The Kremlin is winning

Ukraine is a victim of both the Russian System’s struggle for survival and the West’s inability to protect the international legal space. For the West, ending this confrontation may prove to be even more agonizing than ending the Cold War, because:

• the West is refusing to recognize that this is not a regional crisis, but a clash of opposing systems;
• the West has lost the ability to contain a civilizational adversary;
• the Kremlin has created self-protection mechanisms within Western societies;
• the liberal democracies don’t see any need to fight for norms in their foreign policies;
• they believe the Russian ruling elite is less risk-averse than the aged and decrepit Soviet leadership, but they’re still not sure how risk-averse;
• the system of global governance, which was based on the outcome of World War II, no longer fits today’s world;
• Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has blossomed into a crisis of Ukrainian statehood;

Francois Hollande’s and Angela Merkel’s urgent mission to broker a deal in east Ukraine points to Western fears (quite justified) that the war in Ukraine will dismantle European and global stability, as well as bringing about the collapse of the international governance system (already in an advanced state of paralysis). However these peace overtures end, we should focus on the set of beliefs that contributed to the emergence of this crisis, complicate its resolution, and distort the real picture of the challenges facing the world. Let’s examine some of the currently popular myths about the standoff between Russia and the West in Ukraine.

1. Is it Putin or the System?

Many believe that Putin and his recklessness are to blame for everything. The Russian President probably enjoys reading essays that purport to analyze his psyche and his demonic traits. It’s certainly true that Putin flipped over the global chessboard without fully appreciating or anticipating the consequences. But how much control does he really have over the Kremlin and Russian developments more broadly? Guillermo O’Donnell coined the term “impotent omnipotence” to describe personalized regimes. I think the term applies to the rule of Russia as well. Despite his vast powers, the Russian leader is increasingly dependent on his team’s loyalty and his approval ratings. Both of these factors are treacherous. Putin is already having trouble maintaining stability in Russia. The war in Ukraine has become a trap that he has no idea how to extract himself from. If Putin is forced to turn Russia into a fortress in order to consolidate the people around the Kremlin, what does this say about his power and his freedom of action?

Putin’s diminished administrative capabilities will prompt him to take extreme steps to preserve his power. But he will no longer be able to bottle the genies that escaped as a result of his actions. If we persist in believing that Putin is the key problem, we will neglect the logic of the Russian System of which he is the mere personification. Regime change will become the System’s most likely response to crisis. Many Putinologists would welcome this outcome because they fail to realize what lies ahead. The truth is that any Putin successor will continue on the course of suicidal statecraft, as long as the decaying personalized power system remains in place. There is, however, a dramatic dilemma: the longer Putin stays in the Kremlin, the deeper the abyss becomes into which he is pushing Russia.

2. Humiliation as a Survival Strategy

Many Russia hands explain current events as the result of the humiliation that Russia long suffered at the hands of the West. They believe that Russia is currently acting out its Weimar syndrome, and that the West is still foolishly refusing to grant Russia a proper place on the world stage. This “humiliation theory”, if we were to subscribe to it, would suggest a number of conclusions that are not immediately obvious even to many of its proponents.

First, it implies that the Russian people carry a special gene that precludes them from living in a rule of law state. This is, of course, a racist way of looking at Russians. Let me remind you that the Russian elite in fact came forward with this hypocritical dichotomy: it talks of humiliation on one hand and Western decay on the other. But how can a feeble and decaying power humiliate anyone? And why do Western observers readily repeat this Kremlin mantra?

Second, Western recognition of the idea that Russia needs spheres of influence to compensate for its humiliations runs counter not only to international legal norms but is also dismissive of the people whose countries are to become a soothing balm for the Kremlin’s wounded ego. There is a bitter irony that no one who wants to keep the war under control, including the Kremlin, desires further military escalation that would raise the price of the conflict. However, those who urge the West not to provide military aid to Ukraine, lest they provoke further Russian aggression, are not only denying Ukrainians their right to self-defense (since we are taking about defensive military aid here); they are also acquiescing to (and in this way provoking) aggression from one state against its neighbor. It’s hard to see how this makes Ukraine anything but a second-class nation that should be content with its role: that of a bargaining chip in a game played by its betters. “We’ll give you Ukraine, and you give us a hand on Iran.”

Third, if the mythology of humiliation has become the rallying cry for the Russian elite, and indeed its most important reason for retaining power, then how can the West possibly alleviate that humiliation? So far, every Western attempt to satisfy the Kremlin’s demands has only prompted it to make new ones.

