Truce At Last?

The fighting seems to be dying down in eastern Ukraine. This would mean “advantage Kiev.”

Elizabeth Pond

There are growing signs that twelve months after the first Minsk agreement was signed, an armistice is taking hold in eastern Ukraine. It would be no victory for Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s undeclared hybrid war, though. Rather, it seems the Kremlin has lowered its goals.

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© REUTERS/Kazbek Basaev

The biggest surprise in Ukraine this month is the dog that didn’t bark. In the first week of September not a single Ukrainian soldier was killed in the Ukrainian-Russian battleground in the eastern tip of Ukraine – and the big guns have now been silent there for two weeks. The combined Russian and local rebel forces “still violate [the year-long] ceasefire up to ten times a day” in skirmishes, says Andriy Lysenko, Ukraine’s presidential defense spokesman, but they have stopped shelling the Ukrainian lines with heavy weapons.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak calls this reprieve “the lowest number of shootings over the past year-and-a-half” in Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine. It follows twelve months in which heavily armed Russian/rebel forces, breaching the Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015, have driven Ukrainian troops out of pockets along the truce line in bloody firefights and made incremental gains – but have not been able to break through Ukrainian defenses in any major offensive. Even NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, after a summer in which NATO generals were expecting a new Russian attack at any moment, admits that “so far it looks like the ceasefire is now more respected than it has been for a long time.”

Could a fortnight of unwonted quiet presage a solution to what Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London Lawrence Freedman describes as a crucial conundrum in the fluid post-superpower world: how to convert a military deadlock into a stable political settlement? (For German efforts to bring this about see Berlin Policy Journal’s interview with Markus Ederer, State Secretary at the German Foreign Office.)

The judicious answer to the question would be No to any formal agreement ending Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 17-month war on Ukraine – but Yes to the second-best of a stable truce with only low-level violence. Only the boldest of commentators, Ulrich Speck, goes so far as to assert that Putin is now shifting his focus to Syria because he finally sees his neighborhood war as counterproductive in pushing Russia’s fellow East Slavs in Ukraine to embrace an unprecedented Western identity – and he cannot reverse this shift “without a major war.

What the relative quiet in eastern Ukraine does not mean – pace analysts who lament this supposed Russian victory in mainstream American media like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal – is that Russian president Vladimir Putin has won his war. On the contrary, Putin has long since given up his expectation that eastern Ukrainians would rise up against Kiev if only they were nudged into revolt by Russian special forces infiltrated into the region – and that such rebellion would lead to the “return” of Catherine the Great’s 18th-century “New Russia” territory to Moscow. In this light the Russian president’s continued saber-rattling toward Ukraine now looks less like a real threat than a mimicry of threat to maintain his macho domestic image.

The clearest measures of Putin’s lowered goals are the conspicuous absence of that long-awaited offensive in the optimal summertime by up to 24,000 Russian regular troops already in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine and 50,000 Russian troops massed in nearby Russia – along with the squabbling among Russia’s proxy rebels in the Donbass. Both fall and spring are bad times to attack because the seasonal muddy “roadlessness” of rural Russia and Ukraine is treacherous for heavy tanks. Moreover, it appears that Moscow is now damping down the militancy of its unruly Donbass proxies by demoting hardliners and promoting those who favor political over military conquest of Ukraine.

Western analysts who regard continuing deadlock as a victory for Putin’s “hybrid war” argue that Moscow is creating another “frozen conflict” and could manipulate the Donbass at will to sabotage the Kiev government, on the pattern of the quarter-century-old “frozen conflicts” in Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Yet now that Putin has single-handedly consolidated a newfound national identity in Ukraine by attacking it, his army would have to occupy the whole country in order to control it. The half-measures of deniable hybrid warfare – Russian officials still claim, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that there are no Russian regulars in Ukraine – have shown their limits.

The biggest deterrent to overt occupation is the prohibitively high costs, as Putin seems to be acknowledging for the first time in his new-found restraint. These include the rising numbers of dead Russian soldiers; the prospect of a quagmire of guerrilla warfare in Ukraine itself; military overstretch and a shortage of Russian troops for other contingencies in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and abroad; increasing Western financial sanctions; and consequent domestic economic degeneration.

To outsiders, the deaths of anonymous Russian soldiers in Ukraine might not appear to be a real disincentive to belligerence for a ruler who enjoys almost 90 percent popularity, exercises vast power over domestic media, and has jailed the few political dissidents who have dared to cross him. Nor would it seem possible that the West’s long-term financial sanctions could have damaged Russia’s economy so fast.

Yet in retrospect Western analysts credit the casualties of Russian soldiers in Afghanistan with Moscow’s withdrawal of those troops in the 1980s. The extraordinary buildup of the ragtag Ukrainian army of early 2014 to a force that almost routed Putin’s Donbass proxies a year ago and were themselves routed only by the first invasion of Ukraine by Russian regulars in August 2014 is another deterrent to Putin. So is the measured Western response to Russian belligerence in giving small-unit military training to Ukrainian troops and conducting joint military exercises in the Baltic and Black Seas – while refraining from sending “lethal” weapons to Ukraine. These moves have signaled NATO’s determination to defend alliance members and to give Kiev help for self-help without escalating the war in a dramatic gesture that would prompt Putin to trump the escalation.

The upshot is that by now the Donbass stalemate – or “exhaustion”, as Freedman terms it – is actually beginning to look like something of a victory by default for Ukraine. As the attacker, Moscow loses if it does not seize any more of the Ukrainian territory Putin has claimed for Russia. As the defender, all Kiev has to do is to maintain the stalemate. Freedman suggests that at this point “Russia might be more vulnerable to exhaustion than Ukraine…. The longer the conflict continues along the current path, the more time Ukraine has to reform its military and economy and deal with corruption.”

By contrast, time is no longer on Putin’s side. The trick will be to “prepare for the point at which the most exhausted side can slide away from its previous stance under the cover of implementing an established agreement.” In this case, that would of course be the much-maligned Minsk agreements.

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, has covered Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the past 30 years. She is the author of “The Rebirth of Europe” and “Endgame in the Balkans.”


This is the longer version of the blog at

http://berlinpolicyjournal.com/truce-at-last/

The Waiting Game

Berlin Policy Journal 12 June 2015

By Elizabeth Pond

No, the West has not (yet) lost Ukraine in Vladimir Putin’s Russian roulette, and the fragile Minsk truce and Western sanctions on Moscow over its land grab in Ukraine have not failed.

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

http://berlinpolicyjournal.com/the-waiting-game/

What Next for Ukraine? Four rival scenarios

Berlin Policy Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations   May 5, 2015

by Elizabeth Pond  

As the sober National Interest warns that America and Russia are “stumbling to war,” roughly four Western scenarios compete to explain where we stand in the year-old Ukraine crisis. Let’s call them the McCain, Mearsheimer, Motyl, and Merkel theses of, respectively, Russian aggression, Russian hegemonic privilege, Russian decline, and Russian paranoia. The first part of this two-part blog examines the McCain and Mearsheimer view; the second examines the Motyl and Merkel views.

