Russia’s mystery “humanitarian aid” convoy is apparently back in Russia after an incursion into the rebel-held region of Ukraine and the prospect of a wider war is on hold-- for now. So what are we to expect of the meeting between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin at a regional summit in Minsk on Tuesday?
Don’t get your hopes up. The peace prospects are very slim, because in their approach to the conflict Poroshenko and Putin are seeking totally different objectives and both are under enormous domestic political pressure to stay the course.
For Poroshenko, reclaiming Ukrainian sovereignty over the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in the country’s eastern industrial heartland is a sine qua non of boosting his new government’s legitimacy, uniting the people, and beginning to re-build Ukraine’s economy and politics as a Europe-oriented democracy after over two decades of corrupt misrule and bitter political divisions.
For Putin -- after half a year of propagandistic hysteria portraying the Russian by-proxy invasion as a rescue of ethnic Russians from depredation at the hands of the “Kiev fascists” and as the first line of defense against alleged NATO aggression -- a retreat from Ukraine is not an option.
With Russia’s economy teetering on the brink of recession, food prices rising, and tens of billions in investment capital fleeing the country, the Kremlin cannot afford to lose the propaganda-induced rally-round-the-flag support that a precipitous withdrawal from Ukraine would bring.
To prevent this from happening, Putin has three options. The first, and likely the preferred one, is to increase the transfer of manpower, arms and heavy military equipment to the rebels in order to reverse the course of the battle. Failing that, another tack would be to “freeze” the conflict with the rebels in control of Donetsk and Luhansk, by arranging a ceasefire and engaging Russia, Ukraine, EU (and likely also the U.S., Germany, and France) in endless negotiations. Finally, if the proxies are on the verge of real defeat, Putin may launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by regular Russia troops.
Wily tactician that he is, Putin has recently succeeded in combining bits and pieces from all three options: arms and equipment, including artillery flow across the border; the Ukrainian side in effect has exercised a unilateral ceasefire by not attacking the more than 200 trucks that crossed its border illegally on Friday; and there have been NATO reports of regular Russian armed forces across the border firing artillery into Ukraine.
Yet, despite these measures, Poroshenko’s determination has remained firm and Moscow has failed to stop, much less turn back, the Ukrainian advance, and this failure dims the prospects for an agreement in Minsk.
It has been reported that A representative of the European Union will participate in the Minsk negotiations with the goal of advancing a “peaceful solution,” as German Chancellor Angela Markel said in Kiev on Saturday. Yet neither Russia nor Ukraine are likely at this time to join the EU in this pursuit. For domestic political reasons, Poroshenko and Putin each needs not “peace” but victory, neither can afford to yield, and you don’t negotiate in good faith if you can still reasonably hope to achieve more on the battlefield than at the negotiating table.
Expect the war to continue and intensify.
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.