Putin’s Next Move

The Russian president isn't checkmated quite yet. But the downing of MH17 has left him with few good options.

Photo by ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images

MOSCOW — When the Kremlin announced that Vladimir Putin would hold a special session of his Security Council on July 22 to discuss the "safeguarding of sovereignty and territorial integrity," observers around the world wondered what ace the cagey Russian president might have up his sleeve this time.

Since Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was fell from the skies over eastern Ukraine on July 17, Putin has faced increasingly angry calls to end his support for the rebels who are suspected of shooting down the plane. Would he take this opportunity to close the border with Ukraine and cut off the uprising from Russian volunteers and weapons? Or would he react defiantly, perhaps by starting a military operation in response to Ukrainian troops allegedly shelling Russian territory in recent weeks?

Putin has done neither. For the moment, at least, the Russian president appears to be stalling, moving neither toward reconciliation nor toward a complete break with the West. He promised to put pressure on the rebels to ensure that the investigation of the crash site moves ahead, a significant development considering that throughout the five-month-long Ukraine crisis he has not agreed to compel the rebels to do anything at Western leaders’ request. But at the same time, Putin also defaulted to the role in which he has been the most comfortable since the crisis in Ukraine began, lashing out at the West for its sanctions and pinning the blame on the government in Kiev.

The Malaysia Airlines disaster seems to have put Putin in a zugzwang, the German chess term beloved by Russian political scientists that signifies a situation in which any move will weaken a player’s position. On the one hand, new sanctions could take a serious toll on Russia’s economy. Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a top advisor to Putin, recently warned that further sanctions could lead to cuts in ordinary Russians’ salaries by up to 20 percent. Additional sanctions from the European Union are likely this week because Putin has failed to offer last-minute concessions and has reportedly decided to continue arming the rebels in eastern Ukraine. But on the other hand, Putin cannot abandon the conflict in eastern Ukraine after investing so much political capital, both domestic and international, into the conflict with Kiev. He is unlikely to allow the rebels to be defeated.

"Putin was, throughout the previous months, able to execute clever foreign-policy maneuvers so as not to compromise on his policy on Ukraine but yet avoid deeper and broader sanctions, by playing on differences between the United States and Europe and even between different European countries," says independent political analyst Masha Lipman. "But it seems his space for maneuver has shrunk after the Malaysia Airlines tragedy."

For now, the president may just be biding his time. Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, an independent think tank, says Putin will wait to see whether the investigation turns up direct evidence of who is to blame for the plane’s downing. Only then will he have to formulate a reaction.

But stalling will only work for so long. U.S. officials have repeatedly called on Putin to stop supporting the rebels in eastern Ukraine. But if the rebels suffered a military defeat at the hands of Kiev, which would likely occur if they were cut off from Russian supplies, Putin would face serious challenges at home.

Shrill Russian media coverage of the Ukraine crisis, as well as Putin’s own promises to protect Russian-language speakers across the former Soviet Union, have placed the public solidly behind the rebels. A June poll found that 40 percent of Russians supported direct military intervention in eastern Ukraine, and 64 percent thought Moscow should support the rebels with weapons and military advisors.

Backing down from the Ukraine standoff by closing the border, summoning back Russian leaders and volunteers, and leaving the rebels to their fate in the hands of the "fascists" in Kiev would surely cut into Putin’s approval rating, which according to Gallup has just tied the 83 percent he achieved after Russia’s military intervention in Georgia in 2008. This widespread support cements the "pillar of Russian stability" — Putin’s position as the arbiter of Kremlin disputes — and any decrease in popularity or disappointment of expectations could open fractures within the political elite, Lipman says.

Further pressure on Putin comes from the far-right pundits who have been promoting a "Russian Spring" in which Russian-speaking territories scattered across the former Soviet Union will be reconquered. Ideologues such as Alexander Dugin, a philosophy professor who has called on Russia to seize Ukraine and challenge American hegemony in Europe, regularly appear on prime-time television and serve as advisors to members of parliament.

"We shouldn’t depend on Putin’s vacillation," Dugin wrote on his Facebook page the day after Putin’s Security Council speech. "He vacillates, but the Russian people do not. He drags out the decision, but the Russian people have already made it. Novorossiya will exist. The Russian World will exist." (Novorossiya is a term pan-Slavic nationalists use for the swath of southern and eastern Ukraine they consider to be Russian by history and culture.)

But while Putin puts forward a strong face for domestic consumption, the reality on the ground has been different. The Kremlin did not deploy ground troops to eastern Ukraine as the rebels requested, and the pro-Russian militias remain poorly armed compared with the unmarked Russian units that took over Crimea in March. This is not an accident, says Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin insider turned liberal pundit: Putin has even been conducting a policy of "careful de-escalation" in eastern Ukraine for the past two to three weeks, removing Russian fighters — and therefore Kremlin culpability — from the rebellion. But to compensate, he had to step up weapons shipments to the rebels, which led to the Malaysian Airlines disaster.

"He was the first to distance himself from the rebels, and the fact he said he is ready to put pressure on them is really a gesture," Pavlovsky says. "We don’t know whether it will be fulfilled, but he’s showing he wants a diplomatic solution to the conflict." Now Ukraine and the West must make concessions of their own to show they want to negotiate and allow Putin to compromise without losing face, Pavlovsky argues.

But those close to the Kremlin, such as Sergei Markov, the deputy head of Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, don’t see Putin as compromising right now or in the future. Putin will continue his current strategy of helping the rebels, and not only out of fear for his approval rating, Markov says.

"Putin is not afraid to make harsh decisions," Markov said. "More important for him than his rating is that he really thinks that the U.S. goal [in the Ukraine crisis] is to make Ukraine anti-Russian and start a war between Ukraine and Russia, engineer a coup, and bring to power its puppets, who will destroy Russia."

That may sound outlandish, but Putin spent much of his July 22 speech warning against fifth columnists and coup attempts. Countries opposing the West face externally incited "color revolutions" to overthrow their governments, Putin said in his 13-minute speech to his Security Council. He added that intelligence services, information technologies, and nongovernmental organizations will be used to "stir up the sociopolitical situation" and "hit weak spots" in Russia. He pledged to strengthen the country’s defenses, especially in recently annexed Crimea, and to retaliate against new NATO exercises near Russia’s borders and U.S. efforts at missile defense.

Despite the defiant tone, Putin is clearly at a crossroads. He will have to reckon with the promises to protect Russian-language speakers that he made to justify Crimea’s annexation and the nationalist fervor they evoked, says Lukyanov. "He needs to make a choice between the idea of a national Russian Spring, protecting our countrymen, reuniting the Russian world that’s been fragmented, and Russia’s geopolitical strategic interests," he says. No matter which way he moves, Putin can only lose.

Alec Luhn is a Moscow-based journalist who has written for the Guardian, Politico, Slate, The Nation, the Independent, Vice News, and other publications. Twitter: @asluhn

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