A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

The Waiting Game

What next for Kiev and Moscow?

No, the West has not (yet) lost Ukraine, and the fragile Minsk truce and Western sanctions on Moscow have not (yet) failed. But Vladimir Putin’s 19th-century fixation on national military greatness may yet spoil attempts to stabilize the situation.

© REUTERS/Handout/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service

© REUTERS/Handout/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service

We are still playing a waiting game in Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine, but it is evolving. The Obama administration recently reengaged directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin after more than a year of minimal contact (which the Russian media is spinning as proof that the United States has finally prioritized Russia over Ukraine). The West, while still refusing to give lethal weapons to Kiev to counter the equipment that Russia is pouring into eastern Ukraine, has begun cautious training of Ukrainian troops, and is sharing more battlefield intelligence with Kiev. And the West, including Japan, showed unexpected unity at last weekend’s G-7 summit in threatening to adopt even tougher sanctions if the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine fail to adhere fully to the “Minsk agreements” – both the stricter original ceasefire signed last September and its more lax implementation deal worked out in February of this year.

In the European Union German Chancellor Angela Merkel has successfully linked any easing of EU financial sanctions on Russia to full implementation of the Minsk accords from Moscow and the Ukrainian separatists. And in Moscow, Russian President Putin has shown that he can still control his country’s nationalist passions when he curbed hothead separatists in Ukraine’s Donbass and quietly dropped his signature campaign to wrest all of “Novorossiya” east of Ukraine away from Kiev without sparking any Russian backlash.

Russian mathematician and Putin critic Andrey Piontkovsky detects a “new toughening of the West’s position,” saying that the transatlantic community has decided that it “must stop Putin in Ukraine by non-military means” today to avoid having to use military means tomorrow to defend the Baltic states. This will present Putin with a choice, Piontkovsky concludes, between “political death as someone who will be held responsible for corruption, responsible for the downing of [Malaysia] airliner [flight 17] and a mass of other unattractive affairs or be the fighting leader of ‘the Russian world’ who throws a challenge to the entire West.”

In this changing environment, the asymmetric waiting games being played in Kiev, Moscow, Berlin, and Washington might best be summarized as follows.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is braced for a “full-scale invasion” by Russia carried out by the estimated 9000 heavily-armed Russian troops inside Ukraine’s Donbass and 50,000 massed just over the Russian border. He expects a Russian/separatist attempt to seize more Ukrainian land at any moment, probably starting with an offensive like last week’s 12-hour battle in Maryinka.

The biggest potential threat to Ukraine’s stability is that contingent of 59,000 Russian soldiers in and near the Donbass. Last summer Ukrainian forces came close to dislodging eastern separatists until Putin reinforced his Ukrainian proxies with elite Russian airborne troops. Since then he has steadily funneled ever more Russian T-72 main battle tanks, multiple rocket launchers, artillery, and armor over the border into Ukraine, while rotating Russian troops and generals in and out of the Donbass in varying numbers. Poroshenko acknowledged the weakness of his position when he agreed to the first Minsk truce of September 5. Now the barely disguised Russian forces in the Donbass are well situated for either intimidation or blitzkrieg.

President Putin, according to German Kremlin-watchers, is expecting the Ukrainian government to collapse from its own – to use Soviet-speak – “contradictions.” He correctly sees Kiev’s basket-case economy as far worse off than Russia’s, and expects fratricidal instincts among Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians to lead to a repetition of the meltdown that consumed the government elected after the 2004 Orange Revolution. He might therefore just prefer to wait for the Kiev government to fall instead of launching an offensive that would surely increase Russian combat deaths, which Putin is already taking pains to hide from mothers and wives.

Moreover, the Russian president expects that Europeans will soon lose interest in Ukraine and ease sanctions, just as he (wrongly) expected the Russophile German business lobby to block sanctions in March 2014 and as he (wrongly) expected Ukraine’s chaotic interim government to fail before Poroshenko’s election a year ago. He could very well make the same decision he made in spring of 2014, when he mobilized some 80,000 troops on high alert for a month on Ukraine’s north, east, and south, choosing only at the last minute to forego invasion and wait for an implosion that never occurred.

Merkel’s ability to hold the 28 EU members together thus far on unanimous sanctions threatens to upend Putin’s plans, however, as do Russia’s growing economic and financial losses under the sanctions and Ukraine’s surprising resilience in the face of 15 months of undeclared war.

Chancellor Merkel has been playing a long game since the Ukraine crisis began. Last year she succeeded in offsetting the West’s utter military absence in Russia’s neighborhood – and public refusal to put boots on the ground of non-ally Ukraine – by orchestrating a de-escalation of violence in the initial September 5 Minsk truce. This averted a dangerous escalation spiral one in which Russia could have triumphed at every turn. The truce was never an end in itself, but a search for equilibrium at a lower level of violence. After this equilibrium collapsed in the face of a Russian/separatist offensive in January, Merkel and Poroshenko sued Putin for a new equilibrium in the February “Minsk-2” implementation that tacitly recognized new Russian gains.

Merkel still hopes that the longer the West can confine Putin and his separatist protégés to a quasi-frozen conflict, the greater the chances Putin will be compelled to see the economic, international, and even domestic costs to Russia. She has always offered to help the Russian president save face if he reverses his aggression, and she continues to do so, even if face-saving has become ever harder as Putin narrows his options.

The greatest potential spoiler for Merkel’s plan to restore heartland Europe’s seven-decade peace, then, is Vladimir Putin’s 19th-century fixation on national military greatness.

For his part, President Barack Obama is pairing reluctant direct reengagement with Russia with conspicuous NATO exercises to reassure Poland and Baltic NATO members, and with steadily increasing non-lethal military aid to Ukraine. And the administration is floating the ideas of modifying the missile defense it is now building in Europe against any Iranian nuclear breakout to target Russia missiles too – and possibly even returning intermediate-range nuclear-capable missiles to British bases.

The greatest hurdle he might face is distraction from all the other world crises, and by the all-consuming 2016 presidential campaign, which is already gaining momentum.

All are now waiting to see what the key player, Vladimir Putin, will do next. In this confrontation, Andrey Piontkovsky concludes that, emotionally, Putin will indeed be drawn to the role of “the fighting leader” – but some of his entourage may start to think that his “political death” might be a preferable alternative.