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All Roads Lead to Russia


The world is watching with bated breath as a Russian convoy of 280 trucks heads towards the Ukrainian border and the besieged city of Donetsk. Ostensibly filled with humanitarian aid – food, water, medicine – and under International Red Cross auspices, many people in the West fear that the convoy is merely a clever cover for smuggling much needed supplies to the pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine’s largest city[1]. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned that Russia has amassed 45,000 soldiers on the border with Ukraine and that the convoy is a pretext for intervention[2]; Chancellor Merkel and President Obama have warned that any convoy would be viewed as a military provocation[3]; and Kiev has vowed to block the trucks, Red Cross guarantee or no[4].


The situation in Donetsk is undoubtedly grave. Recent operations by the Ukrainian military, whose capabilities have been steadily improving since the fiasco days of early spring, have managed to recapture the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk and to split and isolate the two remaining separatist-held cities of Donetsk and Lugansk. The army is now focused on reducing Donetsk by siege, as no one is keen on facing 10,000 to 15,000 rebels entrenched in a dense urban environment. Much of the city would be destroyed; there would be unacceptably high civilian and military casualties; the slaughter would very likely provoke the direct Russian intervention that the Ukrainians must avoid at all costs. Victory might turn the “patriots of Donetsk” into martyrs and a rallying cry, while the very real possibility of failure would make the city into the new Stalingrad for ethnic Russians. Getting the rebels to abandon the city through lack of food and water, as they did at Slavyansk, is the longer game but less bloody game.

There is certainly a legitimate concern for the welfare of civilians trapped within the army’s cordon, though authorities in Kiev have for weeks been urging the citizens of the rebel-held cities to leave. There is nothing stopping them and the rebels from getting out; on the contrary, the Ukrainians would love to see them go. Unfortunately, the rebels are understandably reluctant to leave. They would have to leave all of their commandeered vehicles and heavy weapons behind; and they would need to disperse in the countryside and cease to be an effective force. Hence Russia’s urgent desire to resupply the defenders of Donetsk: they provide far more leverage as an active and defiant force-in-being than as a dispersed and disarmed mob.


The convoy thus serves a number of purposes: if Kiev stops it or, even worse, shoots at it, the Russians have a “humanitarian crisis” which could serve as a casus belli for direct Russian intervention. If Kiev does not stop it, then the rebels and civilians in Donetsk will receive critical supplies that will allow them to remain in the city. Even if the convoy really is only carrying non-military supplies it still provides much needed support for the separatists: and the Russian Spetnaz and their GRU colleagues are old hands at smuggling prohibited and military articles under more innocuous covers.

Russian intentions remain unclear; their actions show their desire to keep open options and the ability to apply pressure on Kiev, but are not indicative of the end game. Mr. Putin has indicated time and again that keeping Ukraine out of the EU and NATO is a cornerstone national security interest for his country and it is likely that he would be willing to use military force to prevent it. It would be a much bigger gamble to use force after Ukraine joins NATO than before. But he is willing to settle for unaligned status. He doesn’t appear to have any appetite for annexing all or parts of Ukraine[5]: it would be too big a step and almost certainly exact too high a price. Besides, Russia wants buffers between itself and NATO: annexing Ukraine would bring NATO to the doorstep at the same time as convincing members of the need to rearm the alliance.

The military option remains as a last resort. Should Kiev formally request to join NATO and should NATO even hint at agreeing, I would expect Mr. Putin to order the tanks across the border in a desperation move. The objective would not be annexation, but rather the destruction of a sizeable portion of the Ukrainian military and the setting up a one or more “South Ossetias” in Eastern Ukraine. This would be a desperation measure however, as whatever was left of Ukraine would surely turn West entirely and Russia would face a far greater degree of ostracism and economic pressure than it does today. So I would expect Mr. Putin to grab as much of Eastern Ukraine as possible at that time, perhaps as far as the Dnieper River: which would constitute almost half of the country’s territory. Buffers, it is all about buffers with the Russians. It would also turn Kiev into a frontier city, which would not be pleasant for the Ukrainian politicians.


