Staunton, May 21 – If Vladimir Putin had wanted to occupy part or all of Ukraine, he would have installed a different group of leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk, Yegeniya Albats says, a comment that provides an important clue to the Kremlin leader’s more general strategy with regard not only to Ukraine but to the entire post-Soviet region.
Her observation points to a core aspect of the Kremlin leader’s strategy, one that should be remembered especially now when some are interpreting a troop pullback from the Ukrainian border as signaling an end to his threat to that country or others in the region and even as a victory for the West’s sanctions regime.
But those interpretations of what Putin has done in the last 24 or 48 hours are based on an assumption that he wanted to do exactly the same thing in southeastern Ukraine immediately that he had done earlier in Crimea and that anything short of that represents either his coming to his senses as a result of Ukrainian resistance or Western pressure.
Indeed, in some of the commentaries in the West, there are notes of what could almost be called celebration reflecting a sense that Putin has overreached or even failed in Ukraine and that the crisis is now over. Not only are such celebrations premature, but they are based on a conjecture about what Putin really wants and how quickly he thinks he has to achieve it.
The case of Crimea notwithstanding, Vladimir Putin seems more interested at least at present in destabilizing Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet space to make them less attractive partners for the West than to occupy them and thus assume the costs of doing so even as he uses the crisis he has created to increase repression at home to protect his own position.
In short, the Kremlin leader is seeking to exclude the influence of the West on the non-Russian countries than to occupy the former at least for the time being, and he knows he can whip up a new crisis in many places in “the near abroad” any time he needs to in order to boost his standing at home and cover his increasingly authoritarian approach.
As a tactician, Putin understands the value of periodically appearing to pull back when tensions are at their height. He knows on the basis of experience that he will always be given credit in the West for stopping something he should never have been doing in the first place and that this extension of credit will undermine efforts to combat what he is still doing.
It will not take very long until voices will be heard in the West saying that it is time to put the Ukrainian crisis “behind us” and focus on all the many “common interests” the West has with Moscow – thus effectively ratifying the Russian Anschluss of Crimea, ignoring Russian efforts to destabilize the region, and failing to attend to just how repressive Putin has become at home.
Unlike Western leaders with their short time horizons, Putin has a long one. He expects to be in office many years, and he knows that a pause in his aggressive behavior will work to his advantage both immediately and long term: now it will allow him to recoup his standing internationally, and later, it will mean that the West will have taken fewer actions to restrain him.
Unless the West takes a larger and longer view of what Putin and his regime are about, the crisis some are declaring over will return in a new place and with renewed violence. Moreover, it will do so at a time and place of Putin’s choosing thus allowing him to retain the initiative whatever some in the West may think.