(Part 1)

US Senator John McCain sees Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine as an epic (and hotter) re-run of the Soviet-American Cold War that the wimpish United States is losing to Putin’s military juggernaut and superior political will. University of Chicago purist realist John Mearsheimer, by contrast, regards Russia as behaving normally for a great power in invading a smaller neighbor, annexing Crimea, and then stoking secession in eastern Ukraine through military coercion and patronage.

Rutgers political scientist Alexander Motyl, on the other hand, contends that Russian President Vladimir Putin is losing the contest in the long run and that Ukraine finally holds the initiative, despite the Russians’ overwhelming superiority on the battlefield. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who leads the West’s diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the violence in Ukraine, argues – to put it more bluntly than she herself does – that it is Putin’s post-empire paranoia that makes the current state of play so dangerous.

The difference matters: the four premises imply very different Western responses. In essence, the McCain thesis assumes that the ongoing Russian military buildup in eastern Ukraine is laying the groundwork for Moscow to overturn the present fragile truce and launch a fresh offensive in Ukrainian “Novorossiya” in the next few weeks, and that there is no non-military solution to Russia’s regressive violation of Europe’s seven-decade taboo on forcible seizure of a neighbor’s territory. The West must therefore avoid appeasing Putin as it once appeased Hitler, and instead give Ukraine lethal weapons to defend itself while calling Putin’s bluff that he would trump any Western escalation all the way up to the nuclear level. For his part, John Mearsheimer blames the West itself for provoking the Russian bear, and counsels Washington to simply defer to Moscow in its sphere of influence.

Motyl maintains that Kiev should cede to Moscow the half of the Donbas that is already controlled by Ukrainian rebels and Russian soldiers, defend the remainder of Ukraine and make it a showcase of economic and democratic development, and deter further Russian encroachment on Ukrainian territory. Deterrence could be achieved, he believes, through the cumulative impact of the West’s financial sanctions, rising Russian casualties, and Russian generals’ worry that any escalation of the army’s mission to occupying Ukrainian territory against probable partisan guerrillas would overstretch its capabilities. At this point, he posits, it is Moscow rather than Kiev that would lose if there is a stalemate.

Finally, the pragmatic Chancellor Merkel insists that there is no possible military solution, given the West’s weak geopolitical position in Russia’s backyard. She focuses instead on deescalating the level of violence in Ukraine to a semi-stable level and relying on the long-term policy of containment that won the first Cold War.

The McCain View

It became clear how sharply Senator McCain’s view diverged from Merkel’s last February on the sidelines of the blue-ribbon Munich Security Conference. In a private meeting between German officials and American politicians, he lambasted the chancellor (and President Barack Obama) for not sending lethal weapons to Ukraine, and compared the European pursuit of peace talks with Putin to Neville Chamberlain’s infamous appeasement of Hitler in 1938. Shortly thereafter, in unusually caustic criticism of an allied leader, McCain complained to a German TV interviewer that one could think Merkel “either had no idea that people in Ukraine were being butchered, or was indifferent to it.”

Former NATO commander Wesley Clark, the most prominent spokesman for the McCain approach today, recently made the case that delivering weapons was the only course that could deter further “military adventurism” by Putin in Ukraine. He said that Ukrainian forces, although they are vastly inferior to the Russian military machine in manpower and weapons, are ready to fight, and even came close to defeating the Russian-led secessionists in eastern Ukraine last August. Ever since, the Russians have been augmenting their already superior arsenal in the area despite making tactical withdrawals under the truces that Merkel negotiated with Putin in September and February. Moscow has used the barely monitored ceasefires to infiltrate ever more tanks, rocket launchers, and drones into the Donbas, amass some 50,000 troops on the Russian side of the Russian-controlled border, and fire artillery from Russian soil onto Ukrainian strongpoints. Last January Moscow also sent “rotating commanders” into the Donbas to lead the secessionists’ renewed surge there and push the truce line westward along the 400-kilometer front.

Neither financial sanctions nor diplomacy can stop “the Russian war plan,” Clark argued. Therefore, Ukrainians – who are fighting “the battle of Western civilization” for all of us – should be provided with the lethal defensive weapons that would enable them to repel “the next wave of the attack” that Clark expects the Russians to mount in the next few weeks. Specifically, he wants the West to equip the Ukrainians immediately with portable Javelin fire-and-forget anti-tank missiles.

The Mearsheimer View

Mearsheimer also perceives the Ukraine crisis in black and white; however, he flips the colors by declaring that “the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for the crisis.” The trigger was not Russian actions, but NATO enlargement in the past quarter century as “the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West.” American and European leaders “blundered in attempting to turn Ukraine into a Western stronghold on Russia’s border.” This threatened Russia’s “core strategic interests.” Putin was understandably displeased, as he demonstrated in 2008 by invading NATO applicant Georgia and in 2014 by seizing Crimea. The Russian president feared that Crimea “would host a NATO naval base,” and he therefore began working “to destabilize Ukraine until it abandoned its efforts to join the West.”

Mearsheimer continues, “The EU, too, has been marching eastward….In the eyes of Russian leaders, EU expansion is a stalking horse for NATO expansion.” Moreover, “[t]he West’s final tool for peeling Kiev away from Moscow has been its effort to spread Western values and promote democracy in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states, a plan that often entails funding pro-Western individuals and organizations” like the pro-Europe demonstrations by Ukrainian activists in the center of Kiev at the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014. “[T]he West’s triple package of policies – NATO enlargement, EU expansion, and democracy promotion – added fuel to a fire waiting to ignite.” It was therefore understandable that Putin would not tolerate more Western meddling in the “buffer state” that has long been the gateway to Russia, just as Washington would not tolerate a Chinese attempt to incorporate Canada or Mexico into a military alliance.

Mearsheimer does agree with McCain in dismissing financial sanctions as ineffective. But his policy prescription is diametrically opposed to McCain’s: “The United States and its allies should abandon their plan to westernize Ukraine and instead aim to make it a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia … And the West should considerably limit its social-engineering efforts inside Ukraine.” The super-realist rejects any protest that the independent state of Ukraine should be free to determine its own future as unrealistic. “The sad truth is that might often makes right when great-power politics are at play.” Since Ukraine is not a vital interest for the United States, Washington should simply reject Kiev’s clamor to join the European Union and NATO and not let Ukrainian wishes “put Russia and the West on a collision course.”