The fact is that sanctions are beginning to hurt. Mr. Putin had demonstrated exquisite skill in dividing the Western response and preventing wide-spread consensus on sanctions during the early stages of the crisis; but the tragedy of MH117, the discreditable obstructionism over the investigation of the wreckage and the by now obvious dissimulation over the involvement of Russian Special Forces with the separatists have helped stiffen European resolve. This change has been most visible in the attitude of Chancellor Merkel, who has worked very hard to bring the rest of the EU along with her[6]. Her patience and trust in Mr. Putin has apparently run out, and this has perhaps taken him by surprise. The Russian President cannot be sure how far he can push the Europeans anymore.


The Russian economy, which had already shown signs of strain in 2013, is now struggling to stay out of recession as Western capital seeks safer markets. The Russian government has been in deficit spending mode for some time already, but it is questionable whether it can continue to bear the additional burdens of a high level of military preparedness as well as the fiscal drain of Crimea when the economy remains so soft.


The signs of strain also show up in the precipitous drop in foreign currency reserves and the increase in the Central Bank’s balance sheet as it struggles to prevent the further slide of the ruble.


Furthermore, a recent survey by Russian polling agency Levada[7] shows a majority of Russians against direct military intervention in Ukraine, even though they do support the current level for the pro-Russian separatists and Mr. Putin’s policies overall. The President enjoys a very high level of public support – much higher than that of his American counterpart – but it is the nature of authoritarian regimes that they lack the institutional legitimacy to survive erosions of support that democracies are able to manage. Mr. Putin must therefore be careful about turning the public against him; he remembers perfectly well how opposition towards the Soviet fiasco in Afghanistan helped undermine public support for the whole system.


All of this argues against precipitous action by Moscow. Mr. Putin has miscalculated the West’s reaction to the Malaysian Airlines tragedy and now he must also guard against alienating his power base and domestic support. Three additional factors argue against escalation by the Russians:

  • In September, Scots go to the polls in a referendum on independence from Great Britain. If the “yes” vote succeeds, one of Russia’s most consistent critics and America’s closest ally will be weakened and distracted. That distraction might spread to Spain should the November vote in Catalonia turn “unpleasant”, and could embroil Brussels in an internal crisis that would require its full attention;
  • Additionally, in October, Ukraine will hold parliamentary elections. The fragile coalition government is unlikely to remain intact, at least not in its current form. Whatever new coalition forms, it will likely be a weak one. The Ukrainians will need time to get their house in order again; time they do not have and which the Russians will not give them;
  • Finally, as the Starks would say, winter is coming. And with winter, Russian gas regains its leverage over European consumers, industries and politicians. While the Russians urgently need the revenues their gas exports bring them and have been cautious about overplaying their hand, this winter might see them use it again if they feel it could bring decisive results.

The crisis in Ukraine is far from over. With the break-down in the modus vivendi since the EuroMaidan crisis, no new equilibrium has emerged; nor is one likely to emerge. Ukraine is too important to Russia for them to back down: its accession to the EU and NATO would prove crippling to Mr. Putin’s ambition of creating a Eurasian Union centered on Russia and would prove massively destabilizing to the political order he has established. Conversely, the European Union and United States are not prepared to let Moscow rebuild the Russian Empire in any way, shape or form. A resurgent Russia would be a geostrategic challenger to the US and would imperil Europe’s social democracy, which is built on economies geared massively towards butter over guns. Refunding defense to Cold War levels would prove very challenging in the context of austerity, strained fiscal balances and aging populations.

Mr. Putin will seek to keep all options in play and see which EU country breaks ranks first over tomatoes or gas.


Sources and Notes

[1] Nicolas Vinocur and Andrew Heavens, “France says Russian convoy to Ukraine may be ‘cover’ for incursion,” Reuters, 12 August 2014

[2] Reuters, “NATO chief Anders Fogh sees ‘high probability’ of Russian intervention in east Ukraine,” The Economic Times, 11 August 2014

[3] The White House, “Readout of the President’s call with Chancellor Merkel of Germany,” 09 August 2014

[4] Jane C. Timm, “Fearing Trojan horse, Ukraine moves to deny Russian aid convoy,” MSNBC, 12 August 2014

[5] The Russians have always considered Crimea to be part of Russia, not Ukraine, regardless of anything Nikita Khrushchev might have done; I refer to Ukraine proper in this case.

[6]“The Wake-Up Call: Europe Toughens Stance against Putin,” Der Spiegel, 28 July 2014

[7]“What the Russians Are Thinking,” Stratfor, 31 July 2014

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