Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Why Putin Will Fight On in Ukraine: "Putin wants to develop a military advantage so he can talk to Ukraine and its Western allies from a position of strength... Putin doesn't want to give Ukraine any more time to build up its military with Western help: He wants a lasting deal soon... Putin will fight on in Ukraine, having convinced himself that the West is aiming to destroy Russia."

<p>Layers upon layers.</p>
 Photographer: Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP/Getty Images

Why Putin Will Fight On in Ukraine

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As Ukraine burned again last weekend, Western leaders stubbornly stuck to their chosen path: No appeasement and no military action, just more economic sanctions against Russia. It's a sure-fire way to get more Ukrainians killed.
Even as President Barack Obama claimed in his State of the Nation speech on Jan. 20 that Russia was "isolated," with "its economy in tatters," pro-Russian separatists -- and probably some regular Russian units -- pushed Ukrainian troops out of the ruined Donetsk airport after 200 days of what had been held up as a brave Ukrainian resistance. They then moved to encircle Ukrainian soldiers near Debaltseve and, last weekend, shelled the port city of Mariupol, killing 30 civilians.
To understand why the separatists and their Russian allies decided to end  almost four months of relative passivity, it's helpful to try to imagine the situation from President Vladimir Putin's  point of view.
At the end of last summer, Russia sent in regular troops to stop the Ukrainian army from eliminating the rebels. This resulted in a spectacular Ukrainian defeat near Ilovaysk. Suddenly, Ukraine was willing to talk and make concessions. The Minsk cease-fire agreement, signed in September by the rebels, the Ukrainian government, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, effectively created a frozen conflict zone similar to Transnistria or South Ossetia. 
Ukraine agreed to give the rebel-held areas special status, allowing them to govern themselves and even set up their own police forces. The semi-autonomous area  would still, however, be the responsibility of Ukraine's social and financial systems. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko agreed to the conditions and the parliament quickly passed a bill that gave the rebels all they wanted.
Poroshenko, however, was never interested in maintaining this uneasy compromise. Neither he nor Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer fighters were willing to accept defeat. Poroshenko soon cut off all funding for social programs in rebel-held areas and moved to strengthen defenses along the separation line, thereby making Russia responsible for funding and governing most of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. At the same time, Poroshenko had the parliament rescind Ukraine's neutral status, taking an early step toward a NATO bid, and his rhetoric remained resolutely anti-Russian.
That wasn't what Putin had in mind. His initial goal was to reintegrate the separatist areas into Ukraine and use them to influence Ukrainian policies -- above all, to prevent any move toward NATO. Instead, Western countries kept up economic pressure on Russia, demanding it withdraw support from the rebels. To Putin, this looked like an attempt to deny Russia's victory. Putin decided that his Western adversaries had interpreted his earlier attempts to avoid large-scale sanctions -- such as the recognition of Poroshenko's election as president -- as a sign of weakness.
As Mikhail Barabanov, editor of Moscow Defense Brief, wrote Jan. 19 in the moderately pro-Kremlin journal, Russia in Global Politics:
