Sunday 15 February 2015

Putin's Brinkmanship

The guns aren't entirely silent, but it appears that the ceasefire in East Ukraine is mostly holding. In a conflict that has claimed at least 5,000 lives and threatened to consume even more, the deal struck in Minsk between the Merkel/Hollande-backed Ukrainian government and the pro-Russian rebels assisted by Putin will hopefully hold and the business of rebuilding the shattered east begin. Yet consistently, perhaps echoing the feeble isolationism of Dave and the gang, comment on what's happening is shockingly poor. It basically amounts to a) Putin being nasty, and b) wanting to expand Russia's border by hook or by crook. Crimea was his Austria, East Ukraine his Sudetenland. If the West don't stand up to him Russian tanks could be rolling down the Champs Elysses this time next year. Nonsense, of course. Putin is playing a dangerous game, but it's not one that remotely invites comparison with Hitler's plans for conquest.

There are three things that strike me about the war in Ukraine. Firstly, I'm not entirely convinced that Putin is in control as much as Western watchers think, and he would like to pretend. The bulk of rebel fighters are Russian-speaking East Ukrainians and, anecdotally, irregulars fighting in a personal capacity, but with more than a nod and a wink from the Kremlin. For example, fighting has continued without pause in Debaltseve, where Ukrainian army units are surrounded by rebels. Was Putin party to a ceasefire he knew was going to hold save for a small and relatively insignificant military target? Or is it the case that fighters on the ground will carry on regardless? Also, what's true of the rebels applies to Ukrainian forces too. Or, to be more accurate, Ukrainian and allied troops. It seems they too have their own irregular detachments, which raises questions about who they are accountable to and whether they're following orders from Kiev or pursuing their own objectives. There is slippage on both sides, and it's that imperiling the ceasefire.

The second is the viewpoint that Putin is reasserting Russia's place in the world, beginning with the near abroad. This is undoubtedly the case. Putin wants to be the man that tears up the post-Cold War settlement a victorious NATO imposed on a pitifully weak Russia. Whereas previously nothing could be done as former client states and allies flocked to the EU and the military protection of the Americans, Russia's new found energy wealth and partial modernisation of its armed forces allowed the projection of power to prevent any further Western encroachment. The bloody morass East Ukraine has become, and the accidental-on-purpose incursions into British airspace and Swedish coastal waters are hardly the most sophisticated semiotica Moscow could have used, but it gets the job done. Yet he needs to be careful. As we know, war is something that can be stumbled into.

The problem is, while Putin was happy to play the high wire act and absorb damaging economic sanctions the collapse in energy prices, whether cooked up by Saudi Arabia in cahoots with the Whitehouse or not, is bad, bad news. Not that the economy was in great shape anyway. All of a sudden, the $720bn renovation of the armed forces is looking shaky. Another of Putin's considerations is that Russia must avoid a damaging, long-running war. Chechnya and Georgia were one thing, but overt military intervention in Ukraine threatens pitting a largely conscript army against a motivated and increasingly well-armed opposition. Shades of Afghanistan? The bottom line for Putin is the security of his own power and authoritarian rule. Confronting the West reaps him some political capital, but further investments threaten diminishing returns as Russia's other problems mount. He doesn't want to add thousands of tricolor-draped coffins to the regime's difficulties.

What then does Putin want? Formed within the internal security bowels of the decaying Soviet state, he's imbibed the objectives of the gerontocracy that used to run the place. He wants firm government, secure borders, a non-violable sphere of influence, and to strut around the world stage like a power not locked into demographic decline and an economy dependent on primary industry.

Unfortunately, the intellectual poverty of British political discourse demands this comes with the customary disclaimer. It is preferable that Ukraine stays together and graduates to EU membership. I'd like to see a thorough democratisation of the Russian Federation and for it to take up a seat at Brussels also. I also believe that what should matter when it comes to recalcitrant national minorities wherever they're found is the aspirations and hopes of the people on the ground, not the convenience or otherwise of lines on maps and spheres of influence for the bigger powers. That also applies to the geographical contiguous Russian minority of East Ukraine and Crimea. No amount of paid-for agitators sent by Moscow can whip up a sense of common identity and hard-done-to grievances if they don't already exist. It has to be said: the job of analysis is always to understand and explain what's happening, which is different to excusing and apologising.


Speedy said...

"It is preferable that Ukraine stays together and graduates to EU membership."

Why? it could be said that German intervention lit the touch paper that began this conflict in any case, just did their ham-fisted intervention in Yugoslavia.

Russia does not like NATO on its border, and it did not fancy losing its Black Sea port to it, either.

Is "more Europe" a good thing? There are plenty of Greeks who might disagree. The EU is a democratic vacuum - sucking accountability in to a black hole and replacing elected governments at will, so has little right to preach to Russia. This is a post-democratic world.

Yes, Putin acts like the gangster he is, but at least there is a certain integrity about him, which is more than can be said for most Western leaders who deny the obvious - that human politics is as it has always been, about self-interest and power.

In denying this (as indeed they even might to themselves) while still actualising it (Germany's refusal to confront the reality of Greece not out of Greece's good but their own self-interest is a perfect example), they may cause more damage than Putin ever could.

Alex Ross said...

"Russia does not like NATO on its border."

Countries attempting to build liberal democratic institutions (e.g. Georgia, Moldova) and countries which are now liberal democracies mainly thanks to the EU and Nato (e.g. the Baltics and Central European States) really, really, really do not like Russia on their borders!!

BCFG said...

I am not really interested in Putin or the USA (though reading this you don't seem much aware of the US's role in this).

I am more interested in the plight of the people of the East.

Every time they elect a leader the citizens of Kiev don't care for they overthrow them in a coup, violently suppress opposition and then hold another election and trumpet it as a triumph of democracy!

This would be like living in the North and seeing Labour win the general election but the people in the South continually oust them and put the Tories into power!

Ukraine cannot possibly hold together in these circumstances, you can't have one part pf the nation dictating to the other part who the leaders are going to be.

Therefore, Ukraine should split, it is the only reasonable position for the people of the East to take.

Unknown said...

Stick to the politics and the gameboy fluff, Phil. The Russians have no need to, nor have they used conscript troops in Ukraine. The East Ukraine forces are well equipped and massively well motivated, hence their continuing victories.

Phil said...

My, that's not very polite! Ouch!

If you read the piece you'll see I've said nothing about Russia conscripting troops for the Ukraine at the moment. But in the unlikely event of the war spreading, which now looks doubtful as the rebels are finally pulling back their heavy weapons as per the truce conditions, then of course Putin will use conscripts if escalation grows to major proportions.

As for East Ukraine forces, well-motivated they might be but without Russian arms and helpful volunteers from across the border they would have been crushed long ago.