Game and Set to Putin: Ukraine Match Not Over Yet

The ceasefire announced between the two countries is more a recognition of Ukrainian, European and American weakness than a genuine push toward a resolution of the conflict.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Gorno-Altaisk, Siberia, Russia on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Gorno-Altaisk, Siberia, Russia on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The ceasefire announced on Friday in Belarus’ capital Minsk between the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russian separatists operating in the south-east of the country is holding, despite a few sporadic outbreaks of fighting. Both sides agreed to hold their fire, exchange prisoners and allow access to supply convoys (from Russia) to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions where fighting has been going on for over four months. There is no agreement as yet on the retreat of Russian or Ukrainian forces or the disarmament of “volunteer” battalions of either side and they may never be one.

What is clear though at this stage is that despite the warm welcome he received on Thursday at the NATO leaders summit, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has reached the conclusion that his army is incapable of facing the separatists who are now being supported by significant numbers of Russian troops and armor. He has little choice but to cut his losses and try to stabilize and control the rest of Ukraine.

Meanwhile, less than two days after President Barack Obama’s visit to Estonian capital Tallinn and his commitment that NATO will defend the Baltic states, members of the alliance, it looks like Russia is already testing him. On Friday an Estonian intelligence officer was abducted near the border with Russia, in what looked like a well-planned operation that included the jamming of Estonian police radios. Russia claims the officer who has already been brought to Moscow was taken on their side of the border but the timing is unmistakable. Russian President Vladimir Putin is signalling that he still see the Baltic state as part of Russia’s sphere of influence, despite their NATO membership.

Putin has won this latest stage in the battle for Ukraine. The pro-Russian separatists have carved out large autonomous enclaves and the ceasefire will allow them to solidify their presence. It isn’t total victory. There is still a pro-western government in Kiev and despite Putin’s attempts to undermine it and delegitimize February’s revolution agains the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, in controls most of the country including most of the Russian-speaking areas in the east. Putin will have to decide now whether he carries on the campaign to extend Russian control and bring down Poroshenko’s government or does he wait a while in the hope that the west does not continue it sanctions on Russia.

Putin has ruled Russia for nearly fifteen years. The first half of his rule was dedicated mainly to stabilizing the economy and strengthening his grip on power. Since 2007 he has move focus outwards to restoring the lost pride of the Soviet empire and preventing former Soviet republics from drifting into the western orbit. His methods have been support for pro-Russian parties and governments and undermining the pro-western ones through clandestine operations, economic pressure, support for separatists and war. The invasion of Georgia in 2008 was the prime example and despite western protests, he succeeded in keeping Georgia within the Kremlin’s grasp. The occupation and annexation of Crimea this year was another success to which he can now add south-east Ukraine.

Putin may choose not to act immediately on his advantage or continue provoking the Baltic states and other former satellites (both Moldova and Kazakhstan have recently been threatened) but he identifies the political weakness in the west. He sees Obama facing near-certain humiliation in the mid-term elections and David Cameron facing rebellion within his own party over Britain’s European Union membership, the possible dissolution of the United Kingdom in the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence and a defeat in the general elections in nine months. On the continent France is weaker than ever with the rise of the far-right and the plummeting popularity of Francois Hollande’s government, while in Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel is concerned mainly with safeguarding her country’s economy, rather than foreign policy.

As it is the west is increasingly being distracted by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. This could seem like the best opportunity for him to push on. Israel may also find it much harder to remain on the sidelines if the conflict between Russia and the west broadens and intensifies. Since the Georgian War broke out and Putin sternly warned President Shimon Peres in a meeting between them to pull out Israeli security advisors doing business in Tbilisi, Israel has done everything not to choose sides in the Kremlin’s crises.

Israel kept out even when the Obama administration urged it to condemn the occupation of Crimea. A government with Avigdor Lieberman as its foreign minister is unlikely to condemn Russia and even Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s most westernized prime minister ever, wouldn’t rush to extend Obama, his least favorite American politician, diplomatic support. But at the end of the day Israel wants to see itself as an inseparable part of the western strategic alliance and in a future Russian-engineered confrontation, perhaps after Lieberman leaves the coalition, it is hard to see how Israel can avoid having to choose a side.

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