If the Kremlin suddenly starts retreating in Ukraine, the sanction blackmail will continue anyway. The West will put forward more and more demands to make the most of the situation, it will demand the surrender first of Novorossia [the Russian hawks' name for Donetsk and Luhansk regions], and then of Crimea. But the main goal, I will repeat, is to destabilize the Putin regime and to weaken Russia itself as much as possible (that is most clearly seen in the U.S. position). Thus, any retreat is practically impossible for the Kremlin, and so is keeping the status quo.
Putin is thinking  along the same lines. He said today that Ukraine had "unfortunately used the peaceful break exclusively to regroup, and then they started again." He called the Ukrainian military a "NATO legion," whose goal was "the geopolitical containment of Russia."
This explains why Putin doesn't see a diplomatic solution to the conflict and why all the efforts to bring one about have fallen through in recent weeks. Putin wants to develop a military advantage so he can talk to Ukraine and its Western allies from a position of strength. This also accounts for the rebels' repudiation of the Minsk ceasefire and the limited push against the weak Ukrainian army, which crumbles every time it comes into contact with Russian units. Putin doesn't want to give Ukraine any more time to build up its military with Western help: He wants a lasting deal soon.
The West could respond to Putin in two ways. It could pressure Poroshenko into accepting a conditional surrender, a compromise that would keep Ukraine out of NATO, though not out of the European Union, and force it to reintegrate the eastern regions more or less on Russian terms. Alternatively, it could offer direct military aid to Ukraine, in the form of both weapons and troops. The first path -- the only one that has a chance of ending the bloodshed -- is unacceptable for reasons of vanity, and the second one means a war with Russia -- a prospect voters in Europe and the U.S. don't relish. 
So the West is choosing not to address the problem at all. Here's what Obama said yesterday:
I’ve been very clear that it would not be effective for us to engage in a military conflict with Russia on this issue, but what we can do is to continue to support Ukraine’s ability to control its own territory. And that involves a combination of the economic pressure that’s been brought to bear in sanctions, the diplomatic isolation that has been brought to bear against Russia, and, as important as anything, making sure that we’re continuing to provide the support that Ukraine needs to sustain its economy during this transition period, and to help its military with basic supplies and equipment, as well as the continuing training and exercises that have been taking place between NATO and Ukraine for quite some time.
New sanctions are already under discussion both in the U.S. and in Europe. Perhaps the U.S. might soften its stance on supplying weapons to the Kiev government. But none of that will stop the rebels' offensive, because Putin is determined to ignore the West's half-measures against him. 
Economic pressure has never stopped Russia from waging wars. It's worth remembering that all the frozen conflict zones on Russia's borders were established in the early 1990s, when Russia was in economic ruin, and that Russia fought Chechen separatists in the 1990s and early 2000s, even though its economy was much smaller than it is today. Putin will fight on in Ukraine, having convinced himself that the West is aiming to destroy Russia. Generals and field commanders on both sides will steal and get rich. Both Russia and Ukraine will be weakened.
More people will die.
To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at
To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at
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To stop Putin in Ukraine, Obama must offer more than rhetoric