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, has covered Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the past 30 years. She is the author of “The Rebirth of Europe” and “Endgame in the Balkans.”

http://berlinpolicyjournal.com/what-next-for-ukraine/

(Part 2)

Berlin Policy Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations   May 8, 2015

A Farewell to Arms?

by Elizabeth Pond May 8, 2015

Analysis of the Ukraine crisis by Ukrainian-American historian Alexander Motyl and German Chancellor Angela Merkel differs sharply from that of John McCain and John Mearsheimer in that it regards Russia as the loser rather than the winner so far. This view by no means belittles the dangers in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s zero-sum adventurism, but it sees a glimmer of hope that diplomacy could help deescalate Putin’s aggression. Such hope is conspicuously absent in McCain’s drive to arm Ukraine with lethal weapons, and in Mearsheimer’s appeal to let Moscow rule unchallenged in its own sphere of influence.

Beyond the role of diplomacy, there are some areas of overlap between the four views. In part, Motyl, Merkel, and McCain implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) heed the constraints of Mearsheimer’s realpolitik. Motyl argues that, pragmatically, Kiev should cede to Moscow both of the “two economic sinkholes – Crimea and the Donbass” that Russian troops and local separatists already control physically, the better to transform and modernize the remaining nine-tenths of Ukraine. The West as a whole has tacitly accepted Russian control of Crimea, and even McCain, by rejecting the risky deployment of Western boots on the ground, has implicitly endorsed the consensus fear that Russia’s 771,000-strong armed forces and 20,000 tanks could quickly trump a tiny Western augmentation of Ukraine’s 121,000 servicemen and 2000 tanks. In an era with fewer agreed taboos on state violence than existed during the Cold War, all want to avoid sleepwalking into tit-for-tat escalation that could unwittingly build momentum toward a nuclear showdown.

In today’s most urgent policy debate, Motyl and McCain both support arming Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons. Both Merkel and Mearsheimer oppose this move, the former because of the danger of uncontrolled escalation, the latter because the West shouldn’t meddle in Russia’s hegemonic “near abroad.”

The Motyl View

Motyl builds his case on the premise that Russia no longer possesses the “escalation dominance” it enjoyed in Ukraine a year ago from its regional military superiority, its fierce perceived national interest in subduing a neighbor, its ability to export heavy weapons and soldiers at will across Ukraine’s unprotected eastern border, and Kiev’s lack of allies. What may by now be making even Putin rethink a new offensive – one that NATO commanders believe to have already been planned – is the unexpected cost, in blood and treasure, of Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine.

The Russian president never dreamed that the fractious West could agree on financial sanctions that would lead Russia to a projected GDP drop of some 4 percent this year and block key new investments from the West. Or that the weak interim government in Kiev would survive. Or that Russian-speaking peasants in eastern Ukraine would decline to rally to the secessionist cause, even after Russian Spetsnatz officers lit the fuse of rebellion. Or that the Russian army would be overstretched by the intervention. Or that Russia’s incursion would prove counterproductive in accelerating the formation of a distinctive Ukrainian identity unified against Russian aggression, resuscitating the NATO alliance, sparking closer Scandinavian defense coordination with NATO and the formation of a joint Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian brigade, and condemning the Russian economy to stagnation at the level of mineral extraction.

Above all, Putin never guessed that the ragtag Ukrainian army and volunteer militias would take up a doomed fight against the Russian behemoth and kill an embarrassing number of Russian soldiers. In fact, the Ukrainian forces would actually have defeated Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine last summer, had Putin not sent Russian paratroopers with devastating firepower to rescue the insurgents. And although the “cyborg” Ukrainians who held out for months at the Donetsk airport and the Debaltseve salient failed to stop the final fall of those enclaves to insurgents under clandestine Russian command in January and February 2015, they took a heavy toll on Russian combatants. If Putin were to escalate from mere seizure of Ukrainian territory to a far more demanding occupation, he would have to expect high casualties from guerrilla forces, similar to those inflicted by western Ukraine’s two-year underground resistance to Soviet takeover after 1945. This (despite official denials that any Russian troops are fighting in eastern Ukraine) would make it impossible for the Russian populace to remain ignorant of the combat deaths of Russians, which the Russian army is doggedly hiding at the moment from the mothers and wives of the dead.

Motyl does not by any means think that the outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian forces could win set battles against the mix of Russian regulars, local mercenaries, and criminal gangs in eastern Ukraine by themselves. What he argues instead is that if the Ukrainians and their Western supporters can hold Putin to a stalemate, they will have won the war. Motyl summarizes: “Anything short of such a victory amounts to a defeat for Russia. Having destroyed the Russian economy, transformed Russia into a rogue state, and alienated Russia’s allies in the ‘near abroad,’ Vladimir Putin loses if he doesn’t win big. In contrast, Ukraine wins as long as it does not lose big. If Ukraine can contain the aggression, it will demonstrate that it possesses the will and the military capacity to deter the Kremlin, stop Putin and his proxies, and survive as an independent democratic state.”

Former US presidential security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski agrees, saying the West should offer Russia “genuine accommodation, and at the same time convince Russia that crossing certain lines is prohibitively expensive for Russia itself.” He sees an “analogy here between the German general staff after Anschluss, warning Hitler that if he pursues the efforts against Czechoslovakia too energetically, he will plunge the Germans into a war for which it is not yet ready but will be ready in about four years.”

The Merkel View

Chancellor Merkel’s approach is less an analytical school than a psychological reading of Vladimir Putin and a pragmatic guideline to the crisis diplomacy that she is leading. She is the Western head of government best equipped to talk with Putin, and she has stuck with the need to do so, no matter how fruitless the dialogue has been.

As a Russian speaker who grew up in the Soviet client state of East Germany, she understands Putin’s bitterness at the abrupt loss of Moscow’s empire in 1989 and the loss of all of Ukraine last year through the political failure of Viktor Yanukovych. She sees the Russian president’s fury at a Ukraine that gutted his pet project of a Eurasian Union by not joining it. She famously warned President Barack Obama early on that Putin was living “in another world.” She declined to elaborate, but Western pundits take this as meaning a poisonous paranoia that regards Russia as all-powerful militarily in its own neighborhood, but simultaneously as the greatest victim of Western exploitation when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to withdraw Moscow’s armed forces from Berlin and Central Europe a thousand miles to the east.

Merkel’s diplomatic goal might best be described as operationalizing, incrementally, what Brzezinski defines as the “balance between deterrence and accommodation.” Her method is to maintain contact so as to be available for compromise whenever Putin finally realizes that the costs of his present belligerence – including being forced to accept a junior role in a new partnership with China, rising jihadism among Russia’s Chechens and other Muslims, Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s tentative moves to put more distance between Belarus and Moscow, and continued capital flight and brain drain from Russia – far outweigh the benefits. Her mantra is that there is no military solution in Ukraine. For her this truism excludes delivery to eastern Ukraine of Western lethal weapons, which could be matched and surpassed instantly by Russia’s heavy weapons anyway and risk pushing Putin to up the military ante and blame the West when he feels cornered. But it also requires Putin to keep his own military and the trigger-happy proxies he has empowered in the Donbas on a short leash.

