Putin’s plan

Everything Putin is doing in Ukraine is intended to improve his bargaining position with the West.

Russia’s current provocations in eastern Ukraine and the presence of Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border are aimed at influencing negotiations with the European Union and the United States on the future status of Ukraine. Russia does not intend to annex eastern Ukraine, but it wants the West to accept a status of limited sovereignty for the country. Annexing eastern Ukraine would be too costly for Russia, both in economic and political terms. And any Russian efforts to absorb more Ukrainian territory would provoke resistance from Ukrainian society.

Russia wants to ensure a weak Ukrainian government and president.

Vladimir Putin wants to dictate Ukraine’s future constitution in order to impose a federalised structure on Ukraine and to compel the central government to give more autonomy to Ukraine’s regions. Everything he is currently doing is intended to improve his bargaining position with the West. Moscow’s preferred model is based on the German federal system: it would like to see the Ukrainian parliament include a strong second chamber, in which the regions would be able to influence the national agenda. Russia wants to ensure a weak Ukrainian government and president. This would enable Moscow to influence decision-making through its involvement with Ukraine’s eastern regions, which would develop close economic and political ties with Russia.

Western commentators are wrong to think that Russia is interested in stabilising Ukraine. Putin will consider only two options for Ukraine: either federalisation or a failed state. The current Russian policy is managed destabilisation. Russia is trying to undermine the legitimacy of the government in Kyiv by demonstrating that the government cannot control the country. Other instruments of destabilisation include Gazprom’s recent increase in Ukraine’s gas prices to the highest level paid by any country to the Russian energy giant, as well as Moscow’s demands that Ukraine pay back all its energy bills and loans.

As long as no pro-Russian candidate has a chance of victory, Moscow will not support Ukraine’s May presidential elections. It would prefer to come to an agreement with the EU and the US on Ukraine’s future. But Putin is no longer willing to make compromises with the West about the future of Ukraine. If it cannot gain more autonomy for Ukrainian regions under a Russian diktat, Moscow will destroy the Ukrainian state rather than allow it to integrate into the EU or NATO. Putin sees Ukraine as Russian territory, and his campaign to “bring Crimea back home” was well received by the Russian public.

Worryingly, support for open military intervention has been growing in Russia in the last three months.

Putin has finally found a way to legitimise his policies in spite of his administration’s weak economic performance. Patriotism plays well in Russia, and Moscow’s propaganda machine has helped to raise Putin’s popularity ratings dramatically, to 80 percent. Worryingly, support for open military intervention has been growing in Russia in the last three months. In December, the majority of Russians were against any military operation. But now, 50 percent of Russians endorse military action. Sanctions have strengthened Putin’s public support. Official propaganda claims that sanctions, along with the country’s growing isolation, will stimulate the development of national industry, and 68 percent of Russians believe the government’s line.

Russia’s policy to bolster its national industry rests on shifting focus towards Asia and securing the return of Russian foreign assets to the country. Moscow is even talking about building completely new pipeline infrastructure to Asia so as to replace the EU as the main buyer of Russian oil and gas. But this strategy is not really intended to provide a viable plan for Russia’s future economic development. The point is to make people believe the propaganda and so to enable the Russian government to manipulate the Russian public. At the same time, official discourse tries to undermine any compromise with the Ukraine or the EU. The only truth is the truth put forward by the Russian government; everything else is portrayed as propaganda from Russia’s competitors.

Support for Putin’s counter-modernisation policy has been growing. The concepts of de-Europeanisation and de-Westernisation – whatever they mean – are becoming more and more popular. Russians show increased scepticism about democratic institutions and many have rejected outright the EU stance on sexual minorities.

Under cover of the Ukrainian crisis, Putin has been scaling up repression.

This current state of public opinion is the result of a deliberate process. Since his re-election in 2012, Putin has laid the groundwork for conflict with the EU and the US. He undermined Western influence through the NGO law of 2012, which forced NGOs to register as “foreign agents”. And he is now taking steps to silence the remaining critical voices. Under cover of the Ukrainian crisis, Putin has been scaling up repression. Independent institutions such as the polling organisation, the Levada-Centre, are under massive administrative attack, subjected to measures such as regular and intrusive tax inspections. And a second wave of indictments has been carried out against the leaders of the 2012 Bolotnaya Square demonstrations. The strategy is intended not only to intimidate people, but also to brand all those who are against the policy of the leadership as anti-Russian or “foreign agents” – “if you are not with us, you are against us”. All these measures have created a climate of denunciation, fear, and uncritical patriotism. Thus what is taking place is not just a new direction in Russian foreign policy, but also a new drive towards domestic repression.