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Aurel Braun is a visiting professor, Department of Government, Harvard University and professor of Political Science and International Relations, University of Toronto. His latest book is Nato-Russia Relations in the 21st Century.
Barely within a day after U.S. President Barack Obama took a victory lap in his State of the Union address regarding Russia – not only ridiculing any notion that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have demonstrated strength and strategy, but suggesting instead that thanks to American actions “Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters,” – heavily reinforced Russian proxy rebel forces in Eastern Ukraine captured the symbolically significant Donetsk airport’s main terminal and then embarked on a massive multi-directional offensive. Coincidence? Perhaps not.

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Mr. Obama’s triumphalism was not merely premature. The claim that his policies of limited sanctions were responsible for Russia’s economic difficulties was unfortunately similar to a crowing rooster claiming credit for the rise of the morning sun. Indeed, Russia’s uni-dimensional, vulnerable economy is suffering but this is primarily because of the dramatic fall in the price of oil. The latter is primarily due to world energy market forces and in smaller measure to punitive Saudi policy rather than U.S. actions. Further, and crucially, Russia’s economy – though weakened and likely to contract by perhaps 5 per cent this year – is hardly unravelling, and it is not near the stage where it will experience the kind of crisis that will induce political restraint from Mr. Putin. It would take vastly stronger measures and a far deeper economic crisis to inhibit Mr. Putin’s ability to continue to take the initiative, force him to focus on domestic problems and compel him to cut off rebels in eastern Ukraine.
To induce Mr. Putin into such political retrenchment and realism, the West would need to introduce powerful sectoral sanctions and require far more political determination on and meaningful support for Ukraine.
First, the West needs to appreciate that sanctions by their very nature are coercive and consequently constitute hard rather than soft power. The failure of sanctions to achieve the desired goals therefore involve the same kind of dangers as the failure of hard power, namely blowback or even outright counterattack.
Second, effective sanctions require leadership, sacrifice and persistence. All of these seem to be in short supply not only in the United States but also among western European allies. Earlier this month, French President François Hollande suggested that the West should stop threatening Russia with new sanctions and that in fact such sanctions should stop now if there was progress in the peace process in Ukraine. Claiming that Mr. Putin has personally reassured him that Russia does not wish to annex eastern Ukraine, Mr. Hollande approvingly repeated Moscow’s talking points that what Russia really wants is that Ukraine not become a member of NATO and that Russia should not have an army at its borders. In short, not only was Mr. Hollande apparently against strengthening sanctions and in favour of ending them but was evidently suggesting that the victim of Russian aggression, Ukraine, should have its sovereignty limited and the free choices of its population denied in order to appease Moscow.
At the same time Germany’s Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel warned against “destabilizing” Russia through too severe sanctions and contended that “the goal was never to push Russia politically and economically into chaos.” In short, Mr. Gabriel and Mr. Hollande were suggesting that whatever sanctions were imposed on Russia, colloquially these should not be “a punch in the face” but be restricted to a slap on the wrist.
Long-time observers of Europe would not be surprised that the European states are often disunited, preoccupied with internal issues and economically opportunistic. Yet even when some show a willingness to act in a principled fashion as Chancellor Angela Merkel has demonstrated in advocating stronger sanctions at certain points, the unifying glue in the West has been missing. That “glue” has traditionally been American leadership. When that leadership was bold and determined, as in the case of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, it proved to be effective. Mr. Obama’s “leadership from behind” [hlnk - M.N.] has been the obverse. His grand rhetoric could hardly contrast more with the timidity and fecklessness of his policies.
Collectively, the West retains enormous capacity. Given political will, it could impose sanctions that would make Russian economic difficulties vastly deeper to the extent that Mr. Putin, with a consequently collapsing popularity, would have little choice but to reorient his policies. At the same time, the West could do far more to support Kiev economically and politically as Ukraine, under its new reformist government, is desperately trying to reverse decades of failed economic policies and reign in rampant corruption. As well, as Ukraine’s long neglected and weak armed forces face Moscow-supported rebels and thousands of “phantom” Russian troops (the notorious “little green men”) now heavily resupplied with sophisticated Russian weapons, the West could provide the Ukrainians with desperately needed antitank weapons, command and control systems and antiaircraft missiles that would both send a message and dramatically enhance Kiev’s ability to defend its sovereignty.
Despite grand American rhetoric, Western policy to date has remained weak. Mr. Putin consequently has been able to take the initiative and the rebels, who had been losing massively in recent months, are now on multiple major offensives. Mr. Obama and the West’s fecklessness once more prove the international relations adage that weakness can be provocative.
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Putin's System Is Built on Shaky Foundations | Opinion

