By Kathleen Weinberger
Vladimir Putin has mobilized military forces in Crimea and on Ukraine's northern and eastern borders. He has raised the level of fighting in eastern Ukraine to levels not seen in over a year and then arranged a ceasefire. He has moved advanced air defense systems into Crimea and is raising new Russian divisions near Ukraine. Analysts are baffled. Some note that this unprecedented mobilization makes little sense if Putin does not mean to fight Ukraine soon. Others dismiss it as the normal activities of a great power’s military. Neither view is correct. There is nothing normal about this mobilization, but neither does Putin desire a war with Ukraine. He intends, rather, to use this mobilization and escalation of conflict to create leverage to weaken EU sanctions, destabilize the Ukrainian government, undermine NATO, and present the next American president with a series of faits accomplis. He is likely to succeed in all these aims.
Escalation against Ukraine
Putin has maintained a significant military presence in Crimea and eastern Ukraine since the Russian invasion in 2014. Putin and the separatists he supports have failed to resolve the conflict by either military or diplomatic means. Putin has steadily increased Russia’s military presence in and around Ukrainian territory and the Black Sea since early 2016, with much of the groundwork having been laid in 2014. He announced plans to move the advanced S-400 air defense system to Crimea in July. The recent escalation, however, has been much more sudden, rapid, and substantial than his previous undertakings.
Putin seized on rumors of a Ukrainian sabotage operation in Crimea on August 7th and 8th to shift his operations into high gear. Local sources began reporting many Russian troops and much military hardware moving to the de-facto border between Ukraine and Crimea, onto the Crimean Peninsula from Russia, and along Ukraine’s northern border on those very days. The S-400 system appeared in Crimea on August 12th. Russian rhetoric during this period hyped the threat of war while framing these measures as defensive. Putin said on August 10th that Russia would take “additional measure to provide security, including serious additional measures.” These actions and threats are likely intended to press Ukraine, France, and Germany to make significant concessions to Russia in order to avoid further escalation.
The deployment of additional military capabilities to Crimea in the context of this invented tension serves another purpose for Putin. It allows Russia to create a formidable exclusion zone that extends north into much of Ukraine and across a large portion of the Black Sea. Putin has probably always planned to increase his military capabilities in the region significantly, as his steady expansion of forces in Crimea shows. The “crisis” he created in August, however, has allowed him to frame these deployments as a response to Ukrainian aggression, accomplishing in days what might otherwise have taken months. The atmosphere of crisis and desire on the part of Europeans to de-escalate it, moreover, have spared Putin any consequences for these moves, which are likely to be permanent.
But what is Putin trying to do? Conditions for a Russian invasion of Ukraine have been set for some time now. Continued delay works only to the advantage of Ukraine. Putin may be pursuing some more nuanced strategy that will end up in war, but it appears that he is actually pursuing other aims. He is working, in fact, to pressure EU states to remove sanctions and negotiate a settlement in Donbas that will upset Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s regime. He seeks, in other words, to obtain his objectives without having to fight for them, as is his customary strategy.
Putin’s primary desire is likely to erode or eliminate European sanctions against Russia while also advancing his goals in Ukraine. He seeks to force the Europeans to capitulate on all fronts, in other words, without making any concessions himself.
EU sanctions against Russia based on the conflict in Donbas are valid until January 31, 2017 unless renewed. Lifting them is, in principle, contingent on Russia fulfilling all points of the Minsk agreements. Those agreements require Russia to withdraw all of its forces from Ukraine and to permit the demobilization of the separatist militias in Donbas. Putin clearly desires to do neither, and so seeks to use his newly-created leverage to cajole Europe into easing sanctions in any case.
This strategy appears to be working. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier stated on August 19th that the EU could “gradually phase out sanctions” if Russia could demonstrate progress and offered that Russia could rejoin the G7. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has softened her previoussayingPresident Francois Hollande stated that there is a “real risk of escalation in Ukraine.” Putin will meet with Merkel and Hollande on the sidelines of the G20 on September 4-5 and is likely to press both leaders to take a more lenient stance in exchange for avoiding further conflict.
Putin can also use this escalation to push for a settlement of the conflict that undermines domestic political support for pro-Western Ukrainian President Poroshenko. Pressure from European partners and Russia’s military posture may be sufficient to make Poroshenko accept an unfavorable deal regarding the separatist regions. Poroshenko’s government already faces significant criticism for Ukraine’s poor economic performance. His hold on power is further threatened by populist and pro-Russian parties, which have been positioning themselves to make a comeback in Ukraine. An unpopular resolution of the conflict in Donbas could be enough to trigger snap elections and allow these anti-Western parties to return to power in Ukraine’s parliament. A settlement that grants the separatist regions significant autonomy could also upset the pro-Kyiv volunteer battalions. These militia groups, which have fought hard against Russian-backed forces since the beginning of the conflict, already oppose Poroshenko on many issues. Poroshenko could lose the limited support he now has were he to accept a deal on Donbas that looked like surrender.
A number of factors combined to make August a propitious moment for Putin to force this issue. The looming elections to Russia’s legislature, the Duma, as well as the impending U.S. election have long made it likely that Putin would act now. The failed Turkish coup and resulting Russo-Turkish rapprochement, however, created the ideal environment for the current gambit.
Russo-Turkish relations soured badly at the end of 2015 as Russian aircraft flew combat sorties against Turkish-backed opposition forces in Syria. Turkish forces shot down a Russian Su-24 jet in November, 2015, starting a tense confrontation between Moscow and Ankara. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought out Russia’s enemies as partners in this confrontation, starting military cooperation with Ukraine. The two states conducted two joint naval drills in the Black Sea in March and April 2016 and signed a military cooperation plan in May.
