Is Putin unable to leave the war he needed?

At the moment of this writing, the Minsk-2 agreement appears never to really have reached the Donbas region, as fighting never stopped and western powers are losing patience. Washington openly considers sending arms to Ukraine, and also EU-president Donald Tusk is sharpening his rhetoric: “We are clearly reaching a point when further diplomatic efforts will be fruitless unless credibly backed up by further action.”(1)

It is clear that a mere 3 OSCE-drones are hardly sufficient to do any monitoring-task, and calls are made for eyes and peace-keepers on the ground. This is not new though, since separatist leaders have proposed peace-keepers before (2). Again the obvious deal-breakers appear to be how this would violate the previously signed (Minsk-II) agreements, legitimize Russian forces on Ukrainian soil, or Russia’s reluctance to allow NATO forces effectively monitor the Russian-Ukrainian border. (3)

We have seen these scenario’s before: in Georgia, Moldova and Chechnya. In these cases the West blinked in the end, and Putin got his puppet-state. But will the West blink this time? And if the West does not blink, will Putin Survive Ukraine?

Putin the Great, cornered

As a young Vladimir, Putin chased a rat. When he had the rat cornered, it jumped out at him: it attacked. Putin never forgot this experience from his childhood. (4)

Today, Vladimir Putin is undoubtedly one of the most historic Russian leaders of the past century. He is THE strong leader that saved Russia from the brink of total misery and lawlessness in the 1990s, and he led the country into a new era of stability, growth and improved living standards for the Russians.

Since Putin’s election in 2000, the Russian middle class grew from 27% in 2001, to 60% in 2010 according to the World Bank (5). Lifted from extreme poverty, with increasing self-confidence, this group started to become more dissatisfied. They were irritated by the lack of progress of social and judicial reforms, increased taxes as economic growth flattened, and the enduring corruption in the country’s unrepresentative political institutions. This was reflected in the national parliamentary elections on December 4th, 2011. Putin’s party “United Russia” lost its 64% advantage to a slight majority of 50% in the Russian Duma (6). Following the elections, there were some of the largest protests in Moscow since the 1990s, aimed against Putin and his ‘United Russia’. (7)  Putin realized his position was anything but self-evident, and needed a boost.

Re-elected, Putin needed a new strategy and Crimea

Putin shifted his strategy from political and economic reform towards a closer relation with the conservative Russian Orthodox-church, accompanied by anti-Western paranoia and a revival of Russian Nationalism through the concept of “Novorossiya”, which perfectly fits his creed: “Russia is a superpower, or it is nothing”. The concerns of domestic liberties and freedoms available to the Russian people are subsidiary and irrelevant to that goal. And indeed, up until today, Russians favor strong leadership over a democracy with a good legislative branch and a corruption-free governmental system. (8)

Results however, remained unsatisfactory as in September 2013 it was found that less than half of the Russians viewed Putin positively, and even the audacious $51 billion Olympic Games in Sochi did little than to add a few percent. (9)

All that changed in February 2014 when the Ukrainian revolution, also known as Euromaidan, resulted in the impeachment of Viktor Yanukovich. The Kremlin was played into its hand as Western leaders stood together with the far-right Svoboda-party. For example John McCain, telling demonstrators: “America is with you” (10). With little hesitation Putin proclaimed the developments to be a direct threat to Russia, created by the Americans to replace the regime with a pro-EU government. His next move was quick: in March 2014 Russia invaded Crimea, and after a referendum, it declared the Republic of Crimea and the Federal City of Sevastopol to be part of the Russian Federation.

On the 1st and the 2nd of March, as Russian “green men” were quietly taking over the key-infrastructures of Crimea, 67.8% of Russian citizens approved Putin’s performance. (11) It was the capturing of Crimea, and subsequently the solid support to the Russian intervention in Ukraine, that brought his popularity to the highest approval ratings in the past two years; nowadays Ukraine has become Russia’s Pressure cooker

Putin’s actions are backed by serious all-out propaganda that constructs its own harsh reality. While many Russians are very well aware that their news is corrupted, the Kremlin does not derive its power by trying to convince the people it’s telling truth. It derives its power by creating and spreading its own truths, truths people want to hear. In this Russian-constructed reality “The fascists” have completely taken over Kiev, and the Pro-Russian separatists are totally within their right to protect ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine against this mortal danger.(12) Also this new concept of “nonlinear” or “hybrid” war, totally out-maneuvers NATO, which is still based on responding to conventional threats. NATO learns the painful lessons that tanks and JSF’s are useless against a blurred status of war and peace. (13)

However, almost a year since the capture of Crimea, we still find the Russian leader being held in a dragging conflict in Ukraine. Since the downing of MH17, the world is watching, scrutinizing and becoming increasingly impatient. Not being allowed to escape from a very messy situation, Putin finds himself between a rock and a hard place.

The rock being the inability to fully control what is happening on the ground while maintaining the hybrid and undetermined character of the war in Ukraine. Moscow-inspired rebel leaders quit the movements, or corrupt and rogue field-commanders kill each other. In addition, the current losses among Russian soldiers are already unacceptable to Russian society and burials of Russian military servicemen are done in much secrecy. (14) These aspects seriously complicate a tighter control over the region or even a large scale invasion and occupation by Russian military, which in addition would also be extremely expensive. 

Unable to end the dragging role of Russia in the Ukrainian conflict, this leads to the hard-place where continuation of the conflict can lead to more pressure through Western sanctions, and low oil-prices that seriously hurt the Russian economy. As Western Rhetoric is hardened, Ukraine becomes Russia’s pressure cooker where new and more unwelcome options are brought to the table.

Will Putin survive Ukraine?

The idea of Putin being unwillingly kept in a conflict that continues hurting his country with huge costs resulting from artificial low oil prices, Western sanctions, and increased isolation, is quite scary. If this is the case, it might mean that Putin has no clear objectives, no escape-strategy and no clear way out of this crisis. Already we see early signs of Putin backing down: Where previously suggested that “Novorossiya” was meant to include most of Ukraine’s eastern and South-Eastern cities, including Odessa and Mariupol, now the Kremlin appears to be more careful with the term “Novorossiya”. Especially when used to depict the region which is shrinking to just two devastated parts of Luhansk and Donetsk. (15)

The West needs to be careful too: A cornered Putin might be very dangerous and unpredictable, and might even increase the probability of unintended consequences, including the danger of drawing Ukraine, a country of 45 million people, with a will of its own, to be drawn into a full-scale war.

Putin’s fate is tied with his regime. His regime, however rigid, is anything but stable and has never arranged a clear process of succession. His power is based on a system where corruption is traded for loyalty. When he falls, a lot of domestic dominoes will fall with him and it is totally unknown what kind of Russia might emerge as a result.

Possibly it is better for the West and Russia to take their losses: Where the western powers and Ukraine might be asked to accept Crimea as a lost territory, Putin might take Crimea as his prize, but may in return need to leave his claim of influence on Eastern-Ukraine and even for some time allow foreigners to intensively monitor the Russian borders with Ukraine.

By Ernstjan van Doorn

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