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The political regime in Russia is a true work of art, but one that only looks good from a single vantage point — that of its creator. From every other angle and for every other viewer, both in Russia and the rest of the world, the image cast by that regime raises a number of troubling questions.
Why would any government create conditions that make existence impossible for businesspeople, scientists, artists and everyone else in whom the country would ordinarily take pride? And why at the same time create conditions that enable scoundrels and crooks to prosper?
Why punish the best members of society and encourage the worst? Why start a war with a "brotherly people"? Why deliberately show disdain for Russia's partner states? Why create new international unions with one hand and then destroy them with the other?
Of course, all of these questions come from outsiders because only outsiders would ask them. In Russia, just about everyone is an outsider, with the exception of the small handful of people who are privy to what is happening in the president's office. It is difficult to even guess at what is holding this whole thing together.
In fact, the "glue" holding Russia's political system together consists of the powerful human instincts of fear and the desire for status and wealth. Of course, societies in many other countries also rely on those baser motivations, but only a few manage to create institutions capable of extracting from them something of benefit to the public.
Unfortunately, the Russian system is not one of them. Some countries use a policy that appeals to officials' sense of vanity in order to build good roads or a first-rate university. That same approach in Russia only prompts the political elite to build personal palaces and to line their pockets with ever greater sums from government coffers.
The desire to retain power not only permits, but requires, that privilege and property become concentrated among as few "winners" as possible. According to U.S. political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, author of the books "The Logic of Political Survival" and "The Dictator's Handbook," masters of political survival — from former Soviet leader Josef Stalin to Syrian President Bashar Assad — can remain in power for many years by relying on a manageable number of chosen associates and controlling the country's resources.
If a ruler suddenly shows generosity to the population at the expense of his closest supporters, the latter will turn against him. He needs to keep those close associates well fed, but never allow them to relax. The members of his inner circle must keep in mind that the competition for their coveted positions is enormous, and that to retain their advantages, they must demonstrate unflinching loyalty to their host. This has the effect of encouraging the worst in human nature and society and punishing the best.
Russian society has been transformed into an audience for the national leader. The Kremlin uses state-controlled television channels and other media not to campaign and organize, but rather to carry out "anti-campaigns" and to disorganize listeners. The press is no longer an instrument for collective campaigning and propaganda, but a collective disorganizer.
Leaders deluge their audience with the greatest possible number of conspiracy theories, lies, horror stories and absurdities. The ruling regime works directly with people's minds, enabling it to maintain control over the population with minimal use of force — a positive side-effect of an otherwise alarming policy.
As a consequence, it eliminates the very possibility of taking independent action or publicly taking a position based on principle. All ideas and beliefs must not derive from higher values, but serve as instruments of government control.
The ability to manipulate the worst aspects of human nature produces excellent, albeit temporary, results for rulers bent on political survival. There is a certain advantage in the fact that nobody knows when his rule will end, but the problem is that the dictator also has no clue. The safest way for a dictator to exit the scene is to willingly lose re-election or to voluntarily step down.
Another limitation is the negative consequence of the government's tight control over incomes. To maintain control over the ownership of property, the ruler must have a weak and easily manipulated legal system. But because that system is kept weak, the members of the ruler's inner circle, along with the entire business community, place their considerable assets under the protection of the legal and judicial systems of other more developed countries.
That duality — a result of so-called "legal flight" and the desire for political survival — now poses a threat to the regime because the foreign assets of President Vladimir Putin's close associates are vulnerable to sanctions. An offer for amnesty if those assets are returned to Russia will not help because the ruler needs to maintain a weak, easily controlled legal system, one that, by definition, is incapable of protecting those assets at home.
Another limitation resulting from tight control is the unquenchable greed of the ruler's close associates and the ruler's inability to gauge the exact extent of their wealth. The ruler needs a non-transparent system so that he can cunningly distribute the wealth within his inner circle. And it is even better when each does not know how much the other has received. The problem with that approach is that these individuals manipulate that secrecy to their own advantage by hiding their profits so as to win even more of the taxpayers' money.
There are also limits imposed by the more independent members of society. Creative people and activists who act on their own initiative have the potential to bring the whole system to a standstill. Those who can earn a living by their own efforts — writers, computer programmers, artists and representatives of other independent professions — are relatively free.
There are other limitations as well. The desire to retain control compels such a leader to concoct a strange blend of nationalism and religion, subjugating all values and ideology to the higher purpose of ensuring his political survival.
The Kremlin has even found a way to use the Soviet victory in World War II to this end. Of course, by unleashing a war in Ukraine, the Russian leadership has forfeited its status as the moral inheritor of the victors over Nazism, but Kremlin spin doctors have managed to misrepresent the past and present so thoroughly as to convince most Russians that this regime is still battling the Nazi threat.
This system considers ideas in any form — unless they serve the needs of the regime — as mortal enemies. This even includes nationalism and fundamentalism. Leaders know that if any idea were to "break free" from its Kremlin handlers and unite the masses under its banner, it could completely obliterate the political system as it now exists.
Apparently, 80 percent of the Russian people support this system because they are willing to pretend that they are looking at it through the Kremlin's point of view, and therefore appreciate its beauty.
However, even a cursory "view from the street" shatters that illusion. The main limitation to this system is that now it is only capable of spurring ever greater negative consequences and hastening its own demise.
Maxim Trudolyubov is an editor at Vedomosti. This comment originally appeared in Vedomosti.