Erdogan began the rapprochement with Russia in June, before the coup attempt, apologizing for shooting down the Su-24. He has turned increasingly to Russia after the coup, moreover, discussing economic and military cooperation, while Turkey’s Prime Minister hinted that Russia might be allowed to use the NATO airbase at Incirlik from which the US Air Force is currently operating. Turkey and Ukraine have not undertaken further joint cooperation efforts, in the meantime, and public displays of close relations have ended.
Erdogan has simultaneously pursued a policy of confrontation with the US, demanding the extradition of a Turkish exile he accuses of plotting the coup and blaming various senior US military officials for supporting it. Erdogan has not officially changed his policy towards Ukraine or towards the US, and his hostile anti-US rhetoric has softened somewhat in recent days. Turkey’s improved relations with Russia, however, changed the regional security balance so that Russia could escalate the conflict in Ukraine without fear of complications in Turkey.
Russian Parliamentary Elections
The Russian parliamentary elections are likely the main driver of the timing of this offensive, however. Putin seeks to rally support ahead of the September elections, which is challenging because of the falling popularity of United Russia, his party. That support could grow if Putin could announce progress on sanctions relief.
Russia’s budget is in dire straits because of the continuing low price of oil, as well as structural problems and corruption. Putin could hope to stabilize it only through one of two high unpopular measures: drawing more heavily on Russia’s sovereign wealth funds, or introducing confiscatory taxes. The promise of the easing of sanctions and the reintegration of Russia into European markets could allow Putin to avoid taking these measures, at least in the short term. He could expect to gain at the polls if he could secure some promise of sanctions relief from the key European leaders he has been simultaneously courting and threatening.
US Presidential Elections
The timing of US presidential elections is the third factor that makes this moment so opportune for Putin’s aggressiveness. The Obama administration has been busily attempting to negotiate an agreement to work with Russia in Syria and has eschewed any reaction to various Russian aggressive actions in the Middle East and Ukraine—or even to reports of Russian attempts to influence the US election. Putin likely sees an opportunity to establish himself solidly in Ukraine, with a settlement or the promise of one in Donbas, with sanctions eased or lifted, and with his base in Syria secure when the next American president takes office. Such a position would be an admirable baseline from which Putin could begin either to try to normalize relations with the US or to expand his gains further—or both.
Prospects for Putin’s Gambit
Sanctions fatigue in Europe and protracted political instability in Ukraine mean that Putin will likely accomplish two of his goals. Europe is likely to ease and eventually lift most sanctions as Brexit, immigration, and other factors combine to strain the EU as an institution, and as Russia’s long-standing and concerted efforts to improve relations with individual EU states bear fruit. Austria, Greece, Hungary and Italy, among others, have expressed pro-Russian sentiments and are continuously targeted by Russia with economic and diplomatic incentives. The EU Council requires sanctions votes to be unanimous, so one state could veto their renewal, particularly if the leading states of Europe are wavering.
Putin will also likely succeed in removing pro-Western Poroshenko in Ukraine and seeing him replaced with either an anti-Western populist or a pro-Russian leader. Economic hardship, low satisfaction with the current regime, frustration on the part of foreign partners and competition from other political parties mean that Poroshenko is incredibly vulnerable to further shocks, such as an unpopular resolution of the conflict in Donbas. Even if Poroshenko retains power some sort of bad deal, Ukraine’s economy will most likely further suffer as international attention wavers and European desires to reconcile with Russia increase.
Putin will probably be able to use these successes to continue to split Europe to the detriment of NATO and the US. Europe faces extreme pressure from the refugee crisis and prospect of the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU. Putin is working hard to advance controversial projects, such as the NORDSTREAM II pipeline to Germany, which would further align western European states with Russia. The eastern states will continue to fear Russia, however—all the more if it appears that Putin is succeeding in bending Ukraine to his will. Russia will also continue to try to leverage its operations in Syria to push for cooperation with European countries and the US, which could decrease the alliance’s ability to posture against Russia without threatening interests in the Middle East. All of these activities will tend to paralyze and divide the Western alliance, making concerted resistance to Russian aggression difficult if not impossible.
If Putin succeeds in having sanctions significantly eased or removed and resetting relations with a number of key European countries, the new US president may be unable to rely on a united EU or NATO response to Russian actions. Russia would have greater leverage in Europe by which to increase ties with certain states and to undertake increasingly hostile actions against others. Putin might choose to threaten or even undertake military operations against other European countries, such as the Baltic States, Finland or Norway. He is more likely to use the weakening of the Western alliance to cajole them into neutral or pro-Russian policies.
The replacement of pro-Western Poroshenko with a populist or pro-Russian leader would be the first step towards returning Ukraine to Russia’s sphere of influence. Ukraine would not likely be able to reorient again towards a pro-Western, pro-democratic path in the near future. This development would constitute the first forceful reintegration of a former Soviet state back into Russia’s control, and would stand as a precedent for future operations.
Establishment of these conditions will allow Russia to renegotiate relations with the US from a position of significant strength. Without the weight of the conflict in Donbas or the stigma of sanctions, Russia would be able to undergo a second “reset” in relations with the West, despite having illegally annexed the sovereign territory of a European state. The new US administration would be forced to negotiate with a newly emboldened Russia without the same political and economic tools available during the Obama administration, and potentially have fewer allies in countering Russian aggression.