Ukraine is not the only or even the main issue in Putin’s new approach. Russia wants to set up a new international order and to institute new rules in international relations. It wants to secure the confirmation of its dominance in the post-Soviet region through negotiation with the EU and the US. After the EU and the US accepted the annexation of Crimea, the rules of the post-Cold War order lost all meaning. Putin wants to use Ukraine to show that Russia will no longer accept any EU or NATO enlargement in the post-Soviet region. Russia has presented the West with a false choice: either you accept the new order we dictate or we destroy Ukraine. This constitutes a fundamental shift in Russian policy. The new policy challenges all the principles of international relations and uses conflict with the West as a mass mobilisation tool for the system Putin has created. It is irrelevant that all of this is happening as a result of Russian weakness, as a consequence of the failure of Russian soft power in Ukraine. Russia still has sufficient resources to resist US and EU pressure and sanctions and to destabilise its neighbourhood.

Over the past 20 years, the EU has failed to integrate its post-Soviet neighbourhood in economic, security, and democratic terms. It did not develop a neighbourhood policy that took into consideration the reality of the eastern neighbourhood, but instead created a policy based on the premise of what would be possible in the EU. The EU missed its opportunity to develop institutions that could influence the post-Soviet region at a time when Russia was weak or was more open to cooperation and integration. Europe ignored the deepening split between society and power in the region and imprudently accepted Russia as the region’s main security provider.

Now, neither the EU nor the US is prepared for conflict with Russia. The two have different interests in Russia, different geopolitical considerations, and sometimes even different values, as became clear during the European reaction to the NSA scandal. Many EU member states have developed strong economic relations with Russia. But the US has very limited economic interests in the post-Soviet region and is in the process of shifting its focus from Europe to Asia. Neither the US nor NATO will play a key role in this conflict.

Putin is betting that the EU is not willing to deploy serious sanctions against Russia. He is trying to play the EU and the US off against each other. Obviously, cutting Russia off from the international banking and financial market would have real consequences for the Russian economy. But so far, EU member states have been unable to agree on taking such a drastic step, so only symbolic sanctions have been approved. The EU has backed off from taking measures that could really help to stabilise Ukraine out of fear that the result would be a complete breakdown of relations with Russia.

In this situation, the only option both for the EU and for the US is to sit at the table with Russia and negotiate on Ukraine. The EU is Russia’s most important economic partner and the key customer for its oil and gas, so it has the means to influence the Russian economy. Putin needs the EU and the US for his plan to achieve limited sovereignty for Ukraine. Unless the “West” acts as the bad guy who sanctions Russia and recognises Russia’s role in the post-Soviet region, Putin’s strategy will fail.

If the EU cannot meet the Russian challenge, it will be seen as a failed foreign policy player. Whatever their own economic and institutional crises, EU member states must understand that this is a critical situation and that they have to react appropriately. There can be no more business as usual. Ukraine, a country just next door with a population of 45 million, is struggling for survival as a sovereign state. The EU needs to invest more in creating a functioning foreign and security policy. EU member states must improve their defence and conflict resolution capabilities.

If the EU does not stand up for its norms, Russia will dictate its own

The EU’s goal should be to develop a new Conference on Security and Cooperation, which could integrate post-Soviet countries into a new security order. Within this new framework, the roles of Ukraine and Russia should be discussed, along with the security of other post-Soviet countries and ways to achieve the resolution of post-Soviet conflicts. This could mean a reboot of the OSCE as a collective security organisation, a role it has lost in the last 20 years. It could be supplied with greater resources and backed with increased determination from all parties to engage in conflict resolution. If the EU does not stand up for its norms, Russia will dictate its own. By acknowledging Russia as the main security provider in the post-Soviet region and the leading figure in addressing regional conflicts, the EU has given Russia the tools to dominate the region. This paradigm must be broken, by creating greater EU engagement throughout the entire region. And most importantly, the EU must act now – not when Russia has already begun to carry out the next part of its plan. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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