Berlin Policy Journal 12 June 2015
By Elizabeth Pond
A more nuanced reading of the current state of affairs in the Ukraine crisis would stress that we are still in a waiting game in Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine–but there is evolution in its terms. The Obama administration has recently reengaged directly with Russian president Putin after more than a year of minimal contact (and Russian media are spinning this as proof that the United States finally sees it must restore good relations with world-power Russia and dump unimportant Ukraine). The West, while still refusing to give lethal weapons to Kiev to counter the lethal weapons that Russia is pouring into rebel eastern Ukraine, has begun cautious training of Ukrainian troops and is sharing more battlefield intelligence with Kiev. And the West, including Japan, showed unexpected unity at last weekend’s G-7 summit in threatening to adopt even tougher sanctions if the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine fail to adhere fully to the “Minsk agreements“–meaning both the stricter original ceasefire of last September and its more lax implementation deal in February of this year.
In the European Union German Chancellor Angela Merkel has successfully nailed any easing of EU financial sanctions on Russia this year to Moscow’s and the separatists’ full implementation of the Minsk accords. In Moscow Russian President Putin has revealed, by curbing some hothead separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas –and even managing to drop his vaunted campaign to wrest all of the “Novorossiya“ east of Ukraine away from Kiev without sparking any Russian backlash–that he has not after all loosed nationalist demons that he can no longer control.
All told, Russian mathematician and Putin critic Andrey Piontkovsky detects a “new toughening of the West’s position.” It has decided that it “must stop Putin in Ukraine by non-military means” today to prevent having to use military means tomorrow to defend Baltic members of NATO against Russian incursions.
This will confront Putin with a choice, Piontkovsky concludes, between “political death as someone who will be held responsible for corruption, responsible for the downing of [Malaysia] airliner [flight 17] and a mass of other unattractive affairs or be the fighting leader of ‘the Russian world’ who throws a challenge to the entire West.”
In this changing environment the asymmetrical waiting that Kyiv, Moscow, Berlin, and Washington are currently practicing might best be summarized as follows.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is braced for a “full-scale invasion” by Russia from the estimated 9000 heavily-armed Russian troops inside Ukraine’s Donbas and 50,000 massed just over the Russian border. He expects a Russian/separatist attempt to seize more Ukrainian land at any moment, probably starting with an offensive like last week’s 12-hour battle in which a Russian/separatist attack on Maryinka, despite the truce, tried (but failed) to dislodge Ukrainian defenders.
The biggest potential spoiler of Poroshenko’s hopes to defend Ukraine is that contingent of 59,000 Russian soldiers in and near the Donbas. Last summer Ukrainian forces came close to routing eastern separatists that at the time were only thinly buttressed by Russian regulars and officers. Putin therefore showed he would not tolerate defeat of his proxies by sending elite Russian airborne troops into Ukraine in late August to repulse the Ukrainians in one short week. Since then he has steadily funneled ever more Russian T-72 main battle tanks, multiple rocket launchers, artillery, and armor over the border into Ukraine, while rotating Russian troops and generals in and out of the Donbas in varying numbers. Poroshenko realistically acknowledged Russia’s vast military superiority and Putin’s red line by immediately agreeing to the first Minsk truce of September 5. The barely disguised Russian forces in the Donbas–despite all the OSCE monitoring, photo, Facebook, and electronic evidence, Putin still denies flatly that any Russian forces are there–are now poised either for mere intimidation or for a blitzkrieg, should Putin so decide.
President Putin, according to German Kremlin-watchers, is expecting the Ukrainian government to collapse from its own–to use Soviet-speak–“contradictions.” He rightly sees Kiev’s basket-case economy as far worse off than Russia’s. He also expects fratricidal instincts among Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians to grow in a repetition of the meltdown of the government elected after the first pro-European Maidan protests in the 2004 Orange Revolution. He might therefore just prefer to wait for the Kiev government to fall instead of launching an offensive that would surely increase combat deaths among those Russian soldiers who supposedly aren’t in Ukraine, and whose deaths Putin is at pains to hide from their mothers and wives.
Moreover, the Russian president expects that the Europeans will soon feel Ukraine fatigue and ease their sanctions–much as he (wrongly) expected the Russophile German business lobby to block imposition of sanctions after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and as he (wrongly) expected Ukraine’s chaotic interim government and provisional president Poroshenko to fail before Poroshenko’s first-ballot election to his post a year ago. He could very well make the same decision he made in spring of 2014, when he mobilized some 80,000 troops on high alert for a month on Ukraine’s north, east, and south, but then chose to forego invasion for the cheaper alternative of letting Ukraine, as he (wrongly) anticipated, self-destruct.
Potential spoilers of Putin’s hopes to win by waiting are Merkel’s ability so far to hold the 28 EU members together on unanimous sanctions; Russia’s growing financial losses under the sanctions, which are hurting Russia’s economy faster than any of the sanctions’ authors dreamed possible; and Ukraine’s surprising resilience in the 15 months of Russia’s war.
Chancellor Merkel, as the leader of Western diplomacy in the Ukraine crisis, has always played the long game in the Ukraine crisis. Last year she succeeded in offsetting the West’s utter military absence in Russia’s neighborhood–and the West’s public refusal to put it own boots on the ground of non-ally Ukraine–by orchestrating a deescalation of violence in the initial September 5 Minsk truce. This averted any dangerous spiral of escalation that Russia would always win in its own environs. For her the truce was never an end in itself, but a search for a tacit equilibrium at a lowered level of violence. This first equilibrium held uneasily for four months, until the Russian/separatist forces resumed an offensive in January that captured a ring of towns and villages on the Ukrainian side of the 400-kilometer truce line. At that point Merkel and Poroshenko sued Putin for a new equilibrium in the February “Minsk-2” implementation that tacitly recognized the new Russian gains.
Merkel still hopes that the longer the West can confine Putin and his separatist protégés to a quasi-frozen conflict in the war-ravaged seven percent of Ukrainian territory that Moscow controls in the Donbas, the sooner Putin will be compelled to see the economic, international, and even domestic costs to Russia of his bullying of Ukraine. She has always offered to help the Russian president save face if he reverses his aggression, and she continues to do so, even if face-saving has become ever harder as he has narrowed his own options by reflexive resort to enhanced violence in response to setbacks.
The greatest potential spoiler to Merkel’s scenario of restoring heartland Europe’s seven-decade peace order, then, is Vladimir Putin’s 19th-century fixation on national military greatness.
For his part, President Barack Obama is pairing his reluctant direct reengagement with Russia with conspicuous NATO exercises to reassure Poland and Baltic NATO members of their collective security under the alliance’s Article 5 pledge and with steadily increasing non-lethal military support to Ukraine. And the administration is floating the ideas of modifying the missile defense it is now building in Europe against any Iranian nuclear breakout to target Russian missiles too–and possibly even returning intermediate-range nuclear-capable missiles to Europe on British bases.
The greatest potential spoiler of American hopes for Ukraine is perhaps distraction by all the other world crises and by the all-consuming 2016 presidential campaign that has already started.
At this point all are waiting to see what the key player of Vladimir Putin will do next. In this confrontation, Andrey Piontkovsky concludes that emotionally, Putin will indeed be drawn to play the role of “the fighting leader of ‘the Russian world’ who throws a challenge to the entire West.” But Piontkovsky senses that some of his entourage may finally be starting to think that his “political death” might be a preferable alternative.
A version of this blog was published by the Berlin Policy Journal on 12 June 2015 at