Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Russia is already escalating in Ukraine. The ceasefire agreed to in Minsk in September 2014, which has never been fully effective, is collapsing.
#Russia is provoking Ukraine just as it provoked Georgia in 2008.Tweet This
Russia is provoking the Ukrainian government just as it provoked the Georgian government in 2008. Russian forces and their proxies attacked the Ukrainians with increasing force, particularly at Donetsk airport, until the Ukrainians had either to launch a counteroffensive or to withdraw. When they responded, the Kremlin accused them of restarting a full-scale war. Russia has been preparing for this by pumping weapons and equipment into eastern Ukraine for the last several months.
Is Russia’s goal merely to inflict a psychological defeat on Ukraine by capturing the iconic ruins of the airport? Or does Moscow want to seize more territory, including the port of Mariupol and a land corridor to enable it to resupply the annexed Crimean peninsula? Or, perhaps most likely, does Russia want to keep as much as possible of Ukraine unstable, including through a series of bombings in other cities?
Given the high cost of the conflict, including in terms of casualties, Russia is unlikely to start another military adventure beyond Ukraine. But the EU should expect psychological and information warfare as well as political pressure and bribery aimed at undermining united Western support for Kyiv.
Due to the escalation of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, and because only a reduction in that fighting would lead the EU to roll back its sanctions on Russia, the union has decided to keep the measures in place. That indicates that any optimism about a potential breakthrough with Russian President Vladimir Putin on resolving the crisis is premature.
The EU has signaled that Crimea will never return to #Ukraine.Tweet This
What is more, by focusing on eastern Ukraine, the EU has signaled that Crimea, which Russia annexed in March 2014 and over which Putin is not prepared to compromise, will never return to Ukraine.
Putin’s current options are extremely limited. Low oil prices and Western sanctions are taking their toll on the Russian economy. Among Putin’s few potential avenues, two stand out.
The first is his recent threat to shift all Russian natural gas flows crossing Ukraine to a hub in Turkey. It is up to Europe how gas is distributed to European customers. But a major change in Russian policy following the aborted South Stream pipeline project would hurt Russia’s reputation as a supplier and would further damage the country’s economy.
A second option is military. But Russian maneuvers to show strength and resolve—akin to previous moves to position ground forces near the Baltic states, to send submarines into the Baltic Sea, and to illegally enter European airspace—could lead to misinterpretations from the West. Due to NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission, its Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, and other measures aimed at reassuring Eastern European allies, Russian provocations could easily lead to accidental confrontations.
Although Russian escalation in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region is real, it is incremental. It is important to put Russia’s role in Ukraine into a local context, not just a global one, as Western policymakers often do. The Kremlin is reacting to fast-developing situations both in Ukraine and at home. Undoubtedly, there is a flow of weapons from Russia to the Donbas, but Moscow does not seem to control the situation in Donetsk and Luhansk, as fighting between Russian soldiers and local warlords shows.
Russian escalation in the #Donbas region is real but incremental.Tweet This
The fresh escalation in the Donbas suggests that the rebels are prepared to create a 30-kilometer (19-mile) buffer zone around Donetsk, as called for by the Minsk Protocol, which aims to resolve the conflict. That would mean both sides withdrawing heavy weaponry from the city.
Many in Central and Eastern Europe are concerned that Russia may go farther than Ukraine. Political elites are trying to mobilize their Western colleagues about the potential Russian threat. In doing so, Central and Eastern European policymakers should take into account Ukraine’s lessons learned: there, Russia was able to move into Crimea after Kyiv’s central authority collapsed under extreme polarization and pressure.
By exaggerating the Russian threat, Central and Eastern European elites are doing no favors for the unity they often preach but in fact help unsettle. Instead, a wiser policy would be to work on ensuring the resilience, cohesion, and capacity of key institutions at home and at the transatlantic level.
The most likely scenario in Eastern Europe is a cycle of escalation and deescalation depending on the regional and international political climate. Escalation in Ukraine includes military intervention; elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, pressure is exerted predominantly by indirect means or rhetorically.
A cycle of (de)escalation combines a degree of flexibility with unpredictability. While there is some space for continuous efforts by the Ukrainian and Russian leadership and international brokers to agree on a new ceasefire, there are no guarantees that either side would stick to an agreement.
To assume that #Russia does not want peace would be too risky.Tweet This
Russia holds the key to escalation, but it should not be forgotten that this process involves more than one party. Escalation works only if it triggers the intended response from the other side. The only way to counteract Russian and local attempts at escalation may be not to respond in kind. That would no doubt be a difficult decision for the Ukrainian leadership, but it is the only option that is likely to limit the number of further casualties and prepare the ground for peace talks.
Resigning oneself to the assumption that Russia does not want peace in principle would be too risky a position to take—for both Ukraine and the West.
It is hard to predict Russian President Vladimir Putin’s next move because of the nature of his rule. Russian decisionmaking is not the result of an orderly process that involves a number of actors whose positions are well-known. Decisions such as annexing Crimea are made by Putin himself. And keeping everyone guessing is part of the game being played by the Russian leader, who launched his career in the security services.
The way Putin operates in the confrontation he has set up with the West is to look for opportunities, for the other side’s weaknesses. He is creating options to escalate by constantly testing the West’s willingness to withstand pressure. Putin decides whether to use these options according to the dynamic of developments. His overall goals are to control the post-Soviet space, to weaken EU cohesion, and to be treated as an equal by the United States. But how he attempts to achieve these objectives depends on the opportunities that present themselves.