3. How to Turn Weakness into Strength

Many say Russia is waging the war in Ukraine to acquire more territory. But really, the Kremlin doesn’t need new territory—that was the old tactic the Russian Empire used to preserve itself. The Kremlin now has a modified and updated version of this tactic: it uses threats of takeovers and alternative forms of war (customs, trade, information/cyber) as instruments of intimidation and blackmail. The Kremlin doesn’t actually need Donbas; it would just become another burden on the beleaguered Russian budget. The two pro-Russian separatist offensives in August 2014 and January 2015 were supposed to force Kiev (and the West as well) to accept Moscow’s conditions not only for a peace in Ukraine but also for the re-organization of the post-Soviet space. Moscow, as Putin himself admits, would be most satisfied with the scenario under which the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics rejoin Ukraine as independent subjects accountable to Moscow. First, this would absolve Russia of responsibility for a region in the midst of a humanitarian disaster. Second, this would undermine the Ukrainian state from within.

In brief, for the Kremlin, the turn to expansionism is more of a pressure release valve and a way to compensate for its weaknesses in other areas (including the economy), rather than an actual method of territorial acquisition. Thus the Western pragmatists preferred course of accommodation won’t satisfy the Kremlin’s appetites but will instead make them grow. “If they retreat, we will advance”—that’s the logic of the system.

4. The Russian Elite as Rational Actors

Quite a few Western observers support making concessions to Moscow, the hope being that these concessions will bring it back to the negotiating table, allowing the West to lift the sanctions, after which everyone will happily return to business as usual. They couldn’t be more wrong! For the West, restraint, compromise, and keeping promises are all attributes one can expect to find in a rational actor; the Russian political elite, however, interpret these attributes as signs of weakness. For them, rational behavior includes unpredictability, tolerance for the use of force, and a callous disregard for human lives in the service of their objective. This is exactly the reason why the Kremlin cannot afford to cave in the face of sanctions, even if doing so risks economic collapse. The absence of external restraints (along with the lack of internal ones, such as independent institutions and strong public opinion) will drive the Kremlin toward even riskier experiments in self-affirmation.

The Western pundits are right about one thing: the Kremlin is afraid that any concession on the Russian part would trigger a Western offensive. But so far, there have only been Western concessions, which have triggered the Kremlin to push further. And one can’t help but admire the skill of the Russian political class in playing mind games: it has persuaded the West that humiliating Russia would have dire consequences, and that back-tracking is not an option. However, those who think that Western resolve would only harden the Kremlin’s position could be wrong. Perhaps, at the outset, the Kremlin would indeed try to test the West’s limits. But the Soviet-era experience shows us that the Russian personalized regime as a rule respects force and will abide by enforceable agreements. On the contrary, the absence of external restraints encourages recklessness, which endangers the very existence of a system that has no mechanisms for self-correction or for assessing risk. As the West has showed more and more signs of acquiescence, the Kremlin has become more and more of a loose cannon.

We will soon see, however, that Russians have exhausted their tolerance for human losses. They will only support a bloodless and cost-free mobilization. People supported Crimea because it bought them national self-affirmation on the cheap, but neither the majority of the elite nor the majority of the people will support a protracted war with Ukraine, let alone the West, because they are not ready to pay for it.

Here is one more example of the differences between the thinking patterns in Russia and the West. The West considers tensions and crises in neighboring countries as a threat to the stability of liberal democracies. The Kremlin, for its part, is looking forward to the collapse of the Ukrainian economy and is doing all it can to bring it about, because that would give it more room for tactical maneuvering.

5. Glory to Geopolitics!

Many experts in Russia and the West alike assert that Ukraine has become an arena for a geopolitical clash between Russia and the West. This doesn’t play as well today in Germany, where geopolitics was once used to justify Hitler’s revanchism and prove the inevitability of a clash between “geographic spaces” and the domination of great powers. In the current situation, geopolitics is used to prove the inevitability of confrontation between Russia and the West and to blame the West for it. So if you come across geopolitical terms in discussions of current events, you should know what they really mean.

6. War or Peace?

Blurring the borders between war and peace is an ideal approach for ensuring the survival of the Russian System. Moscow has been able to: support the separatists, directly participate in combat, and play the role of a mediator and arbiter in peace talks—all at the same time!

Both the Ukrainians and the West have been forced to reconcile themselves with these blurred borders and roles so as not to irritate Moscow and provoke even more aggression. Failing to do so would compel Ukraine to face facts and declare a state of war. But Kiev is not prepared to do this: its military would not withstand a direct clash with the full force of the Russian army. The Ukrainians also fear that declaring a state of war with Russia would hinder its receipt of Western aid. The West, for its part, is even more reluctant than Ukraine to label Russia’s behavior as war, since doing so would cast everything back in time to the bipolar world and the nuclear standoff. The West is not ready to do this now.

