September 09, 2014

Getting Putin Right

Why the Ukraine Crisis is a Russia Crisis

For the Russian administration, the conflict with Ukraine is a proxy war with the West. Putin’s rhetoric of “friend or foe” helps to legitimize his policies at home, but the costs of an extensive war with Ukraine (a “brother nation”) or with NATO states would be too high. Dangerous is the fact that Putin resorts to tactics without having any grand strategy. That is why the West should unite its two possible courses of action into one double policy: Containment and Engagement.


Vladimir Putin’s primary goals in the Ukraine crisis are clear. He wants to keep the second most important post-Soviet country squarely within the Russian sphere of influence; to prevent its integration with NATO and the EU; and to put an end to the societal shifts away from his own power and social model. The means of achieving these goals seems pretty clear as well: by exerting pressure and by balancing interests with the West, guaranteed through the establishment of a new Transnistria in the Donbas. He will stop at nothing to attain this. The EU and US underestimated Ukraine’s sheer importance for Russia and the costs Moscow is prepared to take on in order to maintain its sway over Kiev. To reach these ends, Putin uses various tactics: false information, lies, planned solutions that he later denies, and various white elephants. The Kremlin is doing its best to unnerve Kiev – by deploying troops, pulling them out, dispatching aid convoys, etc. – while distracting from focusing on Russia’s supports for the “separatists.” At the same time, this support for these structures in eastern Ukraine, which are partially criminal, serves above all to improve Moscow’s own negotiating position vis-à-vis the West. For this reason, too, it would impossible for Putin to accept a defeat for the “separatists.” He cannot give up his most important bargaining chip.

Cold-war rhetoric as a source of domestic legitimacy

What Putin does not want is equally clear: regular or irregular Russian troops marching on Kiev or the long-term occupation of large swathes of Ukraine. The economic, political, social, and military costs of this would be too high. An extensive war with its “sister nation” is quite different from a war against a Ukrainian army led, in Moscow’s language, by “fascists.” For this reason the Russian leadership continues to deny that regular Russian troops are fighting in Ukraine. The acknowledgment of open war between Russian and Ukrainians would bring down the entire propaganda narrative in which Russia supports the separatists in their noble struggle against “Ukrainian puppets” of “the West.” It would be a disaster for Russian leaders if growing numbers of Russian soldiers were to start coming home from Ukraine in body bags, and it could well tip the balance of public opinion. Nobody in the EU believes in the myth of “Ukrainian separatists,” but in Russia this line is still fairly effective, and the media is uniformly staying on message.

Furthermore although Putin hardly wants to end up in a military confrontation with NATO states, not even in the Baltic states or Poland, the rhetoric of the Cold War and of confrontation with “the West” is something that a majority of Russians understand. This language helps maintain domestic acceptance for the economic costs at home and to legitimize Putin’s conduct.

A proxy war with the West

Germany has become the main negotiating figure in the effort to find a solution to this conflict. But it is a mistake to believe that a meeting between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents could resolve the crisis. For Putin, Petro Poroshenko was never the main interlocutor for solving the conflict; his sights are set on the US and the EU, not the Ukrainian president. He made this clear enough by completely avoiding the subject of eastern Ukraine at the Customs Union summit in Minsk in late August. For the Russian leadership, this is less about a conflict with Ukraine than about a proxy war with the West. It fits into Putin’s program of using “friend or foe” rhetoric to once again style the West as the primary enemy, the main obstacle to Russian security, and thereby to score points with the Russian population. According to this line, the EU and NATO are meddling in Russia’s “natural” sphere of influence in order to weaken it. The view derives not only from the fact that Putin has surrounded himself in his third term almost exclusively with security and foreign policy hardliners in the Kremlin but also that he needs conflict with the West in order to mask the utter vacuity of his own domestic and economic policy.