Thus, in May and June of last year, she played the West’s weak geopolitical hand to get Russia’s signature on a Geneva agreement, however ambiguous, that she could measure Putin’s future actions against – and to win time for the fledgling Ukrainian government to pull itself together. Simultaneously, she successfully rallied support for financial sanctions on Russia from businessmen in the pro-Russian German industrial lobby, and achieved the required unanimous approval of all 28 members of the European Union. In September, after Putin revealed his red line – he would not let client insurgents in eastern Ukraine be routed – she choreographed a truce that at least deescalated the violence. Last February she renewed the imperfect truce to provide a three-month relative lull, one that the United States and Britain – soon to be joined by Canada and Poland – are now using to send a modest few hundred trainers to western Ukraine to drill Ukrainian troops. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has also used the lull to get NATO and the Russian military to reintroduce a hotline for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

If Chancellor Merkel’s instincts are right, President Putin might play the peace card and roll over today’s uneasy ceasefire for another few months to encourage dissenting EU members to balk at extending sanctions at the EU’s next decision rounds in July and December. If Senator McCain’s instincts are right, the truce could explode into a heavy battle in eastern Ukraine within weeks.

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, has covered Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the past 30 years. She is the author of “The Rebirth of Europe” and “Endgame in the Balkans.”

http://berlinpolicyjournal.com/a-farewell-to-arms/

© Elizabeth Pond

Do not arm Ukraine

Sending guns to Kyiv will only escalate the conflict

By Elizabeth Pond

Now is not the time to play to Russia’s military strength by flooding Ukraine, the world’s tenth-largest exporter of arms, with advanced Western weapons that Kiev’s armed forces have not been trained to handle.

Instead, the smart approach is to play to the West’s own strengths of soft and restrained power and hold Russia to the “Minsk package”–the truce in eastern Ukraine that Moscow has already endorsed–by linking violations to more severe financial sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s billionaire coterie.

There are three reasons for this. First, abstention from sending lethal weapons to Ukraine would help evade sleepwalking into the world’s first nuclear war. Second, it would be much cheaper to send ten executives on sabbatical from Boeing to Kiev and Kharkiv to modernize, fast, the substantial production of heavy weapons that remains from the days when Ukraine was the war smithy for the Soviet Union. Third, abstention from providing a third trough of billions of loose dollars–now that the opportunities for personal enrichment in backroom Russian gas deals and embezzled defense appropriations have dried up–would avoid tempting Ukrainian oligarchs to revert to business as usual as the shock of Russia’s year-old attack on Ukraine wears off.

True, delivering lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, as Senator John McCain, NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove, and dozens of Congressional Rambos urge, would make Washington feel good. But–given the ratio of Ukraine’s 121,000 to Russia’s 771,000 active servicemen and just over 2000 Ukrainian to 20,000 Russian tanks–Western arms injections could hardly save Ukraine from further dismemberment in the undeclared war the Russians are imposing on their junior East Slav brothers. Indeed, a demonstrative influx of Western arms into Ukraine would simply force any risk-averse demurrers in the Kremlin to unite in defiance of the American bogeyman with the ultranationalists whom Putin has empowered.

Hawks in the West are already starting to say that this moment of political uncertainty in the Kremlin is precisely the time to pump modern weapons into Ukraine to show Moscow that the United States is not feckless. Yet they tacitly admit–in a rejection of putting Western boots on the ground in non-NATO Ukraine that is as firm as President Barack Obama’s–that Moscow holds “escalation dominance” in its own backyard. As US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained colloquially in defending Obama’s skepticism about funneling lethal weapons to Kiev, “Anything we did as countries in terms of military support for Ukraine is likely to be matched and then doubled and tripled and quadrupled by Russia.” Or, as policy wonks explain the same phenomenon, not only does Russia enjoy escalation dominance as the regional military giant that can instantly trump each Western military initiative in any upward spiral. It also flaunts its will to up the ante at every stage because of its claims to an existential geopolitical interest in next-door Ukraine that trumps the distant West’s half-hearted interest.

Where Western hawks fail the sobriety test is in not following the logic of their own tacit admission by specifying how they would respond in the next weeks and months if a game of chicken proceeds on Russian rules and Moscow keeps raising the stakes all the way up to the nuclear level, as Putin has repeatedly threatened to do. Hawks never say whether they would really risk sleepwalking into Armageddon over a peripheral interest in a scary era when even the rudimentary mutual rules of restraint worked out by the superpowers in the original Cold War have expired.

But is the alternative policy advocated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel–“strategic patience” in countering Russia’s breach of international law and the seven-decade taboo on changing Europe’s borders by force-really feasible? Is there a golden mean that helps Ukraine but does not taunt Moscow into another military tantrum?

Fortunately, yes. The West’s surprisingly effective sanctions have already exacerbated plunging oil prices to produce record capital flight in Russia, an abrupt halt to crucial Western investment and technology transfer, 20% inflation, and a GDP drop of up to 6 percent this year. For the first time since Putin rose to power on the basis of high oil revenues and a social compact of restoring order after Russia’s post-Soviet chaos and building a new urban consumer class, Putin now faces growing impoverishment in Russia. He cannot forever compensate for this concrete drop in living standards by appealing to abstract Great Russian glory and sacrificing the lives of ever-more Russian soldiers to a war in Ukraine that he claims not to be waging. Time, which last year favored Putin’s improvisational military faits accomplis, may this year begin to favor the West’s strategic soft power of prosperity and stability.

To be sure, the potential transmission belt from general impoverishment to political moderation is not obvious. A population inured to fatalism over centuries is unlikely to revolt. The Russian elites have only a weak liberal impulse. And all nascent Kremlin factions of kleptocrats and brass-knuckle enforcers unite so far in outrage over Russia’s loss of empire in the Soviet implosion of 1991 that Putin calls the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.

What might in the future, however, divide the oligarchs from the enforcers–or the clans of enforcers from each other–is the public blame that ultranationalists already heap on Putin for his timidity in not finishing the military conquest of eastern Ukraine and the private fears that more cautious cronies may nurse about Putin’s “adventurism,” to use the classic Soviet term for dangerous goading of the more powerful West.

In this constellation, German–and therefore European–policy is to seek tacit mutual acceptance of relatively stable de-escalation that could brake any incremental spiral to unintended nuclear war. To keep up the pressure, Merkel has already changed the European agenda from easing financial sanctions by summer if Russia does not seize more Ukrainian territory before then to strengthening sanctions if Russia violates the ceasefire before the end of the year.

