Before he left the G20 meeting early “to get some sleep,” Vladimir Putin said
Today the situation (on Ukraine) in my view has good chances for resolution, no matter how strange it may sound, but certain structures had been established on both sides that could handle the tasks they are facing better.
Putin has been alternating roles as warmonger and peacemaker, so this could just be one more personality switch, but there are a few other indications that he may want to turn away from war in Ukraine.
Let’s look at the recent Russian military buildup around Ukraine and the continuing Russian provocations through the eyes of a 19th century Russian autocrat. The show of military power backs up the ethnic Russians he is protecting in the Donbas and frightens enemies away. Even though the G20 is supposed to be a peaceful organization, the autocrat understands that the only thing his enemies understand is military force and therefore has three warships accompany him. The Prime Minister of Australia, a former amateur boxer and angry about the loss of Australian life when a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane was shot down, had threatened personal violence against Putin. Yes, there were harsh words from the NATO bloc leaders, but that is as far as they have gone and Putin can easily match those words, as can Pravda. However, they have been putting up a solid resistance against the probes into their territories.
The situation in the Donbas is a problem. The locals have not fallen behind the Russian banner as cooperatively as they did in Transneister and Abkhazia. If the Donbas were more secure, it would be a start toward supplying Crimea other than across the Kerch Strait, which will become more difficult to navigate as winter approaches. The troops and supplies are sufficient to hold the Donbas, but not a lot more than that, certainly not a full invasion of Ukraine and probably not to invade and hold a full Novorossiya (mid-October estimate; more recent assessment).
The autocrat continues to feel that Russia is not properly respected. The military show of force, like Nikita Khrushchev’s shoe-pounding, should evoke more respect. The harsh words of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper were met with denial of Russian involvement in Ukraine, the better to keep the NATO alliance wrong-footed and western publics confused. The announcement of a gas deal with China overshadows the effeminate climate agreement between China and the United States. The personal animus of many of the leaders stings not at all.
Does he consciously perceive approaching problems in the Russian economy as a result of sanctions or burgeoning problems with armed forces recruitment and the return of bodies from the Donbas? Or does he add those into the calculation of exactly how much force to show, how much to rouse the home crowds with the threat of Nazi invasion from Kiev?
The autocrat can be generous and has put forth feelers to the West. His strategies are based on history. In 1939, two great powers agreed not to fight each other over territories similar to but not as close in history and geography to Russia as Ukraine. Surely a similar agreement could be reached between the US and Russia. The suggestion was repeated more plainly, in case the US didn’t get it. At least one Russian did. Such a solution would recognize Russia as a great power and give it the respect it deserves.
Hypothetical, yes. Exaggerated? Probably. Much of what I see that tries to analyze Putin’s thinking is as an idealized strategist. That’s a good place to start, but we don’t know Putin’s ultimate goal – destabilizing Ukraine only; reconstituting the Soviet Union lite; breaking NATO; defanging dissent at home; something else? We don’t know who is advising him, although it seems to be a mix of strong nationalists and former siloviki. Many of his actions seem poorly thought out, with a strong emotional undercurrent. The idealized strategist is probably not the only Putin.
An unsigned article in Gazeta.ru speculates, in the way a nineteenth-century Russian autocrat might, that UN Ambassador Samantha Power was offering to lift sanctions and recognize Russia’s possession of the Crimea in return for Russia’s getting out of Donetsk and Luhansk. The Russian buildup and fighting in eastern Ukraine has frightened the West enough to make them back off on sanctions. That article got me thinking in this direction.
Perhaps the autocrat is beginning to calculate the downsides of his aggression. Putin has been more willing to discuss sanctions and admit that they and the declining price of oil are causing some problems (his Valdai speech and a recent interview with Spiegel, for examples). Surmountable problems, he hastens to add.
Not all collaboration with the West has been ended. Russia threatens to break off cooperative programs on nuclear materials security and has said it does not plan to attend the next Nuclear Security Summit, but Russia and the United States continue to work together in the nuclear talks with Iran; they blocked Swiss proposals on nuclear reactor safety that both felt were excessive; scientists from the two national academies of science recently discussed nonproliferation.
If, indeed, Putin’s approval of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is a way of proposing a great-power condominium to the West (and the United States in particular), it’s not an offer the West can take up. That, or a directly military response to his military actions, lands us back in the nineteenth-century setup for the wars of the first half of the twentieth century.
Could a larger role for Russia in other areas make that autocrat feel he is properly respected? Russia has already played a significant part in removing Syria’s chemical weapons. That operation has too often been portrayed only in terms of a rivalry between the US and Russia, rather than a successful joint project. Alternative frames, in which, say, President Obama congratulates President Putin on a job well done together, might improve things.
Russia has signed an agreement with Iran to build and supply fuel for eight new nuclear reactors. The possibility of Iran’s sending its enriched uranium to Russia for fuel fabrication has been floated. If a nuclear agreement with Iran is struck and Russia plays a major part, congratulations would again be warranted.
It’s not clear that would be enough for Putin, but those steps would be in the right direction. Cooperation on ending the war in Syria might also be possible, except for Putin’s insistence that he has no influence in that country, even though the turnaround by Assad on chemical weapons could have only been due to Russian influence. Likewise his continuing denial of any connection with the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.
I tend to be optimistic. It’s entirely possible that the Russian military buildup in eastern Ukraine will result in a major attack over the next few days. But even then, the autocrat may be willing to extend what he believes is a hand of peace. We need to think how to make that peace genuine.
Photo: Tsar Alexander II of Russia, whom some say Putin sees as a model.