU) could hardly qualify as one (Slon.ru, October 17). Consequently, he will not want to spoil Russia’s symbolically significant participation in the upcoming G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, in mid-November, and this may give Ukraine a useful opportunity to politically regroup and refocus.