Russia in crisis: Can Putin survive? - Opinion

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Putin’s Russia seems to be under dire threat. Ukrainian sanctions by the European Union and the United States coupled with the plunge of oil prices could cost the Russian economy as much as $130 billion or $140 billion this year. This will likely push the Russian economy into recession and make its debt rating “junk.”
The open contempt shown by Western leaders – “bored kid in the back of the classroom” (US President Barack Obama), “only a regional power” (Obama), “Hitlerite” (Hillary Clinton”) and ”thuggish, dishonest and reckless” (British Ambassador to the United States Peter Westmacott ) – reflect the depth of Western hatred of Putin.
Russia seems vulnerable to following the path of the color revolutions that have overthrown authoritarian rulers in the former Soviet republics of Georgia (2003 Rose Revolution), Ukraine (2004 Orange Revolution) and Kyrgyzstan (2005 Tulip Revolution) and helped dissolve the Soviet Union (1991).
Putin’s Russia has no appealing ideology, such as communism, which helped the Soviet Union to survive for 74 years. It has the profile of a Third World country, exporting primary goods and importing secondary and tertiary goods. Russia has already had four successful revolutions since 1917 – February and October (1917), Stalinist Revolution From Above (1930s) and the Fall of the Soviet Union (1991) – so many ask why not a fifth one? Having lost 50 percent of its population in 1991, Russia has a $2 trillion economy, barely 14% the size of the American economy. It has never had an agricultural revolution, consumer revolution, modern middle class or significant Silicon Valley. Russia remains a kleptocratic authoritarian society without an independent judiciary, press freedom, or transition to democracy. It also suffers from recurrent capital outflow, which reached a stunning $150b. in 2014.
Russia was defeated in World War I (1914-1917), the Russo-Polish War (1920), the Cold War (1947-1987), Afghanistan (1979-1987) and First Chechnya War (1994-1996). Even its victory in World War II (the Great Patriotic War) came at the stagvgering cost of 17 million civilians and 10 million Red Army soldiers killed.
And yet, there is little likelihood that Russia and Putin will fold. Putin remains at a stunning 80% approval rating in Russia. His quasi-annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (2008), Crimea (2014) and likely parts of Left Bank Ukraine (2015?) is very popular at home.
And Putin retains some key assets.
Russia, with one of the five permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council, has a large-scale arsenal of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, equal to that of the United States. Russia spends $70b. on the military which, despite problems, remains the No. 3 military in the world. It has a reserve fund of nearly $90b. With almost a million scientists, technicians and engineers, Russia can place well in global defense technology.
Just as Westerners often disdain Russia, many Russians disdain the West, which gave them little credit for helping win World War II, beat them in the Cold War, provided no help in the transition after 1991 and hailed a highly corrupt capitalism in the 1990s. Putin’s conservative nationalism and support for the Russian Orthodox Church is very popular in the countryside and smaller towns.
The EU, with 1% GDP growth, minimal military spending (1.6% of GNP) and major internal problems, will not likely increase Ukrainian sanctions and needs Russian natural resources. Germany, the leader of the EU, is hobbled by having committed genocide in the Soviet Union during World War II and being a major trading partner of Moscow.
The United States, distracted by internal problems, Middle East terrorism and a lame-duck president, is not willing to take tough measures against the Russians. There is little Western enthusiasm for taking strong steps to salvage a poor ($4,000 GDP/capita), populous (46 million people) Ukraine with a significant pro-Russia element.
Aided by his first-rate foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov (whom I met twice in the late 1980s), Putin often plays chess while the West plays checkers.
Taking advantage of America’s semi-withdrawal from the region, Putin has made significant progress in the Middle East.
Russia’s $4.5b. in military equipment has turned Syrian President Bashar Assad from a likely loser in 2011 to a likely winner in key areas of Syria in 2015. Egypt, hostile under presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohammed Morsi, now is friendly to Moscow, which has sold it over $2b. of weapons.
Israel, which Putin has visited twice, sells drones to Moscow and helps with commercialization of Russian technology at Skolkovo. Russia supplies Iran with 70% of its imported weapons and has built the Bushehr nuclear reactor.
Putin is also turning successfully to Asia. He has worked with Japan whose Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sat next to him at the Sochi Winter Olympics. He recently signed a massive natural gas deal with China worth hundreds of billions of dollars, while Russian oil exports to China have increased 50% in the past five years. Putin on a visit to India in December signed deals worth $100b., including sale of 12 nuclear reactors ($40b.) and increased exports of oil and natural gas ($50b.).
Putin, despite difficulties, is likely not only to survive but to continue successfully on the path of enhancing Russia’s power in the new post-Cold War era. [??? - M.N.]
The author is a professor at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. 

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