Give Putin a Way Out

With Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian border, the talk of war is getting louder. But it doesn’t have to happen.


Massed on Ukraine’s border today stand 20,000 Russian troops, some apparently wearing a blue peacekeepers’ uniform with the "MC" insignia. This could be seen as a replay of April, when Russia positioned 45,000 men on the frontier, which after a tense stand-off was reduced to only 1,000 personnel by June. But today the pro-Russian separatists aren’t ascendent; they’re losing badly to the Ukrainian military. With the rebels’ backs to the wall in the almost-encircled cities of Luhansk and Donetsk, there plainly is a risk of a Russian "peacekeeping" intervention, as Moscow’s request for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the humanitarian situation in east Ukraine suggests.

How should Western policymakers deal with the risk of a Russian intervention, assuming military responses remain off the table? In short: give Vladimir Putin a way out, combined with sanctions configured to deter, not punish.

To date, this has been a conflict of coercive communication as much as fighting on the ground: Russia’s threatening troop movements apparently aimed at coercing Kiev into accepting an autonomous eastern Ukraine have been met by Western sanctions aimed at coercing Vladimir Putin to de-escalate.

Yet while Putin’s coercive measures haven’t worked in persuading the Ukrainian military to halt its successful offensive, neither are the West’s sanctions working in persuading Putin to cease Russian interference in eastern Ukraine (nor did they work previously in Crimea).

Calling on the European Union to stop pandering to domestic interests and get tough by closing the loopholes in the level 3 sanctions is just more of the same. It will not likely change the pattern of reciprocal escalation.

The pathology of this crisis tells us that anti-Russian (or more specifically, anti-Putin) sanctions — be they after the annexation of Crimea, after clear evidence of Russian support to the separatists in eastern Ukraine, or after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 — have only had the effect of boxing the Russian president into a corner, with nowhere to go but accept political humiliation. Or punch back even harder.

Putin’s not one to throw in the towel; he’s a fighter and is plainly not prepared to lose face by de-escalating in response to Western sanctions, having invested himself so personally in the issue. The additional sanctions of late July had virtually no effect — Russia continued to fire artillery into Ukraine, and essentially blamed the shoot-down of MH-17 on Kiev and the West.

If the West realistically wants Putin to de-escalate, he needs to be given a way out that does not involve overtly backing down in the face of Western sanctions. That is critical, given that the Ukraine crisis for him seems to be as much about regional security as consolidating domestic power (his poll ratings are at an all-time high).

In this light, the risk of further sanctions is that the West marginalizes better options, specifically the role of the United Nations, or perhaps other organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (a group that also includes Russia) in mediating the conflict, which could offer Putin a face-saving way out.

Why not take Russian statements of alarm at the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine at face value (or call their bluff, depending on your interpretation) and back an international monitoring force under the U.N. or OSCE to deploy to eastern Ukraine?

But if further sanctions are forthcoming, they must be configured in such a way that they have trigger points: say, if Moscow were to send in a "peacekeeping" force unauthorized by the U.N., or to directly engage Ukrainian troops in ground combat. To be a genuine deterrent, the sanctions must be clear and pegged to future actions, thus helping to block off modes of Russian behavior.

To date, however, sanctions have rather been used to try and achieve a change in Russian behavior after a proscribed event, which is far more a punishment than a deterrent. That’s satisfying if you want to see Russia punished for the downing of MH-17, but it serves little purpose if the goal is to deescalate this conflict. Sanctions demanding that Putin reverse a course of action require him to do something which he would see as humiliating; sanctions that warn of consequences only require him not to do that thing.

Further, any future sanctions need to send a message that they will have an immediate short-term impact. The current level 3 sanctions may well hit Russia hard eventually, and may already even be priced in by markets in the short term, but they nonetheless seem to be considered by Putin as a longer-term problem that can be bargained away in any future deescalation plan.

If the West is serious about stopping naked Russian aggression against a sovereign state, but nonetheless recognizes Moscow’s own interests in this conflict, it should put its money where its mouth is by reconfiguring its sanctions to be a deterrent rather than a punishment, and look to the U.N. or OSCE to seek a real international peacekeeping or monitoring force that gives Putin a face-saving way out. Otherwise Western policymakers will be left with two unsavory options, should Russia intervene further in eastern Ukraine: either effectively to accept a fait accompli, as in Crimea, or react with half measures that only further provoke a Russian president who feels he can only fight his way out of the corner he’s been boxed into.

Emile Simpson is a former British Army officer and the author of War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola