With Russia’s proxies in east-south Ukraine in retreat, there has been no word or deed from Vladimir Putin. But don’t expect a spectacular change in his strategy in response to the events on the ground. Only tactics are likely to be adjusted.
Because of Putin’s recent foreign policy successes – saving the Bashir al Assad regime in Syria, pulling off a Winter Olympiad in the subtropics and next door to a jihad, and annexing Crimea and getting away with it – he appears to have acquired a reputation as a great strategist. He is not. He is a judoka not a chess Grandmaster who calculates 10 moves in advance. In judo, if you see your opponent off balance, you go for it, hoping to throw him down on his back for an instant victory, ippon, or earn a waza-ari, or half-ippon.
Putin’s judo enthusiasm has shaped his political modus operandi. He is a quick and bold tactician, who has been supremely lucky in his opponents: be they Russia’s cowardly and disunited oligarchs, or the impulsive president Mikhel Saakashvili of Georgia, or President Obama, distracted and with precious little interest in Russia beyond nuclear arms cuts, or the European Union, tied to Russia by the umbilical cord of Gazprom pipelines and a thick fatty tissue of multi-billion investments.
By contrast, arriving at a strategy is by all accounts almost physically painful for the Russian president, who agonizes for days, sometimes weeks, especially now that he is the sole decision-maker in Russia -- and finds it more painful still to change a course once he embarks on it.
So we should not interpret Putin’s silence and inaction in response to recent battlefield setbacks as a pause pregnant with a strategic overhaul.
The three strategic objectives he has pursued in Ukraine since the February revolution overthrew his Ukrainian satrap, Viktor Yanukovich, are not likely to change. First, to punish, humiliate, destabilize, if possible, dismember and, ultimately, derail a Europe-bound Ukraine. Second, to prevent the West from imposing meaningful sanctions. And finally, to continue to solidify his domestic political base by rallying around the flag.
The third objective is the most important one. By all indications, Putin is engineering a presidency-for-life. This is a not an easy task in a Russia with a stagnant economy and possible slide into recession, rising food prices, enormous corruption and continuing decline in the quality of education and health care.
All of that, however, could be forgiven or even forgotten if the Motherland is in danger of a NATO invasion or if ethnic Russian brethren are being butchered by Ukrainian “fascists” and Russia must come to their rescue. Putin saw his popularity, at record lows at the end of 2013, skyrocket after he annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine by proxy.
But if you live by patriotic hysteria you may also die or at least bleed by it. The deafening propaganda on state-owned or state-controlled national television channels, where over 90 percent of Russian get their political news, cannot be walked back, or certainly not quickly.
After six months of decrying the alleged depredations visited by the “fascist” monsters of Kiev on the innocent ethnic Russians in Ukraine, the “forces of self-defense” cannot be abandoned to a defeat. The inevitable charge of a “sell-out” will deal a Putin (and thus the regime of which he is the central and almost the sole legitimizing element) a blow from which it would not be easy to recover.
Thus, Putin is looking at three tactical options. The first, undoubtedly preferred, would be to reverse the battle by pouring “volunteers,” guns, ammo and military hardware across the border, all the while denying Russia’s involvement and calling for “peace” and “direct negotiations” between the thugs and the legitimate government of Ukraine, as well as a unilateral cease-fire by Kiev, which must stop “killing the innocent civilians.”
Another Putin choice is to call for an “international peace conference” where, in exchange for a cessation of hostilities, “guaranteed” by Russia, Germany, France and the U.S., Kiev would be forced to accept “federalization” of Ukraine. The country’s east-south would become essentially a Russian protectorate, tied to Moscow economically, politically, ideologically and culturally, and exercising, on the Kremlin’s command, a veto power over Ukraine’s further moves to the West.
The third option could be called a “Libya version.” Moscow could use Western “interference” in Libya as a “precedent” to move regular troops and aircraft into Ukraine and to fully occupy the region, declaring that Ukraine is now in the “throes of a fratricidal civil war.”
To Putin, this would likely to be the least attractive course. After the first invasion of a major European state since the end of WWII, even the EU would be shamed into imposing meaningful sanctions. And cutting European gas supplies in response to the sanctions, as Moscow has repeatedly threatened to do, is a double-edged, and very sharp, sword. With half his budget coming from energy exports, Putin will think thrice before slashing funds to a political base dependent on federal handouts: rural areas, small and mid-size company towns and cities, pensioners and, of course, millions of state employees, especially in the military and security services.
Whatever tactics he chooses, however, Russia’s low-intensity war on Ukraine is for now a domestic political imperative. Don’t expect Putin’s pause, no matter how deep or long, to change this fact.
Leon Aron is Resident Scholar and Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author, most recently, of "Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991." Follow him on Twitter@AronRTTT.