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.
Russian President Vladimir Putin does not have to escalate to survive right now—but may one day have to. If anything, he seems to be deescalating. The Novorossiya project to pull nine regions away from Ukraine has been declared dead. While massing troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border to maintain pressure, Moscow seems ready to settle for implementation of the February 2015 Minsk II agreement in Donetsk and Luhansk—or at least for the two Ukrainian regions to become the sites of frozen conflicts that Moscow can use to pressure Ukraine.
#Putin does not have to escalate right now but may one day have to.Tweet This
That Putin has been able to subtly backtrack without damaging his ratings has demonstrated the power of his media propaganda machine to manipulate opinion. Russian media have provided cover by presenting recent visits to Moscow by senior U.S. politicians John Kerry and Victoria Nuland as marking a U.S. climbdown that left Russia the victor in this round of hostilities (even if the visits were nothing of the sort).
The problem with what now seems the most likely scenario in eastern Ukraine—a frozen conflict—is that it will not lead the EU and the United States to lift their sanctions against Russia. Without a huge oil price increase, those sanctions are a vice tightening over time. They will make it more difficult for Russia to maintain oil output, finance its economy, and repay corporate debt. Russians will start to feel the effects.
Putin and his team have now seen three times how small, apparently victorious wars can boost popularity—in Chechnya in 2000, in Georgia in 2008, and in Crimea in 2014. They may feel they have no choice but to try the same trick again.
Systemically, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime is now fully based on external conflict. Previously, the Kremlin bought Russians’ political acquiescence by handing out material benefits fueled by rising revenues from energy exports. Absent similar riches now, the regime is closing ranks at home by fomenting aggression abroad, by stirring nationalist frenzy, and by declaring it Russia’s historical mission to challenge a dominant West. Only by regularly seeking (and winning) conflict with the West—head-on or by proxy, politically or militarily—can Putin regenerate loyalty among both the elites and society.
#Ukraine seems to be in for a Russian escalation, for various reasons.Tweet This
Ukraine, currently the key theater in this conflict, seems to be in for a Russian escalation, for various reasons. In Russia, the “success” of Putin’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea is receding into history, the country’s economy and finances are ever shakier, and the elites and society are starting to feel the pinch.
Ukraine, meanwhile, has not collapsed and has even made some modest progress with reforms. And in the country’s eastern Donbass region, the upcoming summer lends itself to efforts by Russian-backed separatists to tear away further territories and assets from central government control. It seems the Kremlin will hardly miss this triple opportunity to demonstrate Russian military might, to throw Ukraine back into instability, and to solidify the so-called people’s republics in eastern Ukraine—before possibly freezing the conflict at the next round of peace talks.
The best way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to escalate in 2014 was by gathering support from the electorate, which was furious and overwhelmed by patriotism. For the moment, the best option for him is to freeze the situation in eastern Ukraine and to use it in a delicate gamble—just like during a KGB examination: sweet talk with prompts and hidden traps.
Putin is ready to continue irritating the West. In some circumstances, he could even convert the cold war in Ukraine into a hot one, but his interests—geopolitical and economic—are moving eastward. Putin is trying to find supporters in Asia, but he has not understood that this will be much harder than he can imagine.
Russian escalation continues, slowly but surely.Tweet This
At the same time, the Russian president and his inner circle will escalate in domestic policy. They can’t stop themselves. The Russian authorities are manically persecuting dissenters, NGOs, and the independent media; they are restricting and controlling everything around them; and they are classifying sensitive information, including about military losses in peacetime. In their propaganda efforts, the ruling elites are rewriting history. Putin vindicates the actions of Stalin, while Russian television seeks to explain the logic of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague.
So, Russian escalation continues—slowly but surely, and primarily in domestic policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin might not have to escalate, but he surely will. The Russian economy is lukewarm at best and will not heat up, oil is cheap, and China purrs—but Moscow is and will remain Beijing’s junior partner, a new status in history.
Dissidents in today’s Russia are even less influential than they were in the Soviet Union. Physicist Andrei Sakharov, poet Joseph Brodsky, and novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won their Nobel prizes during the Cold War, but journalist Anna Politkovskaya, political activist Alexei Navalny, and liberal politician Boris Nemtsov are shunned to a few cantankerous op-eds, ignored by governments and institutions.
#Putin's rule is safe, but he is riding an overloaded bike on a bumpy road.Tweet This
So Putin’s rule is safe, but he is riding an overloaded bike on a bumpy road. If he slows down, he’ll hit the concrete fast and painfully. Escalation is the only tool he has to keep his powerful but precarious balance. A very difficult exercise for the leader in the Kremlin, and a very dangerous sport for the world.