Russian leadership without a master plan

The most dangerous aspect of this conflict is Russia’s unpredictability. What is going to do next? Because Moscow has no master plan whatsoever, it reacts ad hoc to every change in the situation. This was already obvious at the beginning of the crisis with the annexation of the Crimea – a kneejerk reaction to the deposition of Moscow’s man in Kiev, Viktor Yanukovych, prompted by the fear of losing Sebastopol to NATO as a port for the Russian Black Sea fleet. After sailing through with Crimea, the Moscow underestimated the Ukrainian army’s ability to defeat the separatists, despite Russian support. Responding to domestic pressure and the fear of losing its most important bargaining chip in negotiating with the West, Moscow simply had to send regular troops into eastern Ukraine in order to prevent a defeat of the “separatists.” And so the Russian leadership succumbed to the pressure of its own interest-driven policies and the narrow maneuvering room brought on by its ideologically freighted domestic policy and the Ukrainian leadership’s unwillingness to compromise.

Two opposing courses of action

Based on this analysis, there are two ways to approach the conflict. One is for the US and the EU to respond to Putin’s wish to meet directly with Angela Merkel or Barack Obama and to frankly discuss balancing interests. The topics on Putin’s agenda are also clear: Ukraine’s neutrality; no deepening of proximity to the EU; maximum autonomy for parts of eastern Ukraine; a sensible deal on energy relations and Ukraine’s energy debts. This is what Putin wants: for the powers to coordinate their interests and, in doing so, recognize Russia’s role as a regional power in the post-Soviet realm.

The other course of action is for Europe to stick to its values (and its policy of supporting those values) by recognizing Ukraine’s right to self-determination. This means tightening sanctions and, following the model of the sanctions against Iran, extending them to the banking and finance sector. According to this logic, the Ukrainian army will need not only to be trained but also to be supplied with weapons in order for it to protect its border. Essentially, the logic of such a policy is containment of Russia. It could well lead to corresponding counter measures in eastern Ukraine, and, one step further, in Kaliningrad for example.

Talking to Putin does not mean giving in to him

Neither course of action offers outcomes that are worth striving for. Far more sensible would be to combine the two lines: Engagement and Containment. Instead of calling Putin on the phone, Angela Merkel, as a key figure, should in fact travel on to Moscow after her trip to Kiev in order to talk directly to the Russian president and confront him with the consequences of his policy – while at the same time sounding out potential solutions. Putin wants a balancing of interests among powers; he can only lose politically and economically if things escalate further. Meanwhile, the next sanction steps should be clearly set out and the refinancing of Russian business made more difficult.

Admittedly, these measures will only become effective in the medium term and are therefore of little help to stopping the war in eastern Ukraine right now. But they can strengthen the European negotiation position. NATO should of course be put into a position where it can protect the Baltic countries and Poland against a possible attack. At the same time, it should not return to its old Cold-War role of deterrence. Rather, what is needed here is a solid format for talking to Russia about hard security interests. This is a role the NATO-Russia Council could have had – if only NATO member states had taken its development seriously. Certainly the OSCE could also fill these shoes, except that Moscow does not take it seriously in the security framework. At any rate, far more conducive than saber rattling would be to create a solid format with NATO that Moscow will recognize and in which both Russian and Ukrainian security interests can be discussed.

Of course Ukraine cannot meanwhile be left to deal with its security dilemma on its own, not least because the EU needs stable neighbors that can protect their own borders. Field hospitals and flak jackets should have been sent a long time ago. Equally important, however, is the need to help Ukrainian leaders reorganize their security forces and modernize their army in the long term – if that is what they want – while at the same time preventing a proxy war from developing by delivering arms now, in the middle of this very heated situation. Talking to Putin does not mean giving in to him. Russia’s behavior toward the “West” has entered a new era. This permits a more realistic view into the nature of the political system that Putin created. Our task now is to create the institutions and mechanisms that, under these new circumstances, will permit dialogue and a balancing of interests.

Bibliographic data

DGAPstandpunkt 6, September 8, 2014, 3 pp.

Topics & Regions