Is there an end-game for Putin?

My previous article ( ) stimulated a lot of comments both negative and positive, but the events in the past few days show that “burying your head in the sand” is not going to make the problem disappear. The Ukrainian tragedy is a direct result of a catastrophic EU diplomacy (or lack of it) and Cathy Ashton did her best but her appointment clearly showed that the EU (Germany, France and the UK) did not want a high profile statesman leading the EU foreign policy, which could interfere with their national interests. The EU and US continue in deep denial of the situation. 

Putin has adopted a <<slow, creeping escalation>> so his advisers say “no major reaction from the West about Russian troops actually fighting in Ukraine” so we can now deploy more troops and hardware and the West is too weak to even call it an “invasion”.  The ‘i’-word is critical as if the UN Security Council confirms that Russia has invaded Ukraine. Russia then, could lose it’s veto and would allow the UN to deploy peacekeepers to Ukraine or even NATO forces. The legality of this would be questioned, but it does seem that under the  UN “Uniting for Peace” Resolution that this allows the UN General Assembly to overrule a veto in order to  ‘restore international peace and security’.   The West has been terrified of doing either of these, as it could escalate into a major military confrontation.  Of course, the time for deployment of UN peacekeepers would have been immediately after the Russian invasion of Crimea.  

As Garry Kasparov tweeted ‘The Free World is always two steps behind in Ukraine. Hard sanctions in February would have worked. Military aid in April or May would have worked. Too slow.’

How weak is the West? Ukraine agreed to give up it’s huge nuclear weapons stocks in the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 in return for assurances about its territorial integrity.  Clearly, Russia has violated that, but so has the USA and UK who were counter-signatories.  What does the West’s signed commitment mean?  It’s a question being asked a lot now in the Baltic states, as Poland and Moldova.

Clearly Putin has now -more or less openly- deployed Russian troops in Ukraine and with 2,600 km  of border to defend Russia can open up new points of attack at will.  They are concentrating now on the Southern ports and focused on Mariupol and moving across to Odessa and Kherson which will also give them an important land bridge to and from Crimea. One tactic the Ukrainians have missed is to spread  a questioning  to the Russian soldiers, basically asking them “do we need this war?”.

Is there any chance Putin will back down?  He faces two main domestic problems both of which are growing significantly.  The economy is tanking and half of the Russian economy is financed by foreign capital which has completely dried up.  $157 billion of foreign debt is due to be repaid in 2014 and there is a massive capital flight (some figures reportedly by the European Central Bank  suggest $221 billion in the first quarter of 2014!) .  The second, more immediate, problem is the fast growing criticism of Russian soldiers killed and wounded in Ukraine which is encouraging more people to ask why does Russia need this war?  Russia has always been very tough on internal protests but it is something that is going to grow and might bring pressure on Putin to reach a deal.  

What are the likely outcomes today?  First, Russia continues its escalation – it may face more sanctions but it will consider that it does not have much more to lose so better to get as much territory as it can. While the sanctions have clearly stopped, all foreign investment in Russia are impacting the economy severely but they do not change Putin’s actions and conversely may even encourage him to increase his pace of escalation.  Angus Roxburgh describes the ineffectiveness of sanctions in the Guardian.  Russia is likely to foment demonstrations and unrest in Kiev and other key cities with a view to bring down the Government.   Russia, will also use the ‘gas supply’ lever as winter comes to Ukraine (and the EU).   We are witnessing this first outcome in action and so it is most likely to continue.  The current ‘ceasefire’ is ineffective and mainly designed to show Russia can co-operate while, in fact, they are just strengthening their positions and trying to get more local support. Already it is provoking differences among the EU member states, some of whom are asking that sanctions be withdrawn.  The 2nd humanitarian convoy from Russia has more real aid in it and this is being distributed by the ‘rebels’ to gain more local support.  

Secondly, Russia can mobilise a full invasion bringing in Russia’s air force which could decimate the Ukrainian ground forces. Many analysts (including BBC’s Panorama) think the shooting down of MH17 was a mistake and was done by Russian forces but what  they intended to hit is a Russian passenger plane which would give Russia the rationale for an invasion to protect its  nationals.  

Thirdly the UN Security Council orders peacekeepers into Ukraine. There is no evidence that there is the political will to do this (other than in Poland and the Baltic). But, this is a fast moving situation and, at long last, Sweden and Poland’s Foreign Ministers (Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski) have called the Russian action an “invasion” as to has Senator Robert Menendez (see below).   

Is there a political solution?  New strategic thinking (at last) from the EU (currently confidential) considers a ‘partnership’ between Russia (the Eurasia custom’s union), Ukraine and the EU which basically it would leave Ukraine independent but the West would guarantee no NATO membership and no EU membership for Ukraine but it would get visa-free travel to the EU and a watered -down free trade agreement and could also negotiate an ‘associate’ membership of the Eurasian custom’s union.  In the mix Russia would ‘get’ Crimea and some promises of referenda for more autonomy for Eastern regions.  Putin would want more but the West needs to come out of denial, understand that sanctions are not going to work in the short term and develop a political dialogue.  The problem is that the Kremlin is not ready to sit down for serious discussions (other than to play for more time) but this needs to be started now so that some moderates in Russia can start an internal dialogue.  

How to get Putin into serious negotiations and de-escalate the situation in Ukraine?  All talks up to now have proved to be completely pointless, so either the West has to provide a real incentive to engage Russia or find a more serious response to the aggression or a combination of both.  Obama consistently rules out the military option, but “non-lethal military support” for Ukraine can be increased and is, probably, already happening to some extent.  This means more equipment, much more intelligence especially from AWACS and satellite and other surveillance that exists and finally, much more controversially, the deployment of US drones in Ukraine to take out Russian armour.  Russia could hardly complain that US drones are shooting its tanks and heavy armour if Russia denies that they are in Ukraine.  Drones, of course, do not require US personnel in Ukraine. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)  who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said in Kiev on the 30th August “that U.S. and its allies should provide lethal weapons to Ukraine’s military, calling Russia’s recent incursions into the country an “invasion.”
Fundamentally, the West has to decide to confront Russia at some point and the later that point is, the tougher it will be.  A final word from Garry Kasparov “Every caution has been taken not to provoke Herr Putin, and what is the result? Annexation, terror, MH17, invasion. Appeasement has failed”.