No, Russian President Vladimir Putin does not have to escalate to survive—at least, not unless the United States escalates first. Russian public opinion continues to overwhelmingly support Putin’s conduct in eastern Ukraine, as do Russia’s elites. That said, while some hawks in the elite argue for escalation as a means to extract Western concessions and settle the conflict, there is little apparent public pressure for a more expansive Russian role in the fighting. If nothing else changes, the Russian president can likely continue on his current course for some time without significant escalation.
#Putin does not have to escalate, unless the US escalates first.Tweet This
At the same time, Putin cannot easily disengage from Ukraine without having something to show for it. This currently appears to require concessions that the United States, the European Union, and Ukraine are unwilling to offer. Since the two Minsk agreements aimed at ending the fighting do not address Moscow’s underlying concerns about the West’s relations with Ukraine, implementing the accords will at best buy time rather than establish a lasting solution.
U.S. escalation—such as a decision to provide lethal military assistance to Ukraine—would strengthen those Russian voices arguing for escalation. Simultaneously, such a move by the United States would provide Putin with a ready public justification for escalation that would probably solidify rather than undermine public support, even in the face of possibly rising casualties. Declining to escalate in those circumstances could weaken Putin’s political position.
There is no reason to suppose that Vladimir Putin has already answered this question. The menacing buildup of forces on Ukraine’s border affords him a diplomatic instrument as well as a military one.
In a rational policy environment, one option for the Russian president would be to exploit the faulty provisions of the February 2015 Minsk II agreement, to enfeeble Ukraine and dismantle the Western sanctions regime against Russia. The linkage between EU sanctions and the Minsk accord makes this course eminently sensible, as do the debilities of the Ukrainian economy and state. Yet this course demands too much patience from a leader under pressure to achieve results quickly.
Instead of deterring #Putin, the West has provided encouragement.Tweet This
Today, Russia’s separatist protégés control but 4 percent of Ukraine’s territory. These entities are not viable, and it was never Moscow’s intent that they should be. For Putin, they are a lever to force Ukraine into submission or collapse. So far, two major military offensives have not had this effect. Why should a prolonged period of stability do so? Why should Putin not raise the stakes as he has done in the past?
Instead of deterring him, the West has provided encouragement. The Western response to the military offensive that destroyed the first Minsk accord of September 2014 was not the much-mooted arming of Ukraine, but a second agreement more flawed than the first. Preserving the frozen conflict the West sought to prevent in 2014 is becoming the definition of success. This dynamic does not favor moderation or restraint.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will need to escalate only if Russia’s economic situation severely deteriorates. If it remains stable or improves, then the vast majority of the Russian population will basically be satisfied and will not require constant mobilization around patriotic causes to distract them from socioeconomic woes. In such a case, the regime could also ensure the continued loyalty of key elite groupings through various forms of financial backing.
If, however, the economic situation degenerates further, the regime will likely believe it necessary to divert people’s attention away from the consequences of such a deterioration. The most obvious way to do this will be to intensify current rhetoric and actions regarding external and internal enemies. If only a small segment of the elite can be subsidized, this could lead to debilitating infighting for scarce resources, possibly jeopardizing the regime.
#Russia has clearly embarked on a path of destabilizing #Ukraine.Tweet This
At any rate, Russia has now clearly embarked on a path of destabilizing Ukraine and demonizing the West. This has unleashed political and social forces that are difficult to contain. And it is more convenient for Putin if those groups inclined to fight are involved in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass area, rather than bringing their weapons and their penchant for violence to Russia. Thus there are also noneconomic factors that encourage escalation.
The war in eastern Ukraine complicates Russian President Vladimir Putin’s domestic position and raises concerns about the stability of Russia’s brittle political system. The question of escalation, however, overestimates Putin’s ability to control the multiple actors involved in Moscow and in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass area, while underestimating the political risks of escalation to Putin.
The war in #Ukraine complicates #Putin's domestic position.Tweet This
The Russian president’s political longevity has depended on his ability to balance opposing factions of the political and economic elite—the only force that really matters in Russian politics. However, the war has boxed him in, and a struggle is under way between opposing elite groups with ever more polarized interests, complicating Putin’s balancing act.
Russian analysts now warn of political warfare and elite revolts behind the Kremlin’s walls. Some members of the elite—and they are not exclusively liberals—worry about the collapse of relations with the West, the costs of war for an already-struggling economy, and the potential for popular discontent down the road. They urge deescalation and accommodation.
Hard-line security service elements and reactionary oligarchs want to expand the conflict with the West and have been largely responsible for orchestrating the war so far. These elements are also behind the crackdown inside Russia—a clear sign they too worry about popular discontent and are acting now to squelch it.
In the Donbass, the Russian military presence is real. But so are the criminal groups and warlords (on both sides) who have done much of the fighting and are keen to defend their turf. The separatist leadership is reportedly nervous that the Kremlin will sell them out and is keen to prevent that. There are growing calls for vengeance in Ukraine. The region remains a tinderbox, and an explosion of violence is a possibility—even if Putin does not want it.
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