This makes more sense than sending sophisticated Western weapons to Kiev that would require months of training before Ukrainian forces could use them, and would risk their capture by Russians. The West stands to gain far more by helping the Ukrainians to maximize their own substantial arms production. Ukraine still turns out solid Soviet-era tanks and missiles (and exports spare parts to Russia, oddly enough, to keep Moscow’s warplanes and helicopters flying). The tanks may not match the high tech of the West’s Leopards or Abrams. But Ukrainian soldiers know how to operate them, and they are suited to the kind of hybrid war in which the Russians avoid close air support for their professional soldiers and mercenaries in eastern Ukraine in order to maintain the deniability of their crucial role in the war.

The US Congress should certainly keep the threat of delivering lethal weapons to Ukraine on the docket. NATO should continue to demonstrate its determination to defend all alliance members (and, tacitly, Sweden and Finland), by conducting joint exercises in the Baltic states and Poland and intercepting Russian bombers flying in European airliner zones with their transponders shut down. It should continue to train Ukrainian forces and conduct modest joint military maneuvers in western Ukraine under the “distinctive partnership” that NATO granted Kiev as a consolation prize in the 1990s, when the alliance signed a grander “Founding Act” with Russia. It should use the timing and intensity of war gaming to signal responses to Russian threats or overtures.

The West should further nudge Kiev to replace the top dysfunctional command of the Ukrainian army and promote the majors and captains who have already had extensive training in the West.

It should upgrade Ukraine’s existing heavy weapons by providing enough unarmed surveillance drones and intelligence and electronics to facilitate real-time targeting and counteract Russian jamming of Ukrainian communications in the east. It should insist on Russian compliance with the Minsk truce –including the provision for Kiev’s control of Ukraine’s own borders in the east by the end of 2015–as a prerequisite for easing sanctions. And it should broaden the sanctions if the Russian Goliath, despite the ceasefire, powers its way through the Ukrainian Davids defending Mariupol and Kharkiv in a bid to partition Ukraine and shut out Kiev from control of the east. It should also use all its influence to promote urgent economic reform in Ukraine–and bar Ukrainian oligarchs from divvying up state wealth in the forthcoming round of privatization and rescue funds from the International Monetary Fund.

Above all, the West should help Russia’s rulers recognize their own internal “contradictions” (to borrow another apt Soviet term) and abrade the hardliners’ grip in the Kremlin. And it should help all the latent Kremlin factions realize that Putin is incurring very high costs in his adventurism. He lost all of Ukraine as a client state after his protégé, then President Viktor Yanukovych, hadpeaceful pro-European demonstrators shot on Euromaidan Square a year ago and had to flee to Russian exile. He lost most of “Novorossiya,” Putin’s anachronistic name for the eastern third of Ukraine, when the masses there failed to follow Russian military agitators and rise in rebellion against Kiev. By now he has preserved only a Crimea that is a drain on Moscow’s budget and the desolate war ruins of half of the Donbas.

More broadly, Putin has brought growing turmoil to the Caucasus, overstretch to the Russian army, as a recent RUSI analysis documents, and a rising toll of “Cargo 200” military corpses in Ukraine that the army is doing its best to keep secret. By his threats he has revived a moribund NATO, and he has bestowed on the Ukrainians a new sense of consolidated non-Russian identity. He now administers a Russia that is, yet again, in secular decline.

What the West should do at this stage, then, is to trust the efficacy of sanctions and Russia’s own resolution of “contradictions”. What it should not do is to play Vladimir Putin’s game by rushing to export lethal weapons to Ukraine.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of several books on Germany, Europe, and the Balkans.


This essay appeared in a shorter version in The World Today, Chatham House, April/May 2015

http://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/do-not-arm-ukraine

Russian Escalation in Donbas

IP Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations    29 January 2015

by Elizabeth Pond

Ever since Russia snatched the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine last March and ended Europe’s seven-decade ban on coercive border change, Moscow has possessed enough raw military might to occupy mainland Ukraine as well. Throughout 2014, however, for tactical reasons, the Kremlin held back in its undeclared war on Ukraine from the radical option of full invasion. Now the upsurge in early January in the flow of Russian soldiers and heavy weapons over Ukraine’s unguarded border to bolster pro-Russian local rebels, along with last week’s resumption of a major offensive by Russian marines and paratroops and allied mercenaries after a lowered level of fighting over the previous four months, raise the question of how much longer Moscow’s relative restraint may last.

Some Western analysts now expect President Vladimir Putin to settle for carving out a viable puppet state in the Donbas as this fourth and most dangerous stage of the Ukraine crisis begins. Independent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, by contrast, thinks that Putin is playing a longer game and intends eventually to return all of Ukraine to Russian control, as in the old days before his protégé and then Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled in disgrace to Russian exile a year ago. Felgenhauer believes that Putin has not yet decided on his tactics to this end.

Either way, with no intrinsic or mutually understood limits on the violence, the sheer momentum of kinetic war now risks spiraling escalation out of control.

The chronology explains the concern raised by the Russian and pro-Russian offensive. On January 21 efforts to turn the interim truce of September 5 into durable deescalation petered out with one last Berlin meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov promised that pro-Russian militants would respect the truce line (albeit while slipping in a new map that granted the rebels some 500 more square kilometers they had gained in the skirmishes over the “ceasefire” period), remove heavy weapons from the agreed buffer zone, and finally let the revived Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitor the Moscow-controled Ukrainian border that is a highway for sending Russian personnel and heavy weapons into the Donbas separatist territory. Yet within days Lavrov’s words were belied by battles on the same scale that to date has already killed more than 5000 Ukrainian civilians, a still secret but devastating number of Ukrainian belligerents and an even more closely-held number of Russian soldiers, and driven more than a million Ukrainian refugees out of their homes. On January 21, too, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced grimly that the clandestine Russian military buildup in the Donbas had reached 9000 troops and 500 tanks and armored vehicles.

On January 22 German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered Moscow the prospect of a common economic space between the European Union and Putin’s new-born Eurasian Union–if the Russian president agrees to a comprehensive peace in eastern Ukraine. Putin himself first proposed just such “a harmonious economic community from Lisbon to Vladivostok” in 2010, but has not responded to her latest trial balloon.

On January 23 Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, renounced peace talks altogether and said the separatists would mount an operation to bring all of Donetsk oblast under insurgent control–and would take no prisoners.

On January 24 those 9000 professional Russian soldiers in Ukraine’s Donbas and their local warlord allies launched their broad offensive against Ukrainian troops. At the southern end of the frontline in eastern Ukraine they rained a rocket barrage onto both military and civilian areas of the port of Mariupol, the only major city in the Donbas that Ukraine still controls and the main barrier to any Russian thrust to build a land bridge to Crimea. At the midpoint they finally expelled Ukrainian “cyborgs” from the Donetsk airport rubble they had been defending for 242 days, killing some of the Ukrainian soldiers after capturing them and urging passers-by to spit on them. And to the north they tried to close the last gap to encircle the Ukrainian garrison town of Debaltseve.