But preserving the hybrid nature and blurred lines of this war disorients the world, undermines moral principles, and demoralizes Western and global institutions, forcing them into playing the Kremlin’s “Let’s Pretend!” game. It also creates the possibility that the same process will be played out elsewhere, since the global system has shown that it is not prepared to react to this geopolitical ambiguity.

The Kremlin’s participation in the February 2015 efforts to bring peace points to its fears that the blurred lines between war and peace might give way to a genuine military conflict with the West. But the history of the September 2014 Minsk agreements should show us that Moscow can use pauses in the fighting to its advantage in order to force Ukraine to make peace on Russia’s own terms.

7. Western Peaceniks

The Soviet Union dredged up a whole host of peace-loving individuals, often referred to as “peaceniks”, to assist in its struggle against the West and to mercilessly expose the pitfalls of capitalism and its militarism. Today one could see a new generation of Western peaceniks, who scare us with visions of an impending Armageddon and a new Cold War—that is, unless the West compromises with the Kremlin. Now, this is not to say that the new crop of peaceniks is connected to the Kremlin; indeed they apparently genuinely believe in what they say! They genuinely believe that the West should make a deal with Putin immediately, accept Russia’s right to spheres of influence, halt the West’s march toward Russia’s border, and join Russia in the struggle for peace. This, at any rate, is what we hear from the sixty long-time German proponents of Östpolitik who signed a letter in support of making a deal with the Kremlin: “Show greater understanding for Russian fears” (“Another war in Europe? Not in our name”). Many American analysts believe in this as well. They feel the need to tell both Russia’s neighbors and even the Russians themselves: “Don’t think of jumping on the Western bandwagon!”

Now, we shouldn’t dismiss the claim that the current standoff could indeed morph into a harsh confrontation. But let me ask the peaceniks, “You defended the idea of the “reset” long after its sell-by date; why weren’t you warning us of the impending Armageddon then? Can’t you see that the Kremlin interpreted the drumbeat of Western compromise during the reset as a sign of impotence? Can you guarantee that a new deal would not end in a similar fiasco?

In any event, the Western refrain that there is no military solution to the Ukraine crisis has certainly done nothing to slow things down over the past year. To the contrary, so far Moscow has managed to impose its version of peace through its own military solution!

8. How the Western Pragmatists Disorient Both the West and Moscow

Quite a few Western observers support the Kremlin’s laundry list of demands for Ukraine: federalization, non-aligned status, and negotiations with the separatists as sovereign political subjects, which would mean returning to the Yalta world order. Recently, these voices have called for dialogue between the EU and the Eurasian Union, one that would allow Ukraine and other neighboring states to co-exist in two spheres of influence (also supported by Moscow). Over time this would of course be reduced to one sphere of influence—and we all know which sphere this means. Some Western experts have also begun to work out a return to limited sovereignty in one form or another. But do these people really think Russia would honor its agreements? Or that a return to the Yalta system will bring peace to Ukraine? What naivety!

The Western pragmatists are doing a disservice not just to the West but to Moscow as well. First, they are sowing confusion in the West about what is really happening in Russia. They claim that most Russians support Putin and are unlikely to abandon him. In truth, the situation in Russia is getting more complicated—something that isn’t captured in Putin’s approval ratings. (And remember, when the Soviet Communist Party fell, it had 99 percent approval; there’s no reason to think Putin’s sky-high numbers are any more meaningful in the present context.)

The pragmatists are also confusing the Kremlin, by convincing them that the West will stomach just about anything that it dishes out. Indeed this false confidence has guided the Kremlin in its suicidal actions. I think the West’s sanctions surprised Putin, who had put too much stock in the arguments made by the Western accommodators. In this sense, the pragmatists share some of the blame for the Ukraine crisis.

9. Ukraine as the Means

The Merkel-Hollande quest for peace and the negotiations with Moscow have confirmed the Kremlin’s belief that it can exert pressure on the West by raising the stakes, by pretending, by bluffing, and by eking out tactical advantages even as it heads inexorably toward strategic defeat. During the past few weeks we have borne witness to the Kremlin’s efforts to impose peace on its own terms by intentionally escalating tensions in eastern Ukraine, apparently hoping that not only Kiev but also the West would lose its nerve and back down as it has so often done in the past. On the heels of last month’s separatist offensive in Donbas, which threatened to encircle and destroy the Ukrainian troops at Debaltsevo, Putin followed up with a peace proposal directed first Poroshenko and then to Merkel and Hollande. The proposals looked like an irresistible ultimatum; the events on the ground made it clear that rejection would mean Russia would forge ahead with “peace” in the manner and time of its own choosing.

