Belmont Club

Putin As Goldilocks

In the story of the Three Bears, Goldilocks samples 3 bowls of porridge left on the breakfast table by perambulatory bruins.   One bowl was too hot; the other too cold; but one was just right.  The Russian bear, according to the Economist, was in the same position in relation to the conflict in Ukraine.  Until recently it was just right.

What Mr Putin would really like is a conflict of just the right size: big enough to force Mr Poroshenko into concessions but not so large it drags Russia in directly or forces it to subsidise Ukraine’s eastern regions. As Mr Gorenburg explains, Mr Putin will facilitate the transfer of Russian arms, fighters and money so as to ensure that “the insurgency isn’t defeated, but while doing the minimum possible”.

The current instability was sized to fit Putin’s scenario: half-war, half-peace, all aggression. “Today’s Russia thinks of itself as a mobilisation state, ready to deploy a full array of instruments in a crisis.” In Putin’s strategic conception actions are not neatly divided into War and Peace but into a continuum of coercive instruments.

In Ukraine this means a policy that combines covert arms transfers, volunteer fighters called up by patriotic organisations, oligarchs and others, propaganda produced by state-run media, punitive arm-twisting over gas prices and a worsening of political repression at home. Officials in Moscow, who have taken to praising non-linear war even if they do not use the precise term, say they are wielding the same tools the Americans use all the time: first engineer protests, and if that doesn’t work, back them up by force.

Which is why Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko’s decision to escalate the fight caught Putin off-guard, according to the Jamestown Foundation. ‘Just right’ got a little too hot. Pavel K. Baev of Jamestown writes, “the most dramatic turn in the protracted Ukrainian calamity last week was the decision of President Petro Poroshenko to end the ceasefire and resume the offensive against separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Poroshenko had every reason to conclude that the cessation of combat operations plays into rebel hands, since Ukraine’s control over the border with Russia was not restored and reinforcements from Russia were pouring into the motley gangs of pretentious warlords”. Having concluded that a demi-conflict was working in Russia’s favor, Poroshenko doubled down, scalding  Putin’s tongue.

This determined offensive has caught Moscow by surprise, since its working assumption was that Poroshenko would keep extending the truce, thus allowing the conflict to “freeze” and making possible the establishment of a de-facto independent “Novorossiya” in eastern Ukraine.

The Jamestown Foundation argues that many of Putin’s apparently conciliatory moves were intended to freeze the conflict in the kind of low-intensity limbo the Russian president hoped to maintain. It was sized to be just small enough to keep from triggering the Western war response and just quiet enough to lure them into a ‘partnership for peace’. But still big enough to gobble up Eastern Ukraine.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is conducting relentless “shuttle intrigue” seeking to impress upon France and Germany that Russia’s prime aim is the cessation of violence through renewed talks with the separatists. President Vladimir Putin delivered his traditional address to the Russian ambassadors on July 1 and justified Russian actions in a remarkably cautious manner, avoiding any belligerence and denying any intention to exploit the Ukrainian crisis.

All of this was undone by the Poroshenko’s sudden forcefulness. Now Putin is faced with the prospect of losing his bet. Having miscalculated, he must either match the moves or go home to lick his wounds.

He was just about to convince his peers in France and Germany that Russia could become a key peace-maker when the plan for organizing yet another “frozen conflict” collapsed. He cannot snatch any victory out of the Slavyansk defeat, and even the promise to slam Ukraine with trade tariffs rings false, because Belarus and Kazakhstan have refused to approve them (, June30). The smart maneuvering aimed at preventing new Western sanctions is now seen by the outraged “patriotic” fringe, which has entered into the political mainstream, as an outright capitulation (BestToday, July 6). The spectacular consolidation of the tired regime around the Crimean “triumph” can quickly unravel and the disillusioned “volunteers” returning to the bleak normalcy in many depression-hit Russian regions could become street fighters in mini-Maidans (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 2).

News reports suggest the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk are about to be invested and besieged by Ukrainian forces. Three bridges leading to the city have been blown, according to the BBC, and the proxies are digging in. Ukrainian forces may be on the advance, but Putin’s proxies are still waiting for the Russian cavalry to their rescue. Will they come?

Mykhaylo Koval, a senior Ukrainian security official, said government troops were preparing to continue the operation against the separatists.

“There is a clear strategic plan, which has been approved. The plan is focused on two major regional centres: Luhansk and Donetsk. These cities will be completely blockaded,” Mr Koval said.

“These measures will result in the separatists – let us call them bandits – being forced to lay down arms.”

Will Putin, having failed to find the “just right” porridge, now give it up? Pavel Felgenhauer in another Jamestown article says “the Kremlin apparently believes the time is ripe for a decisive drive to undermine U.S. influence and power worldwide and hit at the transatlantic link to undermine NATO, while the White House is occupied by the Obama administration, seen by Moscow as ineffective and indecisive.” Putin was ready for easy pickings. But now he’s encountered resistance, what will he do?

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rassmussen in a very recent interview with Euronews said NATO’s belief that Russia could be a partner has been rudely shattered by events in Ukraine.  NATO must re-arm, he says.

The security environment has changed dramatically. Russia’s illegal military actions in Ukraine are a wake-up call … in blatant breach of all its international commitments and also in breach of the fundamental principles of NATO-Russia cooperation. …

There is no doubt that Russia is heavily involved in destabilising the eastern part of Ukraine. They allow a flow of weapons and equipment and also fighters across the border into Ukraine.  … we can see in the Russian military documents that they consider NATO an adversary, so of course we have to adapt to that. …

We have seen Russian armed forces act very swiftly. … it’s now time to stop the cuts, reverse the trend and gradually increase defence spending.”

And if NATO re-arms and Obama leaves office then Putin’s window of opportunity will close.  There’ll be no more cuts to ‘unproven missile defense systems’, no more cancellations of ‘future combat systems’, no more unilateral disarmament — all of which ironically, may have led to the current problem in the first place. The situation is classically dangerous. Having encouraged aggression by weakness, the West must unavoidably increase the tension by strengthening itself.

The conflict is moving into a siege which may suit everyone’s book because it slows down the tempo of events. But at some point Putin will be forced to fish or cut bait. The rational response would be for him to cut his losses. Nothing in the Ukraine is worth a general war for Russia. Everyone hopes Putin will cut bait. But hope is not normally a policy, except recently.

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