Not a golden opportunity

One of the conclusions many have drawn from the tragedy of flight MH17 was that Vladimir Putin now had the golden opportunity to withdraw from Ukraine – a war he had wanted to end anyway – and blame it all on the separatists. However, somehow this does not seem to be happening. The war has continued and Russia put the blame on Ukraine. This is not a surprise: there has never been a golden opportunity. Putin did want to exit the war but he wanted to do it on his own terms. This choice is what he lost in the disaster on Thursday. 

“Putin has just lost the war in Ukraine” – this is how I closed my previous blog entry on flight MH17. You lose a war when you lose the ability to take strategic decisions: when strategic questions are already decided for you and all that remains for you to influence is how your capitulation will look like.

This is what we see in today’s Russia: state-controlled media has been coming up with increasingly ludicrous conspiracy theories, often contradicting not only the facts but each other as well. Their sole purpose seems to be, as Leonid Bershidsky pointed out, to plant doubts in the Russian public, and thereby save face for the Russian president before the inevitable withdrawal; Putin has been calling for an immediate ceasefire, yet, fighting has continued in Luhansk, and has gotten even bloodier than before. What we are witnessing is the agony of the ’people’s republics’. Whether the Russian state keeps supporting these clandestinely, despite the official calls for a truce or Putin has completely lost control over separatists is anyone’s guess. From the point of view of Putin’s choices, it hardly matters.

Navigating between conflicting political and business interests is never easy, but it was Vladimir Putin’s special skill. However, by intervening in Ukraine – a decision triggered by an earlier, bad decision to trust Viktor Yanukovych or, as many claim, a thinly veiled intention to reconquer Crimea – Putin tilted the balance of the Russian elite, a balance just recovered after the experiments of Dmitry Medvedev. Ukraine became an issue: it set a process of realignment in motion, it destabilised both the society and the elite. Sure, it helped crushing the opposition, restoring Russia’s clout in global politics and diverting attention away from the suspect perspectives of the Russian middle-class, but in order to replace the ’welfare consensus’ of his first two terms with something else, Putin needed a constant winning streak, or, at least, constant war. He has just lost both opportunities.

Game over

The Russian president had been in an increasingly inconvenient situation for a while, before flight MH17 hit the ground. There had been increasing suspicion that Russia’s policies in Ukraine had created a new cleavage within the Russian elite, cutting through previous battle lines, uniting classic ’doves’ with such people as Gennady Timchenko, the Rotenbergs or the Kovalchuks, afraid of the loss of their business interests in Ukraine. Moreover, as many observers noted, Putin’s policies caused disappointment among nationalists – who wanted more and were now returning to the opposition – and the middle class that became worried for their standard of living. In short, Putin’s approval rating, artificially pumped up by government propaganda and the myth created around the bloodless annexation of Crimea, was set to fall. The only question was what depths it was falling back to.

Even so, Putin, I believe, still had the choice to proceed as he saw fit. He had enough influence, he could build on his record high ratings, and, most importantly, he had the tools: Ukraine was in tatters, destabilised, unable to survive, or even to win the war without the approval of Russia, the annexation of Crimea seemed to have become a fait accompli, and there was no domestic opposition in sight.  A renewed crisis of the Russian economy was around the corner, but it wouldn’t fully materialise until the end of the year, when Russia would be able to exert further pressure on Europe through gas shipments. The goal must have been to legally enshrine the internal destabilisation of Ukraine by recognising the legitimate demands of separatists and creating a broad autonomy in the East.

But separatists have no legitimate demands any more, and the more evidence Ukraine, the US and the EU are able to find of Russia’s direct involvement in their disastrous partisan war, the less legitimate demands Russia will have. Countries that have, so far, half-heartedly supported Russia by staying neutral, will snatch at the opportunity to denounce a terrorist organisation. As far as domestic circumstances are concerned, however, the past months have seen unprecedented propaganda in support of the separatists in Ukraine, strings have been pulled in the elite, many of whom have direct business interests related to Ukraine or the continuation of the war. We don’t know how the downing of flight MH17 changed the internal balance of the elite. However, as I have blogged before, when the elite starts to believe in the propaganda it spreads, it potentially spells trouble. An abrupt exit from the crisis in Ukraine will be perceived in Russia as a defeat, roughly equal in significance to the victory in Crimea. And, as we have learned, there are no ties or win-win solutions in Russian diplomacy.

Vladimir Putin has no choice, internationally, but to immediately and distinctly cease supporting separatism in Eastern Ukraine. And he has no choice, domestically, but to cling on to it. The West can sweeten the pill for Putin by simultaneously withdrawing sanctions, and, of course, Russia still has the ’gas weapon’ at its disposal. Nevertheless, it will hardly change the conclusion that the Russian president has been defeated in Ukraine.

It’s not a golden opportunity: it’s a rock and a hard place.


Be sure to listen to yesterday’s The Power Vertical podcast and read the FP column by Mark Galeotti for more on the same.

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