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Is Putin Winning or Losing?

Walter Russell Mead

Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine don’t think they’re getting enough support from the Kremlin, and are openly wondering if Putin still wants to help them win. Bloomberg has more:

Ukrainian separatist leaders say their hopes of full integration with Russia or greater independence are fading as the Kremlin tightens the reins on their rebellion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin appears unwilling to risk broadening his conflict with the U.S. and European Union over Ukraine, senior separatist officials said in interviews this month, meaning the rebel regions’ future is more likely to resemble Transnistria, the Russian-backed breakaway area of Moldova, whose fate is still unresolved more than two decades after fighting subsided.

Russian nationalists want to bring Ukraine back into the fold; there should not, some Russians feel, be an international border between Moscow and Kiev. Yet there’s little sign that Putin has ever made this his goal. For one thing, Ukraine’s economy is in such bad shape that Russia would have to subsidize it heavily. That’s not something Putin is eager to do. Even the nationalists’ fallback position—a Ukraine so committed to Russia’s version of the European Union (the “Eurasian Union”) that further EU integration is impossible—would require heavy Russian support.

On the other hand, Putin cannot tolerate a Ukraine that is fully integrated into the West. A democratic Ukraine that was traveling the road taken by Poland and the Baltic States to become increasingly economically successful, ultimately to join the Western institutions of the EU and NATO, would be a crippling defeat for Putin for two reasons: First, because the Russian nationalists who are an important part of Putin’s coalition would turn against him in anger and disappointment if Russia were seen to have ‘lost’ Ukraine in this way. Second, because the core arguments that Putin uses to defend his methods and regime would be gravely weakened.

Putin’s argument to the Russian people is that Orthodox Slavs are part of a different civilization from the West: Russia isn’t like France or Germany, England, or even Poland. Western democracy, Western economic organization, and Western ideas about personal autonomy and freedom are foreign to Russia and don’t work. Look what happened in the 1990s when Yeltsin tried to move the country Westward, the argument goes. Russia almost fell apart! Then, when the kind of strong government that Russia needs was restored (by Putin) things got better. Western pressure to democratize is part of a plan to defeat, dismember and humiliate Russia. The West’s true hope, Putin contends, is for Russia to fall apart the way the Soviet Union did.

The trouble for Putin is that a successful Ukraine, democratizing and Westernizing, undercuts this argument. If Ukraine were to start looking more like Denmark, or even Poland, that would be an important sign that an Orthodox Slavic culture (and remember, Russian nationalists consider Ukraine and Russia to be deeply similar) really can succeed on the basis of liberal economic and political ideas. Russia doesn’t have to be isolated, undemocratic and poor. If the Russians get rid of Putin and his cronies, they too could have a better life.

Putin’s core concern with Ukraine, then, is defensive. He considers its Westward aspirations to be a serious danger to his power. His goal isn’t to conquer all Ukraine or even part of it; his goal is to spoil Ukraine—to prevent it from taking the Westward road with success. Conquest or integration of Ukraine into the Eurasian Union is something he can’t afford and doesn’t particularly want. But keeping Ukraine from assimilating into the West: that’s vital.

Long term Russian control over Crimea and a poor, corrupt, Ukraine run by greedy and unpopular oligarchs is pretty much Putin’s dream scenario. And it’s better still if this crippled entity is subsidized by the West—if the EU and the U.S., for example, end up helping Ukraine pay its oil bill to Gazprom and otherwise have to prop up its staggering economy.

That’s not a perfect situation for him; there are, for example, important defense plants in eastern Ukraine that Russia would like to have back under his control. But given that Russia is a weaker power, and that the oil price collapse has exacerbated Russia’s weakness, what we see now is pretty much a status quo that Putin can live with—as long as Ukrainian reforms fail and its economy flounders.

So the important battle line in Ukraine isn’t actually in the east. The important battle in Ukraine is political and economic. Can the West and pro-Western Ukrainians reform the economy and build a competent, honest and modernizing state, or will the oligarchs and the legacy of Soviet corruption drag Ukraine down?

Putin hopes (not without reason) that time and inertia are on his side. Ukraine has never been able to build a Western style state, and its oligarchs remain in charge. The West’s goals for Ukraine are harder to achieve than Putin’s goals; this is why Russia, a fundamentally weaker power than the West it opposes, has a chance at getting its way in Ukraine.

Therefore, the purpose of the badly organized and poorly-led mafias and militias in the Russian dominated chunks of eastern Ukraine is to keep Ukrainian politics on the boil. By controlling when and whether Donetsk militias fight, Putin can create a political crisis in Ukraine at any moment. This frozen conflict (which Putin always has the option of unfreezing) helps deter foreign investors who fear the risk of renewed unrest. It pushes Ukrainian nationalists toward more radical politics in ways that Putin hopes will further unbalance Ukraine’s precarious political order. It forces Ukraine to borrow money for military defense. It confirms the impression of people inside Russia that their country is surrounded by implacable enemies and needs a strong leader to defend it.

Meanwhile, Putin has other tools he can use to make the task of reform inside Ukraine harder. There are oligarchs whose loyalties are divided, and who want to keep on good terms with the Kremlin while keeping the EU and the reformers from changing the way they do business. Some members of parliament and of Ukraine’s government and security forces are susceptible to Russian bribes or blackmail. Some groups in Ukraine fear that reform will undercut their power and privilege (like the masses of corrupt civil servants and judges who will ultimately be sidelined and marginalized if the New Ukraine really takes shape). And there are others who, for reasons of sentiment or interest, want Ukraine to look East rather than West.

For all these reasons, Putin doesn’t need military success in eastern Ukraine or further advances into Ukrainian territory to get his way. This is a political struggle for Putin more than a military one, and from his point of view, the situation in Ukraine looks reasonably good. Success isn’t guaranteed, of course, but the odds against a successful state building effort in Kiev remain long.

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