Elizabeth Pond Blog

The Bear In Winter

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been happy to ignore the consequences of his aggression in Ukraine so far, but there are signs that his endurance has reached a breaking point – particularly as Russia’s economy begins to sag under international pressure.

There is for the first time a glimmer of light at the end of the Ukrainian tunnel. Signs have begun to appear indicating that this year’s capital flight from Russia (totaling $130 billion), the ruble’s 38 percent plummet in value, and the drop in the price of the country’s all-important oil exports to under $70 per barrel may finally be convincing Vladimir Putin to take seriously the West’s financial sanctions, which he previously scorned as pinpricks.

Here are four clues that suggest that the Russian president may at last be ready to tone down his belligerence and tiptoe toward negotiations to restore stability to Europe.

Clue #1. This week Russia took a conciliatory step in agreeing jointly with Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on a statement criticizing pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine for refusing to join comprehensive peace talks. “Surprisingly Russia took Ukrainian side in this regard,” the Kyiv Post reported late Wednesday night. However, this gesture took place against a backdrop of intensified Russian air and sea probes of NATO and Swedish defenses in and around the Baltic Sea. The Kyiv Post also reported that Russian soldiers have now drawn back to Crimea from the Ukrainian side of the isthmus that separates Ukraine from the peninsula. According to German sources, some 40,000 Russian troops are now stationed on the peninsula.

Clue #2. Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, reads Putin’s “Urbi et Orbi” speech last week as a backpedalling from Moscow’s claims on the “Russian world”, and believes it indicates a very new focus on desperately needed domestic economic development.

Trenin, a shrewd insider-cum-outsider who served for 20 years in the Soviet and Russian military and then another 20 years in Russian and American think tanks, flags the conspicuous omission of familiar code words in Putin’s annual state-of-the-union address. The words “Russian world” (justifying Moscow’s right to protect Russians and even just Russian speakers militarily wherever they may be), “New Russia” (justifying Moscow’s claims on the whole eastern half of Ukraine dating back to Catherine the Great), and even “Donbas” (covering the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine, which pro-Russian rebels largely control) are absent.

Moreover, Trenin floats the idea that the speech’s highlighting of Khersones as “a Temple Mount-like sacred place for Russians” might be substituting Crimea for the more traditional Kiev as the revered birthplace of Russia, thus signaling a subtle softening of Putin’s boast in August that Russian troops could take over Kiev in two weeks if they wished. This interpretation differs sharply from some Western media speculation that his words threatened instead a religious crusade for the Russian Orthodox faith.

Trenin also points to Putin’s emphasis on rescuing the Russian economy – a priority that the president has in the past year always subordinated to ultranationalism, strength of political will, and the unquestioned capacity of Russians for suffering. “Putin has decided ‘not to waste a good crisis,’ and wants to use the challenge of Western sanctions and the low oil price as leverage for the country’s economic revival,” Trenin writes.

His “most serious and glaring weakness in his 15 years in power has been his failure to come up with a realistic strategy of economic development,” Trenin continues. But now Putin is showing that he urgently needs to reform the economy – and these initiatives won’t succeed unless they are “backed up by genuine political will to make the legal system produce justice for all, and by a sustained effort to severely reduce institutionalized corruption. Government transparency and accountability is another indispensable condition.”

Clue #3. In closely-held high-level talks, Moscow and Kiev are struggling to turn the fragile September 5 truce in eastern Ukraine into a durable de-escalation of violence.

Here Trenin offers the first leaks that have come out of the bilateral talks. He reports that “the ongoing private dialogue between Moscow and Kiev indicate[s] that Russia is seeking to stabilize its ‘Ukrainian front’” – instead of expanding its military control in eastern Ukraine beyond the Donbas – on the basis of a “formula: Crimea is ours; Eastern Ukraine is Ukrainian (on certain conditions).”

This week’s effort to turn the uneasy truce of the last ten weeks in eastern Ukraine into a more durable ceasefire – by observing a “day of silence” for weapons on December 9, and preparing for implementation of the originally agreed non-militarized buffer zone – might be seen as confirming Trenin’s thesis. The failure to clear the buffer zone of artillery and other heavy weapons and the refusal on the part of the rebels to let unarmed observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitor the ongoing flow of heavy weapons and military personnel over the Russia-controlled border into Ukraine have been conspicuous violations of the September 5 pact, however.

Clue #4. The costs of belligerence for Russia are mounting.

Putin has thus far ignored the freezing of Western investment and the other economic costs incurred by Moscow’s violation of international and treaty law. However, his aggression has produced a number of counterproductive effects: it has united Ukrainians, including eastern Ukrainians, against Russian encroachment, and rallied NATO to defend its members against daily Russian incursions into sovereign sea- and airspace in the Baltics and elsewhere. It has triggered unrest and unease in Chechnya, and even Kazakhstan and Belarus. And it has carried intangible social costs, driving many of the best and brightest young Russians abroad to pursue their careers. Perhaps most poignantly, Putin has repressed the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers for painstakingly identifying dead Russian soldiers killed in his undeclared war on Ukraine, soldiers his army has buried secretly.

There are signs that Russian society is now more aware of the cost of Putin’s most recent war. The Levada Center, one of Russia’s last remaining independent pollsters, recently found that Russians’ sense of the “triumph of justice” (31 percent in March) and national “pride” (34 percent in March) were greatly diminished in light of Russia’s Ukraine policy: Now only 10 percent of respondents saw justice as having triumphed, and only 18 percent felt pride. “Joy” was at 4 percent, from 19 percent in March.

A month ago Dmitri Trenin was far more pessimistic than he is today. Then, he expected the “US-Russian crisis” to “become a permanent state.” He found the current confrontation more dangerous than the Cold War, since it “lacks agreed, if unwritten, rules, is characterized by gross asymmetry in power, and is utterly devoid of mutual respect. There is also a near-universal lack of strategic thinking. It is thus more prone…to lead to a collision in the style of [the rush to World War I in] 1914.”

Today, Trenin still expects the conflict between Russia and the West to continue for many years. But he contends that “even a partial accommodation in, with and over Ukraine would push back the danger of an all-out hot war in Europe’s east.”

Dmitri Trenin’s analysis offers Putin an alternative, less belligerent narrative if the Russian president does decide that he, too, wants to push back the danger of an all-out hot war.

(NB. This post was updated on December 12, 2014, in light of new developments.)

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of books on Russia and Europe.

December 10, 2014  IP-Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations https://ip-journal.dgap.org/en/blog/eye-europe/bear-winter

A version of this essay is also posted on the website of the Atlantic Council.

© Elizabeth Pond