Even more ominously, Russia’s state media, which for a year have vehemently denied that any Russian soldiers are fighting in Ukraine, seem to be preparing the public for Russian military casualties in Ukraine and are intensifying the war propaganda. The drumbeat, Western diplomats report, portrays the confrontation in Ukraine as a war against Russia and sees Ukraine as no state, but only a “Western project” aimed at Russia. It calls the fighting in Ukraine a third Western attempt to carry out a “Russian holocaust,” and dismisses Ukraine as verging on collapse.

The new eruption of fighting dashed Western hopes that the huge damage to Russia’s economy wrought last year by the fall of oil prices and Western financial sanctions over Moscow’s Ukrainian conquests might prod Putin to damp down his war to get sanctions eased and save Russia’s economy.

Instead, Putin seems to be acting more like the rat of his childhood memory that when cornered suddenly turned to attack its pursuers. The signals suggest that the few advisors in Vladimir Putin’s tiny inner circle who are counseling tactical restraint have lost ground to the Russian president’s propensity to up the ante after any setback.

Independent military analyst Felgenhauer explains, “Putin believes that under pressure, Russians will unite and perform miracles like previous generations did, that maybe it’s a good thing that we are under sanctions. We will find our national identity, unite China and India against the West. He’s living in a kind of dream world as Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel once said. ”

Nonetheless, Felgenhauer argues that Putin must realize that any major Russian invasion of Ukraine today would cost far more in blood and treasure than it would have last spring, when he held back from giving the coup de grace to an improvised Kiev government that was weak and in shellshock. Putin is still playing a longer game, he believes, and is pinning his hopes on regaining control of Kiev rather than just the Donbas province or the eastern third of Ukraine that he calls by its 18th-century tsarist name of New Russia.

What makes this fourth stage of the Ukraine crisis so dangerous is that in each earlier stage the Russian president–who acts arbitrarily and has consolidated power so fully that observers deem him the sole author of Russian policy–has gambled on doubling down. Previously he could do so by flexing his military domination in the theater without actually resorting to invasion and occupation. Yet his past choices have progressively narrowed his options. Today he seems to think that he must either escalate the military confrontation once again or else be exposed as the emperor who has no clothes.

In the first stage, after Russia’s blitz takeover of Crimea in March, shattered Europe’s 69-year ban on changing borders by force, Putin turned down Merkel’s offers to help him save face if he would stop his dismemberment of Ukraine. Yet he did not think it necessary to invade Ukraine in order to control it. Instead, he relied at first on infiltrating Russian military intelligence officers to lead, supply, and fund local proxies of warlord gangs to declare insurgent “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas. He apparently believed that this action would ignite an uprising by Russian speakers in the eastern third of Ukraine that he began calling “New Russia,” the 18th-century tsarist term for the region. When this rebellion failed to occur, he relied next on the German business community–despite Chancellor Merkel’s repeated warnings that he was mistaken–to veto European sanctions on Moscow in order to preserve its huge trade with Russia.

In the second stage, after the European Union did join the United States in imposing initial financial sanctions over Moscow’s land grab of Crimea, Ukraine’s very weakness saved the state. Putin apparently believed he could easily coerce the chaotic interim government appointed by parliament after Yanukovych fled Ukraine. To emphasize his point, Putin massed up to 80,000 Russian troops on high-alert exercises around Ukraine’s northern, eastern, and southern borders for more than a month in April and May.

Even after the landslide election of new Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko on May 25, Putin apparently believed he could steer the “chocolate king” oligarch without resorting to direct invasion. In this phase, however, the ragtag Ukrainian army–which had sensibly not resisted the Crimean takeover by far better armed Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms–pulled itself together and began regaining territory lost to Russian-led separatists in the Donbas. By August the Ukrainians reduced the pro-Russian strongholds to two enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk.

At this point Putin signaled that he would not allow his proxies to be defeated and for the first time sent in regular units of Russian paratroopers (temporarily) to repel the Ukrainian army and allied militias. The heavily armed Russian regulars decimated the outgunned Ukrainians and set the third stage of the Ukraine crisis. There was a respite that lasted from the quick truce of September 5 until last week’s surge of violence. It raised hopes that the two sides might grope their way to a mutual understanding on keeping the intensity of fighting at a low level.

However, diplomacy failed to establish a more durable equilibrium in this window of opportunity. Putin’s obduracy was the main barrier. But Poroshenko, lulled by the relative stability of the front line and pressed by more hawkish political rivals, also failed to nail down the agreement that Berlin tried to broker between Kiev and Moscow. Instead, he attempted to regain lost turf militarily. without heeding Putin’s red line of late August.

In the meantime Russia has built up for the first time in the Donbas a permanent military presence not only of thousands of elite marines and paratroops, but also of Russian-manned anti-aircraft missiles and radar and vast stockpiles of ammunition. This force could now be used either to guarantee control of the land already under pro-Russian rule or to spearhead a full invasion of Ukraine.

In two weeks the EU heads of government will therefore be considering proposals to impose more severe sanctions on Russia or even to begin providing defensive weapons to Ukraine. They will also be watching the shadowy Ukrainian oligarchs who are funding multiple parties in the newly elected parliament in Kiev to see if they manage to thwart the economic and political reforms that the EU requires before it will bail out Kiev’s basket-case economy.

For his part, Putin will be watching the EU outcome and calculating how much longer he can subordinate Russia’s economy to maintenance of his personal power and Russian grandeur without killing the golden goose. At least subliminally, both he and Poroshenko will be watching to see whether the Ukrainian or the Russian economy implodes first. And all will be asking how much higher the escalation of violence will go and how many more people will be killed.

It’s no wonder that German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, while traveling in far-off North Africa last week, admitted, “After so many grueling, nerve-wracking Ukraine crisis talks in the past few days and weeks, I long for clear, simple answers. How lovely it would be if they existed. But the truth is: They don’t exist.”

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, has covered Germany and the Ukraine for the past 30 years and is the author of The Rebirth of Europe

A version of this blog was posted on 29 January 2015 on the site of the IP Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations, Berlin

© Elizabeth Pond

 

The Next Stage in the Ukraine Crisis

By Elizabeth Pond

On Black Tuesday of this week soft economic power trumped hard military power for the first time since the Ukraine crisis began. The threatened meltdown of the Russian economy could put pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to dial down his undeclared war on Ukraine in return for some easing of Western financial sanctions.

