Over the past three months, the Kremlin has appeared to shift its strategy from further military advances to negotiations. The reasons for this maneuvering, though, have not affected the Kremlin’s approach to the crisis, which remains situational and opportunistic.
The contact group negotiations between the Ukrainian government and Russian-supported rebels from the eastern part of the country, scheduled to take place in Minsk on December 26, 2014 were cancelled after preliminary discussions yielded little concrete progress toward troop withdrawals or the provision of aid to the region. However, representatives of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France met on January 5, ahead a four-way summit on the Ukraine crisis in Astana (Kazakhstan) scheduled for January 15.
The negotiations had been expected to address issues such as the withdrawal of troops from the front lines, a prisoner exchange, and ending Ukraine’s blockade of rebel-held areas. A ceasefire and framework for a peace deal were announced in early September, but they have only been partially observed: major offensives have ended, though shooting sporadically continues and more than 1,300 people have died since that agreement went into effect. And according to the United Nations, about 4,700 individuals have died since the fighting began last year, while more than half a million have become refugees.
Ukrainian troops have been continuing troop rotations and are being supplied with new vehicles and arms as Kiev tries to rebuild its military capabilities. On the separatist side, some Russian forces remain inside Ukraine, though the Kremlin officially denies their presence. Moscow continues to provide these forces with military equipment and other supplies.
More fundamentally, progress is hindered by a disagreement over Ukraine’s future. Russia has shown no sign of backing off its long-term goals: keeping Ukraine out of Western political, economic, and security structures; restructuring what it regards as an unjust international order; and insulating Russia at home from the contagion of the Maidan Revolution. After the Ukrainian parliament voted to work toward membership in NATO on December 24, for example, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov accused the alliance of “trying to turn Ukraine into a front line of confrontation.” Continuing its longstanding policy of interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with RIA Novosti in mid-December that the Kremlin expected real constitutional reform in Ukraine and the foundation of a rule-of-law-state that “guarantees the rights of regions and nationalities.” These are goals few would associate with the Putin regime.
Nevertheless, since the peak of the fighting last August, the Kremlin has shifted its approach to the crisis. Rather than making further military advances, it now seeks to achieve its objectives in Ukraine primarily through negotiations.
Lavrov’s comments were a rhetorical shift away from Moscow’s previous support for formal federalization or other legal autonomy for Ukraine’s Russian speakers.
Other Russian officials also have indicated that they see rebel-held areas as part of Ukraine’s future, not as separate entities (a different view than that taken regarding Ossetia and South Ossetia, Georgia’s breakaway regions). During his year-end press conference, Putin avoided any reference to “Novorossiya,” the name Russian nationalists have given to the state they seek to create in eastern Ukraine.
In addition to actively participating in negotiations over the implementation of the September Minsk agreement, Russia signed an OSCE statement in early December that criticized pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine for not participating in peace talks. Recent cadre changes in the section of the presidential administration dealing with Ukraine also suggest a significant shift in the Kremlin’s approach.
Should diplomacy fail, however, the Kremlin has signaled that it still is willing to use the political and economic levers it can bring to bear on Kiev. Although Putin has for now agreed to resume shipping coal and electricity to Ukraine, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev indicated in a detailed op-ed piece on December 15 that Russia might impose economic blockades against Ukraine in the coming months (Ukraine is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas, and its industries in the eastern part of the country are closely intertwined with those in western Russia). No Russian official, moreover, has suggested rescinding the annexation of Crimea, nor has the Kremlin even suggested that this issue is open to discussion.
The year 2015 thus will be a test of whether Putin has the willingness, political skills, and support he needs to continue his military adventure in Ukraine, or whether he will be forced to seek a rapprochement with the West that might ease Russia’s economic problems.
