Groundhog Day and Putin the Predator
We know Vladimir Putin's playbook for destabilizing Ukraine. Which is why only a decisive military victory against Moscow's forces will work.
Presidents Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin met in Minsk, Belarus, on Aug. 26 — a date of ominous significance. It is six years to the day that Russia recognized two Georgian regions it seized and occupied as independent states, creating the precedent of changing European borders through military force for the first time since the end of World War II.
Putin’s actions in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine today are so similar that I can’t help but think of the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character relives the same day over and over again, until he gets it right. The pattern is easy to discern: stir separatist sentiment through a relentless propaganda campaign; form, train, and arm local separatist militias; create a permanent bleeding wound of conflict; and step up direct involvement depending on the level of success of government troops pushing back against the separatists.
How could the West not have been prepared by now for a proper response? We’ve seen this game before. Putin’s play has always been to raise the stakes, hoping that the West will blink every time tension increases. Although recent sanctions announced by the United States, the European Union, and other allies seem to indicate that this time Putin’s gamble might not be uncontested (Russia escaped economic punishment in 2008), there are still contradictory and confusing signals coming from the big Western capitals that give space for Putin’s maneuvers.
During her recent visit to Kiev, meant to show Berlin’s support for Poroshenko’s government, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that "the Ukraine situation" should be solved without inflicting any damage on Moscow. Some high-ranking officials in her government were far more explicit, however, speaking to the press about the need for the federalization of Ukraine and declaring that Kiev shouldn’t rush to defeat the separatists as it could humiliate Moscow. At the same time, European leaders still refuse to use the word "invasion" — even though tanks and armored convoys have rolled across the border and more than half of the combat-ready troops on the ground in Ukraine, based on multiple credible accounts, are regular Russian soldiers. Not for nothing have Ukrainian officials openly started to speak about the "Ukrainian-Russian War."
Indeed, Putin’s preparation for the Minsk talks has been military in nature. During the last several days he has poured new forces into Ukraine, where his proxies had been on the defensive in recent months as Kiev’s soldiers advanced on the separatist strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk. These new troops revitalized the front and managed to reverse gains made by the Ukrainian army and special operations forces. In Minsk, Putin will now be in a stronger bargaining position to demand a cease-fire, upgrade the status of his local proxies to stakeholders in the conflict, and make Russia a mediator, enabling it to bring in Russian "peacekeepers." (In Georgia, we used to call them "piece-keepers," as their mission was to keep pieces of the former Soviet empire under Moscow’s control.)
Once the conflict is thus "frozen," Putin can continue to destabilize the rest of Ukraine, infiltrating separatist forces from the controlled territory, turning off energy supplies, and strangling the fragile economy. It’s the same playbook he has used in Georgia and Moldova.
Putin knows that Poroshenko is likely not in a position to yield to this pressure and accept his "peace plan" in Minsk. So the Kremlin has its own follow-up scheme on standby — blame everything on the unconstructive stance of the Ukrainians and attack them with the full extent of Russian force. Once again, this was what happened in Georgia after we rejected the unacceptable conditions put forward by Moscow.
The only way forward — even if it is complicated and costly — is to stand firm at Ukraine’s side and help pursue a decisive victory. For that, the Europeans need to stop trying to tie Poroshenko’s hands and undermining Ukrainian morale. They also need to be ready to impose additional sanctions against the Russians and provide more economic assistance to Kiev.
Vladimir Putin sees his fight as part of a wider zero-sum game against the West, and any attempt to assure him of the opposite will only be interpreted as a sign of weakness and an opening for more adventurism. We know the pattern well by now. And hesitation will not stop this predator.