Why Putin May Stand Down

Military analysis.
April 14 2014 6:21 PM

Why Putin May Stand Down

Kiev is offering the Russian strongman what he wants, without his having to send in the tanks.

Pro-Russian protesters attend a rally in front of the seized office of the SBU state security service in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine.
Pro-Russian protesters attend a rally in front of the seized office of the SBU state security service in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, on Monday.

Photo by Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

Contrary to appearances, the crisis in Ukraine might be on the verge of resolution. The potentially crucial move came today when interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said that he would be open to changing the country’s political system from a republic, with power centered in the capital Kiev, to a federation with considerable autonomy for the regional districts.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

That has been one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s key demands. It would weaken the political leaders in Kiev, many of whom want a stronger alliance with the West, including membership in the European Union—and it would strengthen those in southern and eastern Ukraine, many of them ethnic Russians who want to preserve and tighten their ties to Moscow.

If Putin can win this demand—and the political, economic, and cultural inroads it would provide—an invasion would be not just be unnecessary, it’d be loony. War is politics by other means, and a revamping of Ukraine’s power structure would accomplish Putin’s political aims by less costly means.

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It’s worth remembering how this crisis got underway. Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, was about to form an association with the European Union. Putin offered him $15 billion in aid if he backed away. He took the bribe. Western-leaning activists took to the street. Yanukovych cracked down, prompting thousands more to join the protests. Under pressure, Yanukovych fled, the parliament appointed a new mostly pro-EU government—enticing Putin to exploit the instability, seize Crimea, amass troops on the Ukrainian border, incite (if not formally organize) separatist rebellions just across that border, and squeeze.

Putin was certain to get his way, at least in the short term. Ukraine has been an appendage of Russia for centuries, a vital adjunct in trade, a vital buffer for security, and no Russian leader would let it slip into Western hands—least of all a leader like Putin, an ex-KGB officer who retains the geopolitical paranoia of Cold War times and who dreams of restoring the Russian empire, a dream that requires holding onto Ukraine. The sanctions imposed by President Obama and other Western leaders have stung, but no sanctions—none that those leaders would care to impose—could hurt enough to pry Putin’s fingers off Ukraine.

While Russia is a shadow of the military power that it once was, it can still project brute force across the border; the regular army is fairly hopeless, but a decade of reforms have restored professional discipline to the paratroopers, special forces, and cyber-offensive units. If Putin decided to invade southern and eastern Ukraine, there’s not much anyone could do about it, if just by dint of geography. When the Soviet Union fell apart and NATO expanded eastward, picking up Poland, the Czech Republic, and a few other former members of the Warsaw Pact, there was talk of recruiting Ukraine as well, but it was set aside, in part because polls revealed not many Ukrainians wanted to join, in part because President Clinton—and, later, even President George W. Bush—realized that doing so might be a bit too provocative to Russia. (A case could be made that the resentments incurred by NATO’s expansion, during a time of utter Russian weakness, helped breed the rise of Putinism.)

With this latest crisis, though, Obama needed to do two things: show Putin that he couldn’t get away with such wanton aggression—and to deter him from grabbing still more. Sending fighter aircraft to Poland and the Baltic states, mobilizing warships to the Black Sea, ratcheting up sanctions with threats of more to come—all this sends a signal that the West won’t stand by. In fact, Putin has done more to rivet the NATO nations’ attention, and perhaps get them to boost their defense budgets, than anything in the past decade.

But Obama and the other Western leaders also know they’re not going to go to war over Ukraine. Putin knows this, too. At the same time, if he’s at all rational (and this is the worrying thing—it’s not clear that he is), Putin would calculate that escalation is not a winning strategy for him. He could invade the eastern slices of Ukraine, especially around Donetsk, but he couldn’t go much further. The move would rile the rest of Ukraine to take shelter under the EU’s (and maybe NATO’s) wing, and it would rouse the Western nations to rearm to an extent unseen in 20 years (and to a level that the Russian economy could not match).

This would not be a revival of the Cold War. The Cold War was a global contest, in which the capitalist West and the communist East vied not only in the occasional proxy war but also for ideological allies. No countries, besides a handful not worth having as allies, support Russia in this standoff, and many of the neutrals would join the opposition if Russian troops crossed into mainland Ukraine.

So Putin probably doesn’t want to invade, if he has other ways of accomplishing his goals—and Turchynov’s acceptance of a federalist Ukraine might be a big step toward that goal. Yes, it would probably mean the end—or at least a very long postponement—of many Ukrainians’ hopes for a place in the EU’s sun. For Putin would use his foothold in eastern Ukraine—the country’s industrial heartland—as a lever to keep the other half of the country from drifting out of Moscow’s orbit. And that’s a shame, not least for the Ukrainian people. But, cold as this may sound, Russia’s politico-economic domination of Ukraine—something that’s been going on for centuries, give or take a few years—is not a cause for war, or even for diplomatic ostracism.

In other words, when delegates from Russia, the EU, and Ukraine meet later this week to discuss the crisis, this acceptance of a federated formula might be the basis for a way out—not a pleasant way out, but more pleasant than a civil war that liberals in Kiev couldn’t win, and a lot more pleasant than a European war that nobody wants to fight.

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