Indeed, despite several miscalculations and missteps, the Kremlin’s approach has been “situational” and opportunistic since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. There is no “ironclad plan” when it comes to Ukraine’s two separatist “republics,” according to one government insider. Everything is treated as “situational.” Putin responded to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s departure from Kiev last February by activating contingency plans to seize Crimea, which was then annexed by the Russian Federation after a falsified referendum. The Kremlin had to back off plans to unify Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions, stretching from Kharkiv to Odessa, when comparatively few ordinary Ukrainians rose to support anti-Maidan fighters. Russian-backed separatist forces were also difficult to control. Moscow escalated the conflict at the end of April when military resistance by the new Kiev government stiffened. It later changed course again at the end of the summer after more direct Russian military intervention helped lift Ukrainian pressure on Donetsk and Luhansk.
The shifts in the Kremlin’s approach are reflected in the government-controlled media’s coverage of the crisis. This coverage in recent months has been markedly less strident than in the past. There are fewer references, for example, to “fascists” and “Bandera,” terms the Kremlin earlier used to whip up popular hysteria against Kiev. Today’s newscasts, moreover, devote only 20 percent of their coverage to Ukraine, whereas between April and August, that figure was between 90 and 95 percent.
Three factors are behind the Kremlin’s maneuvering. First, the costs of belligerence are rising. Western sanctions (in combination with the drop in oil prices) have pushed the Russian economy into recession. Moscow cannot afford to both pay for further significant military adventures and deal with its domestic economic problems. Russia also has alienated its European partners, united Ukrainians (including those in the east), rallied NATO to defend its nervous eastern members, and caused doubts among its former Soviet neighbors about the wisdom of joining Putin’s Eurasian Union. Public opinion polls consistently show that these neighbors oppose a full-fledged Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Second, appearing to work constructively for a settlement could lead to an easing of sanctions. The Obama administration reportedly has offered to put aside the issue of Crimea’s status and soften some of its restrictive measures if Russia strictly obeys the September Minsk agreement. The appearance of reasonableness also will help convince those EU members who are ambivalent about the sanctions—especially Italy, Hungary, Austria, Cyprus, and the Czech Republic—to vote against their prolongation when they come up for renewal next summer.
Third, although no top Russian leader has dared to come out in opposition to Putin’s approach to Ukraine and his position is under no apparent threat, the Russian president must constantly maneuver to maintain the balance of forces within the leadership. No oligarch clan or influential Kremlin courtier has called for returning Crimea to Ukraine, but key members of the elite have suffered major financial losses as a result of the sanctions and almost certainly oppose further military action. Hardline elements, meanwhile, continue to support a tougher line. Putin must also manage elite tensions over how to handle the economic crisis.
The year 2015 thus will be a test of whether Putin has the willingness, political skills, and support he needs to continue his military adventure in Ukraine, or whether he will be forced to seek a rapprochement with the West that might ease Russia’s economic problems. Some Western experts, despite their wariness of Putin’s erratic behavior, believe that the outline of a permanent deal is already on the table. Although the economic situation will inevitably force Putin to spend more time on domestic affairs, he is unlikely to abandon the separatists in eastern Ukraine. Doing so would seriously undermine his political position. He might agree to measures that would freeze the conflict at least for the winter, allowing aid into the region and halting the fighting. But such a scenario would likely mark a shift to a different approach that aims to subjugate Ukraine by other means. Lavrov said in an RIA Novosti interview last month that a solution is a “long way away.”
Alternatively, Putin could lash out again and try to solve Russia’s problems with a bold stroke that would again mobilize the population. Levada Center sociologist Denis Volkov has recently pointed out that on the eve of the seizure of Crimea, the regime had “exhausted all ‘peaceful’ methods of consolidating the public.” Moreover, he notes, three of the four cases when Putin’s approval rating has been highest (in 1999, when the terrorist threat was heightened and war had broken out with Chechnya; in 2008, during the Georgian war; and in 2014, in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea) have been associated with the mobilization of the population against a common enemy.
In his televised New Year’s address on December 31, Putin praised Crimea’s “return home.” “Love for one’s motherland is one of the most powerful and uplifting feelings,” he told the nation. So far, most Russians seem to agree.