Ever since masked armed men with no identifying insignia snatched Crimea from Ukraine last February the West has strived to avoid two contrary hazards. In a nuclear age it must shun any repetition of the sleepwalk into world war in 1914, when competitive, destabilizing mobilizations cascaded into disaster. But it must also avoid supine surrender of Europe’s most cherished achievement over seven decades in establishing on this war-prone continent a taboo on any nation’s seizure of another’s territory by force.

It was indeed the revolutionary peace order in Europe that Putin violated when he severed Crimea from Ukraine and annexed it, despite Moscow’s explicit commitment to non-violence in Europe in treaties going back to the 1975 Helsinki agreement. His landgrab shocked Europeans who had come to take post-modern reconciliation and peace for granted. Pundits concluded that their Kantian peace was no eternal verity after all, but only an interlude between eras of more normal violent international anarchy.

The immediate anti-sleepwalk reaction of Washington and the European Union was to rule out sending their own troops to defend non-NATO member Ukraine. But its corollary, intended to show that turning the other cheek militarily did not mean acquiescience in armed aggression, was to impose financial sanctions on Russian politicians and oligarchs close to Putin over Russia’s transgression of international law. Political scientists could hardly design a better experiment of a clash between short-term hard power and long-term soft power.

In fact, even though the annexation of Crimea gave Putin’s sagging popularity a chauvinist surge at home, Russia’s military juggernaut performed surprisingly poorly thereafter in advancing Putin’s claim to seigneurial privilege in Ukraine and wherever else Russian minorities live in “the Russian world.”  “I think we have done better than we realize,” former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt told a Berlin audience last week. The West’s diplomacy managed to limit Putin’s options, without resort to war, he maintained.

In Bildt’s analytical framework, Putin started this year with all of Ukraine as his client state, administered by the Russian president’s protégé, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Yet the Russian president squandered this deep hegemony by overreach. The tenacious pro-democracy demonstrators in Kiev’s Independence Square, far from being cowed by the killing of a “heavenly hundred” of their number by riot police sniper fire in January and February–reportedly at Putin’s instigation–held their ground and even saw their ranks swell with new supporters. The shock of the deaths made Yanukovych’s own clientelist party desert him, and the disgraced president fled the country to Russian exile. Parliament appointed an interim president and government. “Chocolate king” oligarch Petro Poroshenko subsequently won the presidency in a landslide vote.

The ragtag Ukrainian army, after a poor start, learned how to fight on the job by resisting Russian takeover. Steady Western diplomatic engagement with Russia–based on the correct gamble that Putin wanted to reap victories through cheap “hybrid” warfare of irregulars led by Russian intelligence officers rather than through a messy direct invasion of Ukraine by Russian army regulars–gradually shifted the environment. Putin agreed–perhaps because he thought he could manipulate Poroshenko as he had manipulated the willing Yanukovych–to stop demonizing the newly elected president as the leader of an alleged fascist coup and to negotiate with him at the same table.

In July the Ukrainian army and allied militias began a serious counteroffensive that gradually reduced territory held by pro-Russian separatists to two enclaves in eastern Ukraine. In late August Putin signalled his red line: he would not tolerate a victory over his proxies by the upstart Ukrainian army. At that point he did send in paratroopers from airborne regiment 331 and other units in a direct invasion. The heavily armed professionals easily routed the Ukrainian forces in a few days.

President Poroshenko understood the kinetic message immediately. On September 5 he, Putin, representatives of the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and an official of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as the monitoring agent agreed on a truce, a buffer zone, and closure of the Russian-controled bilateral border to further passage from Russia into Ukraine of heavy weapons and military personnel.

In the ten weeks since then no buffer zone has actually been implemented, and the Russian-Ukrainian border has not been closed. Yet the uneasy ceasefire has at least deescalated the violence and confined the exchange of shelling to the pre-existing battle line. Talks about talks to turn the truce into a more lasting ceasefire have started.

In Bildt’s view, Putin can hardly be happy with this shrinkage of his original claim on full Ukrainian allegiance to claims only on the eastern half of Ukraine under the resurrected 18th-century name of New Russia, and finally only on half of Ukraine’s two easternmost provinces.

The State of Play This Week

On Black Tuesday the ruble suddenly hit a new low at 50 percent of its value last January, capital flight continued to mount toward a 2014 high of $125 billion, and forecasts projected a likely drop in domestic product next year of close to 5 percent if oil continues to fetch only $60 per barrel. On the next day Putin and Poroshenko joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande in a joint late-night call to reconvene the “contact group” of Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE as soon as possible. The group should turn the September 5 truce into a durable peace agreement, implement the already agreed buffer zone and exchange of prisoners, and allow Kiev to send desperately needed humanitarian help to needy civilians in the zone held by pro-Russian separatists, they prescribed.

The best Western guess now seems to be that Putin would like to deescalate fighting in Ukraine, either as a tactical pause or as an effort to stave off the financial meltdown that looms under the impact of sanctions and the plummeting price of Russia’s all-important hydrocarbon exports.

This new stage in the standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine could be very dangerous, in part because of Putin’s impulsiveness, in part because of the lack of mutually understood constraints in a post-superpower but still nuclear world.

So far this year Putin’s default reaction to each setback–the implosion of Yanukovych, the sure-footedness of President Poroshenko, the stout performance of the Ukrainian army and militias, the failure of east Ukrainians to rally to the pro-Russian cause, the failure of German businessmen with lucrative Russian trade and investment deals to block Chancellor Merkel’s financial sanctions on Moscow, the counterproductive impact of Moscow’s new intimidation in alienating a Germany that has long been Russia’s best Western friend, in accelerating the EU drive to free Europe from its addiction to Russian energy, and in consolidating a still tentative sense of Ukrainian identity into a new conviction that Ukrainians have a common European calling–has been to resort to military threats. His assumption has been that he can raise the stakes with impunity because Moscow holds escalation dominance, thanks to geography and Russia’s raw military might.

Certainly Putin’s instinct today is still to up the ante by periodic nuclear saber-rattling and by aggressive Russian air and sea probes of NATO and non-NATO defenses in the Baltic, with transponders shut down. Yet with this week’s financial crisis in Russia, even Putin–who in the past has scorned Western sanctions as pinpricks–can no longer deny that the sanctions are wreaking serious damage on Russia’s economy and on the vast wealth that he and his inner circle have accumulated in the Russian kleptocracy. Far sooner than the authors of Western sanctions anticipated, the vector of soft long-term economic power has crossed the vector of hard short-term military power in the middle-term of real-time policy. “Only a Russian exit from Ukraine can begin to restore confidence,” concludes the Financial Times.

And, the paper might have added sotto voce, although it’s far too late by now for Vladimir Putin to get “off ramp” and still save face (as both President Barack Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel repeatedly offered last spring and summer), it’s not too late for him to exit from Ukraine and save the Russian economy.


ELIZABETH POND is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of books on Russia and Europe.

