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Divining Putin: What Russia is willing to do (or not) for its own interests

The further the Biden administration kicks the Ukraine issue down the road, the greater the chance for something to set it off.

Analysis | Europe

On the whole, President Vladimir Putin’s remarks to the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi this year were conciliatory in tone towards the Biden administration, and he did not take up a number of opportunities to criticize the United States. Putin and most of the Russian establishment appear to believe that Biden and his team are indeed anxious to avoid a new crisis with Russia (very understandably, given the state of U.S.-Chinese relations). 

There was, however, one very important exception: Ukraine. Maintaining reasonably steady relations between the United States and Russia depends on the situation in Ukraine and its relations with Russia also remaining stable and essentially unchanged, and the underlying dynamics are anything but. Nor have certain U.S. and NATO statements contributed to that much-needed stability.

Putin condemned Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s latest statement that NATO membership is open to Georgia and Ukraine, and further stated that,“[f]ormal NATO membership may never happen, but military expansion on the territory is already underway, and this really poses a threat to the Russian Federation, we are aware of this.”

More significant were his remarks on the internal situation in Ukraine, pegged in particular to the recent treason charges against leading pro-Russian Ukrainian businessman Viktor Medvedchuk: 

“One gets the impression that the Ukrainian people are not allowed and will not be allowed to legally form the bodies of power that would uphold their interests…They are scared, because the small group that has appropriated the victory in the fight for independence holds radical [nationalist] political views. And that group actually runs the country, regardless of the name of the current head of state...This is a dead end. I do not even know how this can be changed. We will wait and see what happens in Ukraine’s political affairs in the near future.”

Even more menacing in tone was Putin’s article, “On The Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which appeared on July 12, and included the following passages, the first implicitly threatening Ukraine with further partition in the event of a new war:

“[T]he republics that were founders of the Union, having denounced the 1922 Union Treaty, must return to the boundaries they had had before joining the Soviet Union. All other territorial acquisitions are subject to discussion, negotiations, given that the ground has been revoked…In other words, when you leave, take what you brought with you.”

Putin also accused the West of deliberately stoking Ukrainian hatred of Russia, condemning “attempts to play on the ‘national question’ and sow discord among people, the overarching goal being to divide and then to pit the parts of a single people against one another.”

Most significantly, Putin denounced the strategy of Ukrainianization directed at the Russian minority in Ukraine:

“[T]he Russians in Ukraine are being forced not only to deny their roots, generations of their ancestors but also to believe that Russia is their enemy. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the path of forced assimilation, the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us. As a result of such a harsh and artificial division of Russians and Ukrainians, the Russian people in all may decrease by hundreds of thousands or even millions.”

To judge by my conversations at the Valdai conference, the Russian establishment’s feelings about Ukraine are balanced between hope, indifference and fear. Which of these sentiments prevails will be decisive for Ukraine, for Russia’s relations with the West, and for global politics in the generations to come.

On the one hand, there is a belief that Russia can afford to wait because the existing, bitterly divided Ukrainian state is paralyzed and doomed to further decay, and will never in fact join the European Union or NATO. This, they hope, will gradually turn a majority of Ukrainians against the existing order, and lead to a new desire for partnership and trade with Russia. 

It is believed by many in Russia that Ukrainian failure to reform and progress will also eventually lead to the West becoming completely disillusioned with Ukraine. Add to this a belief that the West is itself in long-term decline. Former president Dmitri Medvedev published an article on October 11 bitterly criticizing Ukraine as a state “under direct foreign administration” with which it was “pointless to negotiate.” However, he added that Russia is willing to wait until a responsible Ukrainian leadership re-appears, adding, “we are patient people”

On the other hand, there is a fear, strongly expressed by Putin, that over time, Ukrainian policies backed by the West will not only eliminate existing pro-Russian business and political elements in Ukraine, but will permanently and irreversibly destroy Russian language and culture in that country

On the whole, I do not think that these fears will lead Russia to launch a wholly premeditated and unprovoked attack on Ukraine. For there is a third, widespread belief among sections of the Russian establishment: that while Russia should defend the Donbas and Crimea, it should otherwise build up its own strength at home and ignore Ukraine. Moreover, while sensible Russian analysts are not afraid of NATO fighting to defend Ukraine, they do fear the greatly intensified Western economic sanctions that would almost certainly result from a new war, as well as a complete breakdown in Russia’s economically vital relationship with Germany.

