Adrian Karatnycky, member of the IWP Supervisory Board, and Alexander J. Motyl for the Politico JournalOriginal of the article\
Vladimir Putin has sought to shift the discourse over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine in recent days. His half-hour speech at the U.N. General Assembly last month, timed to reach a prime-time Russian audience, focused on the threats of terrorism and instability in Syria and the Middle East. The bloody war in Ukraine’s Donbas was an afterthought, meriting only a minute of his time.
In a separate meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, Russia’s leader again sought to shift the focus to Syria, terrorism and ISIL, while Obama pressed Putin on Ukraine.
Two days later, the propaganda theater intended mainly for Russian domestic consumption was completed. Russian airstrikes in Syria had supplanted Ukraine in Russian and international headlines. In the days that have followed, Russia’s media have focused the lion’s share of their attention on the Russian bombing campaign.
Meanwhile, a Russia-backed puppet, recently installed as the head of the “Parliament” of the illegal Donetsk People’s Republic, quietly proclaimed that the war in the Donbas was over and implied that an agreement on the withdrawal of weapons from the front lines amounted to a peace treaty with Ukraine.
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Putin’s shift in emphasis away from Ukraine is not a change of strategy, as several recent terrorist bomb blasts in Ukrainian cities testified. He still hopes to destabilize its government, supplant it with more Russia-friendly leaders, and derail Ukraine’s integration into the West. His demarche is a change in tactics — an effort to extricate himself from a difficult bind in eastern Ukraine. By upping the ante in Syria he hopes to strike a grand bargain with Europe and the U.S.: They agree to his terms for the Donbas in exchange for Russia’s cooperation in the war against ISIL.
Putin wants the West to believe that he is negotiating from a position of strength. In fact, his is a position of extreme weakness.
Russia’s “hybrid” aggression in Ukraine has morphed into a costly military stalemate that effectively amounts to a Ukrainian victory. Declining global commodity prices and the energy revolution have sent the Russian economy reeling, while Western sanctions have significantly deepened this decline. The IMF estimates that the cumulative effect of sanctions will amount to 9 percent of Russian GDP. The ruble’s steep fall, to just over 50 percent of its value before the invasion of Crimea, and a recession that will continue at least through 2016, are straining the Russian budget, with cutbacks in pensions and military expenditures on the cards.
Moreover, the remarkable transformation of Ukraine’s military into a formidable fighting force means Russian-backed forces in the Donbas can only make small advances at great human cost. Alternatively, a major Russian assault would lead to further devastating sanctions and raise the specter of thousands of Russian casualties, while also embroiling Russia in two wars.
The stalemate is also accentuating socio-economic problems in the Russian-occupied Donbas enclave. With much of its infrastructure destroyed or crippled, the vast majority of its industrial workplaces idle, many of its skilled workers and professionals internally displaced and in exile, and its banking and administrative systems in ruins, occupied Donbas is beset by a collapsing GDP, massive unemployment, high prices, and growing poverty. Around 50 percent of its residents are pensioners, a further number are unemployed — victims of the fact that as many as 70 percent of the occupied region’s factories and mines are not functioning.
The humanitarian catastrophe brought about by Russia’s invasion is both a headache and a potential domestic embarrassment for the Kremlin, which has positioned itself as the defender of Russian speakers and ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.
In sum, Ukraine’s resilience and its population’s willingness to defend their country against Russian aggression have wrecked Putin’s hopes of rapidly toppling the Kiev government and fomenting an insurrection that would occupy Eastern and Southern Ukraine and so split the state in half — an area that Russian propaganda calls Novorossiya, or “New Russia.”
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How to cooperate with Russia in Syria
Enter Syria and the modern-day Great Game. In Putin’s mind, Russia’s vigorous intervention in the Syrian conflict projects Russia’s military power and geopolitical heft and gives him a bargaining chip in any deal over Ukraine and an end to sanctions.
Not for the first time, Putin is wrong. In fact, the Syrian adventure weakens Russia’s position, both by demonstrating that Putin’s policy on Ukraine has reached a dead end and by recklessly embroiling Russia in a new major overseas commitment at a time of Russian economic decline.
Russia’s more assertive presence in the Middle East will complicate things for everybody in the short run. However, the fact that Russia’s foreign policy rests on an eroding economic and political foundation means that the West need not make concessions to achieve peace at any price in the Donbas.
The U.S. and Europe should insist that any settlement must include the verifiable removal of all heavy weapons and tanks from the Donbas and the restoration of full Ukrainian control of its eastern borders. The West should, nevertheless, offer Putin a face-saving way out of his own dead end: an end to sanctions and special economic zones in eastern Ukraine in exchange for a durable peace amid a joint Ukrainian-Russian-Western burden-sharing effort to rebuild the devastated Donbas.
Regrettably, some European leaders, including Germany’s Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, are misreading Russia’s weakened position, and have called for a loosening of sanctions in response to the recent lull in fighting in Ukraine’s East. Such a response would be a terribly inopportune signal to Putin whose belligerence is encouraged by signs of weakness.
At their October 2 Paris meeting with the presidents of Ukraine and Russia, François Hollande and Angela Merkel chose not to take notice of Putin’s weakened position. Instead, they are putting the onus for next steps on Ukraine, which is to make significant constitutional and legislative concessions that will embed the renegade and criminal Donbas leadership into the Ukrainian political space.
Such concessions are unlikely to find the necessary political support for a constitutional majority inside Ukraine’s Parliament, unless political recognition of the Donbas’s electoral results are made conditional on the full demilitarization of the region, the withdrawal of Russian forces, and the restoration of Ukraine’s control over its Eastern borders.
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Western leaders should not mistake Russia’s renewed diplomatic assertiveness and military interventions as signs of strength. Russia and Putin stand on weak ground. Consistent pressure through the economic sanctions currently in place will force the Kremlin to settle or run the risk of a long-term deadlock that will resemble a Russian quagmire.
In short, a frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine is preferable to deep concessions designed to force the West to accept an economically debilitating peace for Ukraine. With a new quagmire in Syria rapidly emerging, Putin is unlikely to add a major upsurge in fighting in Ukraine to the considerable risks he is taking in the Middle East.