Staunton, June 13 – The toughening of the West’s position on Ukraine very much in evidence at the G7 meeting reflects the fact that Vladimir Putin has fundamentally misread the situation and not taken advantage of the face-saving measures which the West had been offering him, according to Vitaly Portnikov.
The Kremlin leader “sincerely believed that the fact that Merkel and Hollande came to him and that negotiations in Minsk followed were connected with the West’s fear of further destabilization.” But in fact, the Ukrainian commentator says, “Merkel like all other Western leaders was concerned above all with the need to give Putin the chance to save face.”
Minsk was “a magnificent opportunity” for that, he continues. The “’peoples republics’” could continue to function but with Putin “looking not like a traitor but a peacekeeper and defender of the interests of ‘the Russian world’…And talks about Crimea in such a paradigm could continue forever”.
“But all this was the case only if you viewed the situation realistically,” Portnikov says. But “if on the other hand, you are Putin, then you are certain that the West is “tired’ of Ukraine…and you are the one giving the West the opportunity to save face” by allowing talks to happen even as you solidify your control over a neighboring country.
In his vision, “Ukraine of course will remain independent, but it must feed the territories you control and adopt a constitution which will preserve for the heads of these ‘peoples’ republics’ and that means for you, a veto. Thus, you have not moved an iota from the position which you took on the day when you decided that the place of Yanukovich and Crimea is inside Russia.” And if you are Putin, Portnikov says, “you think this is a compromise.”
“But the West doesn’t think so, he continues, and it is gradually and quietly coming to the conclusion that “Putin doesn’t need to save face.” In that situation, “the only thing that the West can demand is the fulfillment to the letter of the Minsk agreements, these agreements and not what [Putin] thinks up instead of them.”
That is, the West demands that Putin pull his forces out of the Donbas, agree to honest elections with OSCE observers, and “return to Ukraine control over the borders.” In short, Putin must “do everything which [he] from the start did not intend to do.” Putin by his custom thought he had “deceived everyone.” But in the event, he deceived only himself.
Had Putin been willing to negotiate and fulfill the Minsk agreements, the hardening of the West’s position might not have happened, Portnikov suggests. But he wasn’t, and now “we are again at a fork in the road which will lead us either to peacemaking … or toward a new escalation, attempts at seizing new territories, the worsening of Russia’s relations with the West, and a new packet of sanctions much harsher than the previous ones.”
Everyone “must understand that there is no good outcome for Putin here, although in the case of the second, [Ukrainians] may pay for a new outburst of aggression with the lives of [Ukrainian] soldiers and civilians, with destruction, and with economic losses,” the Ukrainian analyst says.
It cannot be excluded that “Putin will not want to choose and will try to remain at the fork in the road as long as possible,” thus retaining his freedom of action and hoping that something will turn up. But he can’t do so for as long as he may think: he would have to continue to support the DNR and LNR and the Russian economy is not at present up to that.