The war in Ukraine was not formally on the agenda at the recent G20 meeting in Australia, but in one-on-one meetings, Russian president Vladimir Putin faced sharp criticism from Western leaders over Russia’s military adventures in Ukraine. Nevertheless, according to Donald Jensen, resident fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, despite this setback, Putin is still not ready to give up his challenge to the West.

 

Vladimir Putin (center) left the G20 summit early after a frosty reception from a number of Western leaders, including UK prime minister David Cameron (left) and U.S. president Barack Obama (right) who told him to get Russian troops out of Ukraine. The official reason for Putin’s departure, though, was “important business back in Russia.” Photo: Bertrand Langlois / AFP

 

Upon his arrival at the G20, Vladimir Putin was greeted by an Australian assistant secretary of defense, a lower-ranking official than those who met the U.S. and Chinese presidents. At a speech at a nearby university, Barack Obama called Russia’s aggression against Ukraine “a threat to the world.” When Putin approached Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper to shake his hand, the latter told Putin to “get out of Ukraine.” After the G20 concluded, German chancellor Angela Merkel excoriated Russia for its actions in Ukraine, for attempting to intimidate sovereign European states, and for threatening to spread the conflict more broadly across Europe. By then, however, Putin had slipped away early from Australia, insisting that he needed to attend to business at home while denying that Russian forces were active in Ukraine. 

In an interview broadcast on Germany’s ARD television channel on March 16, Putin said the West had “reacted absolutely inappropriately” in the crisis and repeated his claim that Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine are in danger of repression by an authoritarian Kiev government. His angry tone suggested that he had taken the diplomatic slights personally. Yet two days later, Putin accused the United States of trying to subjugate Russia and warned it that it would never succeed. 

Putin has long sought to divide Europe using the leverage of Russian energy, bribery, anti-Americanism (a Cold War legacy still popular in some circles), and diplomatic skill. Italy, Hungary, Cyprus, and Bulgaria have in the past tilted eastward, and European businesses have invested heavily in Russia. Those days are now apparently over. The Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine not only has led to sanctions but has cost Putin many of his friends in Europe. France has postponed the delivery of the Mistral ships it was building for Moscow. German elites, who have long overlooked the Kremlin’s corruption and authoritarianism in exchange for profits, have largely turned against Russia

While EU leaders shied away from toughening sanctions against Russia at a meeting November 17, the organization decided to impose additional sanctions on Ukrainian separatist leaders. Adding a few more names to the sanctions list may not change much on the ground, but the action displayed European solidarity in the face of the Kremlin call that the measures be withdrawn. According to political expert Stanislav Belkovsky, the West apparently has concluded that it no longer considers Putin someone it can deal with and will wait for the next Russian president to move toward a thaw in relations. 

The G20 also damaged—at least for now—Putin’s goal of enlisting the emerging, non-Western countries to rearrange the international order. Putin reportedly did not expect that the other BRICS countries, whom he has wooed so intensely in recent years, would not join him to openly oppose the West. It is notable, however, that Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff alone did sit at the table with Putin at the conference banquet. 

Putin may have been miscalculating since the beginning of the crisis. He assumed that Europe would be intimidated and that Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine would welcome his invasion, but that has not been the case so far. 

Fyodor Lukyanov, an influential foreign policy expert generally sympathetic to Putin’s calls for a new international order less centered on the West, expressed surprise that Putin left the summit early and argued that in so doing, he showed disrespect toward the other BRICS, Turkey, Indonesia, Argentina, and Mexico. By leaving prematurely, Lukyanov argued, Putin further signaled he was unconcerned with the summit’s ostensible main themes—global economic stabilization and job creation. After all, the purpose of an expanded conclave—the G20 instead of the G8—is to include non-Western countries and address their concerns. 

In an interview with the state news agency TASS on November 23, after his return to Moscow, Putin denied that Russia had been isolated over the Ukraine crisis and said Russia’s economy would not be the only one to suffer from Western sanctions and falls in oil prices and the ruble. But Putin appears to have misjudged recent Western resolve over Ukraine. His whole approach to the Ukraine crisis has been based on the assumption that the West is “liberal and therefore cowardly.” Certain that Western leaders fear war more than anything else, Putin has followed a strategy of “raising the stakes and constant bluff in order to get his way.” 

Indeed, Putin may have been miscalculating since the beginning of the crisis. He assumed that Europe would be intimidated and that Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine would welcome his invasion, but that has not been the case so far. He calculated that he could buy time by turning to China and selling Beijing Russian oil and gas, but the prospects for that initiative’s success are uncertain. Reviewing such missteps, Belkovsky speculates that Putin is now out of touch with reality. At a minimum, economist Vladimir Milov believes that Putin’s hardline inner circle—Sergey Ivanov, Yuri Ushakov, and Nikolai Patrushevmay be misleading the Russian president. 

Despite his setbacks in Brisbane, Putin is by no means ready to give up his challenge to the West. Rather than looking for an easy exit from the Ukraine conflict, he appears to be digging in for the long haul to either freeze the current status quo in place or, more likely, secure a structural lock over Kiev’s security and foreign policy in a reengineered Ukrainian state. Additionally, Putin could exploit what has happened abroad as the basis for tightening the screws at home and possibly embark on new adventures abroad. 

Before his annual state of the nation speech on December 4, there was speculation in some Moscow circles that Putin was preparing a limited liberalization program because of pressure on the regime as a result of Western sanctions. Indeed, Putin’s rhetoric in recent days has been milder than usual—even as he complained that the United States wanted to subordinate Russia, he expressed interest in cooperating with Washington as equal partners. There was also talk that government personnel changes might be in the offing. 

In his address, however, Putin made it clear that any changes would be tactical, and not part of a genuine shift toward liberalization. With the ruble falling as he spoke, Putin blamed Russia’s enemies for trying to divide up the country, while promising to implement policies that would help small and medium-size businesses. But he disappointed many investors by offering no grand plan to pull the economy out of its crisis. 

In any case, there are major domestic constraints on any serious loosening of controls—above all, the fact that the most powerful members of the elite would resist real political and economic competition. Thoroughgoing democratization would mean the highly unlikely prospect of Putin distancing himself from his close circle, which needs his support in the face of Western sanctions. The Russian president, in turn, relies on the backing of his inner circle to continue to rule. At bottom, as Stalin biographer Stephen Kotkin said in public remarks at the Brookings Institution this week, the core social basis of the regime is the regime itself.

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