On Ukraine, Putin has outfoxed the West at every turn

As talks stall between US and Russia in the ongoing crisis over Ukraine, Russia – written off by so many just two weeks ago as “humiliated” and “at a loss” – now appears to be in control of the situation…

Command and control: Vladimir Putin is calling the shots. EPA/Alexey Druzhinyn/Ria Novosti/Kremlin Pool

As talks stall between US and Russia in the ongoing crisis over Ukraine, Russia – written off by so many just two weeks ago as “humiliated” and “at a loss” – now appears to be in control of the situation, with observers now talking about the humiliation of the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown an aptitude for crisis diplomacy and brinkmanship that many had dismissed.

One way to judge a country’s foreign policy success is to consider that country’s objectives and whether they have been achieved – and at what cost. The problem for analysts in terms of Russia and Ukraine is that it is not entirely clear what those objectives are. Some have been openly communicated by Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, while others have to be inferred from their behaviour.

Successes have to be measured over a period of time. In the short term, we have seen in Putin a return to the canny political operator we thought had lost his touch. The ill-fated parliamentary and presidential elections of 2011 and 2012 saw his popularity and that of his party United Russia plummet, and it seemed that the president had misjudged what his people would put up with and how far they would go to be heard. The events in Ukraine leave no doubt that Putin is in control – and this will play well on the domestic front. In the longer term, however, Russia may have shot itself in the foot.

As for Russia’s goals in this crisis, it is clearly of vital importance that Ukraine remains within its sphere of influence. Despite Lavrov’s denial that it is the Russian military in control in Crimea, few would argue Russia has not very firmly and effectively marked its territory. While it declined to play a role in Kiev when the French, German and Polish foreign ministers brokered the short-lived deal that brought an end to the violence there, Russia’s presence was very firmly felt at the Paris talks on 5 March – despite refusing to meet with members of the interim Ukrainian government. One objective is achieved: Ukraine’s future will be decided either in dialogue or confrontation with Russia, but it will not be achieved without it.

A strong thread in the Putin-led narrative has been the West’s decline and Russia’s rise. What looked like the loss of Ukraine to the interim pro-EU government at the end of February was therefore not only an insult to Russia, but a suggestion that Russian regional power was in decline compared to the EU’s inexorable eastward march. Seen from this perspective, Russia’s actions in Crimea are understandable: not only have they earned back the seat at the table that had seemingly been withdrawn when the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country – this change has come about against a backdrop of Western helplessness.

As the stand-off in Crimea goes on, Russia is also making matters increasingly difficult for the interim Kiev government, presenting an insurmountable obstacle to decision making, relationship building, and crucially, an injection of sorely needed financial assistance and investment. With each passing day, the importance of Ukraine to Russia is reasserted at the expense of Ukraine’s room for manoeuvre. This is likely to ensure there will be no more Ukrainian snubs, such as the interim government’s decision to downgrade the Russian language in late February.

Finally, Putin has managed to satisfy the “derzhavniki” in his own country – those political elites for whom Russia’s great power status is a sine qua non. Beyond the political elites, we should not forget that Russia, like any country, has its share of nationalists, xenophobes and extremists. Putin owes his continued power to his ability to negotiate competing and dangerous domestic interests. His future would have been short-lived had he presided over the loss of Ukraine. Not only, therefore, has Putin managed to serve Russia’s interests, he has managed to secure his own position for a while longer at least and therefore some continuity in Russian politics.

Playing the long game

Putin’s success looks less secure once we consider possible developments in the longer term. Russia has well-justified fears of separatist movements of its own (think Chechnya and Dagestan); it has always, even if disingenuously, argued the need to ensure territorial integrity and sovereignty. Russia’s actions in Crimea and the standstill they have created in Ukrainian politics have contributed to violence in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, and any situation that results in the division of Ukraine will give momentum to separatist movements elsewhere.

Single voice: anti-separatists demonstrate in Donestsk. EPA/PHOTOMIG

If Russia can contain matters and contribute to a solution that keeps Ukraine together, this will be less of a problem. The show of Russian determination and might may be enough to signal that the time is certainly not ripe for secessionism. However, if Ukraine divides, this will be a painful process, the ripples of which are likely to be felt most deeply in Russia itself.

It is in the longer term that the West is most likely to have the last laugh. One of Russia’s greater foreign policy objectives lies with forming a customs union with the former Soviet states (excepting the Baltics) and ultimately a Eurasian Union to rival that of the European Union. Currently, Kazakhstan is the important player here and it has already made clear that the future of the customs union may be dependent on what happens in Ukraine. Kazakhstan has no desire to return to the past that was life in the Soviet Union and has long been clear that its membership in a Eurasian Union must be voluntary and a meeting of willing equals and not coerced weaker parties.

Finally, despite Sergei Lavrov’s claim that China is supportive of the Russian position, there is nothing in China’s official statement on the subject to suggest this is so. And China has its own ongoing problems with separatists as the recent attack by Uighurs there show. For the moment, Russia and China have good relations but history should tell Russia to expect relatively little in the way of permanence there.

As for the West, at the current time, decline does not seem to be so far from the truth. International law offers no clear answers as to the legality of Russian actions and the UN Special Envoy was forced into an ignominious departure on his visit to Crimea on 5 March. We can expect no action from NATO. The EU had its opportunity with Ukraine and the result is as we see; plus its member states are divided, unable even to agree on the use of sanctions.

The OSCE has no assurance that its observers will be allowed in to Crimea when they arrive from Kiev. As for the US, Washington has rightly identified that all it has left is rhetoric and sanctions, the latest of which will target “officials and individuals” who are “threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”.

There is also, of course, “the market”. After initial dips, the Russian market bounced back strongly, the Financial Times advised that this was the time to invest in Russia, and IKEA announced it would invest €2 billion (US$2.74 billion) there. Putin is right: the world is interconnected, and so far this is playing to Russia’s advantage.