As the Western adherents of accommodation with the Kremlin begged their nation’s leaders to “understand” the Kremlin and make a “new deal” with it on Moscow’s terms to avert “a New Cold War” , the Kremlin was pushing forward. One could thus argue that it wasn’t just Putin’s mood but the accommodators dire warnings that helped create the impression that the West was ready to make a trade. The Kremlin’s strategists should probably even thank the “peaceniki” who argued things like: “the Russian leaders are unlikely to give ground, even if it means absorbing huge costs”, or that Western military aid could “distract [Ukraine] from the vital task of reconstruction.”

Even as Merkel and Hollande were still on their peace mission, the Kremlin continued to complain about the West’s (and primarily America’s) intent to encircle Russia. “Russia is not going to step back” was the refrain sounded by Putin and Lavrov during the peace negotiations. As Putin told the Congress of the Russian Trade Unions, Russia refuses to live “in a state of semi-occupation.” Here’s Lavrov: “Our Western colleagues [have set on a course of] preserving their domination in world affairs by all possible means, on seizing the geopolitical space in Europe. . . . At each stage of the crisis’s development, our American colleagues, and under their influence, also the European Union, have been taking steps leading to escalation.”

Peaceful statements, aren’t they? The Kremlin has certainly been trying to test Merkel-Hollande-Obama’s readiness for “diplomatic solutions.” It is not only continuing to repeat its view on the origins of the Ukraine crisis (that it was a Western-supported coup); it is also continuing to put forward its proposal for overcoming the crisis: rewriting Ukraine’s constitution to take into account, as Putin puts it, the “positive values and genuine interests of Ukraine.” The latter means that Moscow will explain Ukrainians what their “genuine interests” are. In addition, the Kremlin insists that Ukraine negotiate directly with the separatists and has offered security guarantees to Ukraine. It’s hard to tell whether we ought to take this as confirmation of the Kremlin’s disastrous sense of irony, or its confidence that the West will be forced to swallow this deal whole.

In short, the Kremlin has confirmed that it will continue to seek not only to limit Ukraine’s sovereignty but also to influence its form of government and statehood. Moreover, as Putin admitted to Al Ahram, the “Ukraine crisis” is not really about Ukraine at all: “It has emerged in response to the attempts of the USA and its Western allies who considered themselves ‘winners’ of the Cold War to impose their will everywhere.”

In Munich, Lavrov acknowledged that Ukraine is the instrument that will force the West to “negotiate a new security system on the basis of re-confirming the Helsinki principles.” In the Kremlin’s view this means readjusting the world order in such a way as to give Russia a more dignified role in the world. The problem is that the Kremlin will never find any Western concession regarding this order satisfactory, because the basis of its survival is the reproduction of the Weimar Syndrome, which depends on a constant demand for “deliverables” (the delivery of which must of course always be in some way unsatisfactory—in order to maintain the “besieged fortress”). Ukraine, unfortunately, has become a way for the Kremlin to sustain this process and thus reproduce itself.

10. Peace, or Imitation Peace?

The dramatic marathon summit of the “Normandy Four” (Merkel, Hollande, Putin, and Poroshenko) in Minsk, which was supposed to broker a ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine, ended in the failure to reach a solution that will guarantee a durable ceasefire and a true path to peace. The documents the four leaders produced represent a tradeoff: Ukraine accepts the Kremlin’s idea for a political framework in exchange for the Kremlin’s promise to deescalate. Lavrov’s comments on the negotiations in the middle of the previous night were “Super!”, while Poroshenko, looking gloomy, said “Not so good”—which tells us all we need to know about the two sides’ differing understandings of success and failure in the talks.

The results of these Minsk-2 talks are essentially an attempt to revive the September Minsk-1 agreement. That agreement was dead the moment it was born because the sides couldn’t agree on the political framework, and because there were no strong enforcement mechanisms. Minsk-2, with all defects of its predecessor, reflects broad political concessions. The European tandem has accepted the Kremlin’s formula: to maintain Ukrainian territorial integrity, but with autonomy for the separatist “republics”, which will gain broad rights, including the right to keep their militias and to maintain a relationship with Russia. The Ukrainian constitution will have to be changed in order to secure the above-mentioned “decentralization agreed with representatives of the enclaves.”