Keeping up the pressure is the best way to limit #Putin's options.Tweet This
Therefore, whether Putin will escalate is determined by the resistance he meets—on the ground, as in Ukraine, but also from the EU and the United States. Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny told Le Monde that without sanctions, Russian troops would already be in the Ukrainian port of Odessa.
For the West, keeping up the pressure is the best way to limit Putin’s options. While the Russian president looks for opportunities, the West must agree that escalation will entail considerable costs, and it must communicate those costs clearly to Moscow.
A perfect economic storm has hit Russia: oil prices below $50 a barrel, a currency that has lost half of its value over the past year, and Western financial sanctions that have made it virtually impossible for Russian firms to raise money in capital markets. Surely, now would be the time for the Kremlin and its proxies in Ukraine to agree to serious talks about deescalating the violence in the Donbas region, thereby making it more likely that the EU will soon begin to lift its sanctions.
But quite the opposite is happening. Instead of coming to the table, Russian-backed separatists have escalated the conflict with a renewed attempt to retake Donetsk airport, and the violence shows little sign of abating.
Moscow apparently has no interest in resolving the #Ukraine crisis.Tweet This
It appears that Russia’s minimum goal is to perpetuate the frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine, calculating that the EU will eventually accept this “new normal.” But it is also possible that, as the economic situation in Russia deteriorates, the Kremlin could escalate the conflict in the Donbas to shore up domestic support.
The uncertainty about Russia’s future actions in Ukraine and beyond reinforces the new reality that confronts the West: the Kremlin apparently has no interest in resolving the Ukraine crisis.
A decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin to escalate will depend on his reading of the West and of Ukraine.
Predicting Putin’s behavior makes long-range weather forecasting look simple. Trying to anticipate the Russian president points to a key problem, namely the importance of one individual in shaping the policies of a large and important nation. The Russian decisionmaking process remains quite opaque, but it seems clear that it is centered around one man and a very small circle of advisers.
#Putin has a zero-sum view of foreign policy and of the world.Tweet This
The Russian leader has a zero-sum view of foreign policy and of the world. He is also a man in some trouble at home with a sinking economy. Given Putin’s socialization in the world of the Russian security services and his personal emphasis on physical strength and intimidation, the prospects for Ukraine are not good.
His view going into the crisis was of a weak, decadent, and divided West. That view included a Germany that would not risk its commercial relationship with Russia and a United States that had downgraded Europe in its overall foreign and security policies. It is not know how much, if at all, Putin has revised these assumptions.
It seems likely that he will continue to suspect the long-term resolve of both Germany and wider Europe. That is especially true at a time of deflation, continued recession, and an increasing focus on terrorism and migration from the Middle East rather than on Russia. Putin’s assessment of the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has probably not changed, but he will have to wonder what a Republican U.S. Congress will do.
In short, expect another bad year in the region, where the best that can be hoped for is the status quo—with the prospect of escalation through hybrid techniques a distinct possibility.
I do not think that Russian President Vladimir Putin has any immediate intention to expand the conflict in eastern Ukraine by, for example, launching assaults on the port of Mariupol or the northeastern city of Kharkiv. But nor do I think that there will be any kind of Russian withdrawal from Ukraine.
The Russian leader thinks that war is undermining the Ukrainian economy and, by extension, the Ukrainian government much faster than Western sanctions and the economic crisis are weakening Russia’s economy.
#Putin believes that Poroshenko will ask for a deal to end the conflict.Tweet This
Putin also believes that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will eventually ask for some kind of deal to end the conflict. Then, according to Putin’s calculation, he will be able to dictate the terms of such an agreement. These conditions would include the resumption of Ukraine’s nonaligned status, significant autonomy for rebel-controlled territories, and a veto right for those territories on issues of national importance such as applying for NATO membership or dealing with the EU.
So far, however, Poroshenko shows no signs of backtracking. He has his own agenda and does not want to be accused of treachery by Ukrainian public opinion or his many political rivals. For now, the Ukraine crisis is at a dead end—but not for long. If things start to get worse for the separatists in a serious way, Putin will have no choice but to escalate because in his eyes, withdrawal equals defeat.
Yes, the Kremlin is likely to see the next few weeks as its window of opportunity for escalation. The current round of military mobilization in Ukraine is supposed to take three months to complete. The Kremlin may be counting on disrupting Kiev’s mobilization efforts, using the rotation of Ukrainian frontline troops to change the balance of force along the border. Yet an escalation of hostilities may in fact bolster the morale of Ukrainian would-be servicemen.
Moscow is likely to see the next few weeks as its window of opportunity.Tweet This
Russia’s domestic situation is another reason why the Kremlin may decide to stir up trouble in Ukraine. As the euphoria following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea evaporates and the economic crisis starts to pinch, Moscow will need a new external distraction for its TV-loyal populace. Another episode of the Novorossiya show—the drama that plays out in southern and eastern Ukraine—appears the most obvious way to fill that void, but other locales cannot be excluded.
The Kremlin does not seem to have abandoned its intention to use targeted escalation as a prelude to diplomatic pressure. The attacks on Donetsk airport were a “response” to the (correct) decision by Western leaders not to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Kazakhstan, a decision triggered by a lack of progress on the Minsk Protocol aimed at resolving the crisis.
As Moscow moves away from its commitments, the prospect of a new summit of peace talks will be put off until the spring. The only factor that may prevent Russia from escalating in the meantime is a tangible prospect of tighter Western sanctions.
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