A version of this blog appeared on the IP-Journal site of the German Council on Foreign Relations on December 17, 2014.

© Elizabeth Pond

The Bear In Winter

Four clues that Moscow may be ready to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine

December 10, 2014  IP-Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations

by Elizabeth Pond

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been happy to ignore the consequences of his aggression in Ukraine so far, but there are signs that his endurance has reached a breaking point – particularly as Russia’s economy begins to sag under international pressure.

REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

There is for the first time a glimmer of light at the end of the Ukrainian tunnel. Signs have begun to appear indicating that this year’s capital flight from Russia (totaling $130 billion), the ruble’s 38 percent plummet in value, and the drop in the price of the country’s all-important oil exports to under $70 per barrel may finally be convincing Vladimir Putin to take seriously the West’s financial sanctions, which he previously scorned as pinpricks.

Here are four clues that suggest that the Russian president may at last be ready to tone down his belligerence and tiptoe toward negotiations to restore stability to Europe.

Clue #1. This week Russia took a conciliatory step in agreeing jointly with Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on a statement criticizing pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine for refusing to join comprehensive peace talks. “Surprisingly Russia took Ukrainian side in this regard,” the Kyiv Post reported late Wednesday night. However, this gesture took place against a backdrop of intensified Russian air and sea probes of NATO and Swedish defenses in and around the Baltic Sea. The Kyiv Post also reported that Russian soldiers have now drawn back to Crimea from the Ukrainian side of the isthmus that separates Ukraine from the peninsula. According to German sources, some 40,000 Russian troops are now stationed on the peninsula.

Clue #2. Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, reads Putin’s “Urbi et Orbi” speech last week as a backpedalling from Moscow’s claims on the “Russian world”, and believes it indicates a very new focus on desperately needed domestic economic development.

Trenin, a shrewd insider-cum-outsider who served for 20 years in the Soviet and Russian military and then another 20 years in Russian and American think tanks, flags the conspicuous omission of familiar code words in Putin’s annual state-of-the-union address. The words “Russian world” (justifying Moscow’s right to protect Russians and even just Russian speakers militarily wherever they may be), “New Russia” (justifying Moscow’s claims on the whole eastern half of Ukraine dating back to Catherine the Great), and even “Donbas” (covering the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine, which pro-Russian rebels largely control) are absent.

Moreover, Trenin floats the idea that the speech’s highlighting of Khersones as “a Temple Mount-like sacred place for Russians” might be substituting Crimea for the more traditional Kiev as the revered birthplace of Russia, thus signaling a subtle softening of Putin’s boast in August that Russian troops could take over Kiev in two weeks if they wished. This interpretation differs sharply from some Western media speculation that his words threatened instead a religious crusade for the Russian Orthodox faith.

Trenin also points to Putin’s emphasis on rescuing the Russian economy – a priority that the president has in the past year always subordinated to ultranationalism, strength of political will, and the unquestioned capacity of Russians for suffering. “Putin has decided ‘not to waste a good crisis,’ and wants to use the challenge of Western sanctions and the low oil price as leverage for the country’s economic revival,” Trenin writes.

His “most serious and glaring weakness in his 15 years in power has been his failure to come up with a realistic strategy of economic development,” Trenin continues. But now Putin is showing that he urgently needs to reform the economy – and these initiatives won’t succeed unless they are “backed up by genuine political will to make the legal system produce justice for all, and by a sustained effort to severely reduce institutionalized corruption. Government transparency and accountability is another indispensable condition.”

Clue #3. In closely-held high-level talks, Moscow and Kiev are struggling to turn the fragile September 5 truce in eastern Ukraine into a durable de-escalation of violence.

Here Trenin offers the first leaks that have come out of the bilateral talks. He reports that “the ongoing private dialogue between Moscow and Kiev indicate[s] that Russia is seeking to stabilize its ‘Ukrainian front'” – instead of expanding its military control in eastern Ukraine beyond the Donbas – on the basis of a “formula: Crimea is ours; Eastern Ukraine is Ukrainian (on certain conditions).”

This week’s effort to turn the uneasy truce of the last ten weeks in eastern Ukraine into a more durable ceasefire – by observing a “day of silence” for weapons on December 9, and preparing for implementation of the originally agreed non-militarized buffer zone – might be seen as confirming Trenin’s thesis. The failure to clear the buffer zone of artillery and other heavy weapons and the refusal on the part of the rebels to let unarmed observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitor the ongoing flow of heavy weapons and military personnel over the Russia-controlled border into Ukraine have been conspicuous violations of the September 5 pact, however.

Clue #4. The costs of belligerence for Russia are mounting.

Putin has thus far ignored the freezing of Western investment and the other economic costs incurred by Moscow’s violation of international and treaty law. However, his aggression has produced a number of counterproductive effects: it has united Ukrainians, including eastern Ukrainians, against Russian encroachment, and rallied NATO to defend its members against daily Russian incursions into sovereign sea- and airspace in the Baltics and elsewhere. It has triggered unrest and unease in Chechnya, and even Kazakhstan and Belarus. And it has carried intangible social costs, driving many of the best and brightest young Russians abroad to pursue their careers. Perhaps most poignantly, Putin has repressed the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers for painstakingly identifying dead Russian soldiers killed in his undeclared war on Ukraine, soldiers his army has buried secretly.

There are signs that Russian society is now more aware of the cost of Putin’s most recent war. The Levada Center, one of Russia’s last remaining independent pollsters, recently found that Russians’ sense of the “triumph of justice” (31 percent in March) and national “pride” (34 percent in March) were greatly diminished in light of Russia’s Ukraine policy: Now only 10 percent of respondents saw justice as having triumphed, and only 18 percent felt pride. “Joy” was at 4 percent, from 19 percent in March.

A month ago Dmitri Trenin was far more pessimistic than he is today. Then, he expected the “US-Russian crisis” to “become a permanent state.” He found the current confrontation more dangerous than the Cold War, since it “lacks agreed, if unwritten, rules, is characterized by gross asymmetry in power, and is utterly devoid of mutual respect. There is also a near-universal lack of strategic thinking. It is thus more prone…to lead to a collision in the style of [the rush to World War I in] 1914.”

Today, Trenin still expects the conflict between Russia and the West to continue for many years. But he contends that “even a partial accommodation in, with and over Ukraine would push back the danger of an all-out hot war in Europe’s east.”

Dmitri Trenin’s analysis offers Putin an alternative, less belligerent narrative if the Russian president does decide that he, too, wants to push back the danger of an all-out hot war.

(NB. This post was updated on December 12, 2014, in light of new developments.)


ELIZABETH POND is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of books on Russia and Europe.

https://ip-journal.dgap.org/en/blog/eye-europe/bear-winter

A version of this essay is also posted on the website of the Atlantic Council.

© Elizabeth Pond