The Kremlin, in short, won: it forced Ukraine to “take back” the separatist “republics” and bear responsibility for their restoration, thus giving the Kremlin an instrument for undermining Ukrainian statehood from within. In order to sweeten this pill for Kiev, the European tandem promised “support for restoring the banking system in the areas of conflict, possibly through building an intentional mechanism to allow payments.” (How very thoughtful!) Moscow will even take part in the economic negotiations between the EU-Ukraine in order to make sure that its “concerns” are satisfied. To this, all one can say is “Bravo, Putin!” He has achieved more than anyone could have imagined! If Kiev follows this agreement, we will have a weird, barely sustainable state whose stability will depend on the mood of its neighbor. This neighbor, in fact, will control parts of the Ukrainian state itself and will have ample possibilities to cut its blood vessels from the inside out.

The negotiators, however, have failed to secure the two the most important elements of a ceasefire that could have guaranteed the end of violence in the Ukrainian east: withdrawal of the “foreign troops” and heavy weapons, and control over the Russia-Ukraine border. Withdrawal will be implemented under OSCE control, which has already proved to be feckless. Furthermore, the border will be controlled “in accordance with agreements with the representatives of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics” The latter means that the Ukrainian border with Russia remains open. A state can’t be considered viable if it has open (unsecured) boarder with a neighboring state, especially in the context of a military conflict.

True, the participants of the negotiations have interpreted them in a different way: Poroshenko argues that there will be no “federalization” or “ autonomy” for the separatists; the latter believe that nothing will be decided without their consent. Otherwise, War! This is hardly a “consensus” that will make the truce work. Especially, when the mechanism for enforcing it is unconvincing: the same OSCE that failed to guarantee Minsk-1 and the promise to build a “controlling Normandy format.” We already know what the Normandy format produces!

Thus, disaster again—an eminently predictable consequence of the format and of the illusions of accommodation. The European tandem desperately tried to find at least a temporary solution, a “middle way” acceptable to both the Kremlin and Kiev. But how can you reconcile irreconcilable principles? In such a situation, the “middle way” looks like acquiescence to the stronger party.

Let’s hope that the Western leaders will adequately assess the situation and its repercussions. In fact, these negotiations were not about the ceasefire terms only; they were about acceptance or rejection of the right of strong powers to dictate rules and enforce their own understanding of what constitutes a “dignified” role for themselves. So far, the West has failed to persuade the Kremlin stop looking for a balm for its Weimar syndrome. In fact, the Minsk talks may persuade it to push the West even harder.

The problem with the West’s approach is that it is trying to pursue a peace agenda using postmodern forms—economic enforcement and the threat of military aid for Ukraine—that the key actor in this war does not seem to take seriously. This actor still believes that the price of backing down would be higher than the price it must currently pay both at home and internationally.

The Minsk-2 agreement will show us whether the Kremlin is ready to reject the war tactic as something that is ultimately disastrous for its survival. We won’t have to wait long for an answer. In order for the Kremlin to deescalate, three conditions have to obtain: the West will have to acquire some form of powerful leverage that will give Moscow an incentive to back down; the Kremlin will have to believe that the war will undermine its domestic potential; and Ukraine will have to demonstrate that it is committed to building a new rule of law state that leaves no opportunities for meddling by neighbors (weakness invites interference). But if the West is ready to support a “middle way” that is acceptable to the Kremlin, why should it change its tactics?

In any case, there is zero chance of a miracle. Even if Moscow decides to deescalate militarily, it will try to contain the West by other means—either in Ukraine or elsewhere. There are plenty of such means at the Kremlin’s disposal, including the economic garrote, cooptation of Ukraine’s oligarchs, buying off the deputies of the Rada and the government, driving a deeper wedge between the factions of the Ukrainian ruling group, and even just sitting back and waiting for Ukraine’s economy to tank on its own. A “peaceful” subjugation could be even more treacherous for Ukraine, and the current truce creates the possibility that Moscow could shift to using any of a number of non-military levers.

Don’t expect the Kremlin to turn around suddenly and redeem itself of its own accord. While the Kremlin is indeed sprinting headlong toward ultimate strategic defeat, some in Russia and beyond are still willing to finish the race. If anyone in the West thinks that now is the time to relax and forget about Ukraine for a while, they should think again.

It’s high time that the West understood how far the Russian System is willing to go to survive. And it’s high time it roused itself from its postmodern dreams of accommodation and compromise. Otherwise, the “mythologists” will win the day once again, and bring us closer to the catastrophe they allegedly are trying to avert.

This article was originally published by
The American Interest