Putin Isn’t Miscalculating in Ukraine

Lilia Shevtsova, who I like a lot, has an interesting comment in the Financial Times. What she has to say doesn’t bode well for Ukraine or Putin. Putin has won but his victory is only tactical. According to Shevtsova, “tactical victories often end in strategic defeats” and Putin, by turning Russia into a “war state,” has “unleashed the process he cannot stop and made himself hostage to suicidal statecraft.” Essentially Putin has boxed himself in. He can’t extricate himself from Ukraine without a victory, and that victory—with the spent economic and political capital necessary to pull it off–risks “a loss of power.” I think this is pretty unlikely.

First Ukraine. Basically the west has given up without much of a fight. Sure there are the sanctions, which are taking a bite, but they just show how little leverage the West has over Putin. The West is unwilling to really defend Ukraine where it counts. Nato can bluster about the Russian threat and shore up its Baltic members all it wants. And when Poroshenko pleaded to Obama that he can’t win a war with blankets? He went home with more blankets. As for the sanctions, they aren’t going to alter Putin’s course in the short term. They depend too much on oligarchs enslaved to Putin getting together and pressuring him to change course. That’s highly unlikely to happen. If anything, the sanctions have forced a tightening of Putin’s inner circle and a strengthening of his autocratic hand.

So Ukraine has been sold out. Shevtsova writes:

The west dare not call the Russian incursion an act of aggression. They talk euphemistically of a “political solution” to the Ukrainian crisis, which means that the Kremlin’s interests should be taken into account. The Nato summit held in Wales this month demonstrated that the alliance is not prepared to do much more than condemn Russia.

The promises of lethal aid for Ukraine that have apparently been made by some Nato countries will not shift the military balance – though both sides have an interest in pretending otherwise. Western sanctions will not force Mr Putin to backtrack. The west has proved that it is neither ready to include Ukraine in its security umbrella, nor to live up to their commitments under international law as guarantors of Ukrainian territorial integrity. A New Russia (or “Novorossiya”) on the territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists is on its way to becoming a reality. The partition of Ukraine is silently being ratified by the rest of the world (emphasis added).

Still, for Shevtsova, this means Putin isn’t winning even though it appears that’s exactly what’s happening. In fact, “he is again miscalculating.” Putin thinks he can coax Russians into buying into the besieged fortress forever. Russians will tire of the propaganda eventually. Also, few are willing to die for Putin’s adventure in Ukraine. In fact, Shevtsova says that reports of Russian soldiers dying in Ukraine “has already begun undermining the patriotic mood.” Really? According to a recent Levada poll, only 42 percent of Russians believe Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine, and 54 percent think those that did die were volunteers. Fifty percent hadn’t heard anything at all about the Russian soldiers. Russians also don’t seem to be too concerned about the sanctions. A recent poll concluded that 84 percent of Russians agree with the ban on food imports from Europe. True, many don’t buy imported food anyway, but that says, contrary what many have argued, Russia isn’t sanctioning itself. Sure, an impressive 26,000 marched in Moscow for peace. But it’s going to take a lot more than that to turn the tide. Patriotism is hard thing to lick.

But the big problem Shevtsova foresees is Novorossyia. She writes:

The irony is that Novorossiya will soon become a problem for the Russian president. The Kremlin will have to contend with heavily armed separatists, embittered by their failure to secure a stipend from Moscow, just as the tide of protest begins to rise at home.

Moscow will have to keep its heroes at arm’s length. Those who are bravely fighting for a “Russian world” could quickly become a threat to Mr Putin if they were allowed into Russia proper. They are welcome in the motherland, but only in coffins.

It would be a problem if fighters began returning en mass to Russia with their guns in tow. This is probably why Putin has sought to “Ukrainianize” the rebel leadership and put forward a peace deal that keeps an autonomous Novorossyia within Ukraine. Russia wants to dominate the Donbas; it doesn’t want to incorporate it. Why formally incorporate the Donbas when Ukraine is willing to hold on to it and foot the bill? Let Poroshenko govern that mess.

So yeah, Putin’s going to keep Novorossiya’s heroes at arm’s length. Novorossyia is just a cinematic project to rile up the population anyway. The “heroes” have always been actors in a larger drama, and when this series jumps the shark, its production set will be folded up and the stage will be prepared for a new theatrical work to dazzle the spectator. The cinematography deployed to turn Russia into “war state” is all just the tactics. We shouldn’t so quickly substitute smoke and mirrors for reality. Putin’s real strategy is to hobble Ukraine and humble the West, and on that he’s doing pretty damn well.