The situation is nonetheless extremely delicate, and could be upset in a number of different ways: a new Ukrainian offensive in the Donbas (even if on a very limited scale); increased Ukrainian pressure on Crimea; a Ukrainian blockade of the Russian “peacekeeping” force in Transnistria (a threat highlighted by Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center earlier this year); or political violence within Ukraine (perhaps with Russian intelligence playing a role in setting it off). 

And if Russia does opt for open military action in Ukraine, then it's likely that this time the Russian army won't stop at covert action in the Donbas — or stop at all, short of Ukraine’s borders with NATO. For I have also heard that there are significant hardline elements in the Russian establishment who blame Putin for not going much further in 2014, and blame this on his “sentimental” attitude towards Germany and Angela Merkel.

 “Sentimental” and “Putin” are not words that fit very easily together. The real reason is more likely that Putin feared European sanctions, and also believed that the Ukrainian revolution would in any case sooner or later collapse. Whatever his motive, the point is that militarily speaking, there was nothing to stop Russia from going much further in 2014 — and it didn’t. We would be very unwise to rely on a repetition of such restraint in future.

In these perilous circumstances, what should be U.S. and Western strategy? The Biden administration’s strategy (to call it that) appears to be to kick the Ukrainian problem indefinitely down the road, while hoping that nothing happens on the ground to cause a new conflict. As explained, this is a pretty risky bet. In 2009-2013, the Obama administration also in effect shelved NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia (knowing that Germany and France would in any case block it), and were certainly not looking for a new crisis with Russia. But (whatever Russians may believe), Washington did not control the situation on the ground.

The threat of vastly intensified economic sanctions should of course remain in place, since it is the only real leverage we have over Russia. Promises to fight for Ukraine are empty. We did not do so in 2014. The idea of European countries being willing to do it now is ridiculous, and even if the United States had the will, it does not have the ground forces present in Europe to fight Russia. The West’s military position has been weakened further by Turkey’s de facto defection from NATO, which in the event of war would cut Western navies off from the Black Sea and the Ukrainian coast.

Genuine U.S. military commitment to Ukraine would imply a readiness simultaneously to fight an air-ground war with Russia in Ukraine and an air-sea war with China in the Far East — since, as several Russians pointed out to me, any U.S. Russian war would probably lead immediately to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Quite apart from the strategic lunacy of such a course, and the strong likelihood of defeat on both fronts, preparation for two wars would send the U.S. defense budget, and either U.S. taxes or debts, through the roof, and any domestic infrastructure program down the toilet.

The only sensible and honorable U.S. and Western course is therefore to seek a political settlement in Ukraine, an essential part of which was set out in the Minsk II agreement of 2015 (signed by Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany and endorsed by the United States and United Nations, and which has been long advocated by the Quincy Institute.)

The components of this settlement should be as thus: internationally-guaranteed autonomy and demilitarization for the Donbas; the issue of sovereignty over Crimea to be resolved by a local referendum held under United Nations auspices; Russian linguistic, cultural and regional rights in Ukraine to be guaranteed under the Ukrainian constitution; and Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity (probably minus Crimea, assuming that its inhabitants vote to join Russia), with neutrality to be guaranteed in a new international treaty modeled on the Austrian State Treaty of 1955 that led to the withdrawal of Soviet and Western troops from the country.

Every element in this proposed settlement is in line with Western ideals of democracy, with international tradition, and with past U.S. and European approaches to other territorial and ethnic disputes. The West would sacrifice neither principle nor interest — since Ukraine is not an economic or geo-political prize but rather an immense burden for the West, and since there is in any case no realistic chance of Ukraine within its existing borders ever joining NATO or the E.U. 

The United States and the West, Russia and above all Ukraine would gain the incalculable benefit of the removal of the threat of war. In fact, the only real loser would be China, which would lose its ability to play Russia off against the West and threaten America with a two-front war. If anyone has an honest and realistic alternative to this approach, let them put it forward. No U.S. or Western supporter of Ukraine has yet done so.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks during a session of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, Russia October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool
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