Leonid Bershidsky

Putin and the Specter of a Permanent Ukraine Crisis

The puffy face of the man on the screen was distorted by hatred: Eyes narrowed, thin lips pressed together and pushing out sharp words in angry bursts. At times, the right hand — with an expensive watch on the wrist, concealed by too-long shirt and jacket sleeves — slid under the desk, as if he were fumbling for a button to push. Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the nation.

This extraordinary rant Monday evening — an almost hour-long denunciation of Ukraine and all it stands for, peppered with the quaint tangents of an amateur historian, and filled with rage at what he sees as broken promises and slights by the US — left me with a sinking feeling. I’d been both hoping and predicting that Putin, after a few half-hearted attempts at diplomacy, would stop at recognizing the puppet “people’s republics” of eastern Ukraine — the LNR and the DNR — or, at most, incorporate them into Russia itself. The speech, however, sounded at times as though it was the nuclear button Putin was fingering under the desk.

Yet recognition of the two statelets was his only practical option — not a massive invasion of Ukraine, with tanks rolling toward Kyiv and bombs raining down on Ukrainian cities. Though Putin may sound deranged, he’s still seems to be in control of his faculties.

This is by no means the end of the crisis. Nor is the relatively small step Putin took a sign of weakness or anticlimax. It is the strongest move he could have made in the cynical, conspiratorial, hostile world he inhabits.

Some analysts have argued that by recognizing the “republics,” Putin is throwing away his main bargaining chip, his biggest claim on a role in Ukraine’s policymaking: the Minsk agreements of 2015, which would have handed the unrecognized statelets back to Ukraine in exchange for giving them broad autonomy and a veto on major decisions. Yet Putin had despaired of ever being able to use the Minsk provisions. During the dramatically televised Security Council meeting that preceded the speech, his top negotiators told the audience something Putin already knew — that Minsk couldn’t be revived because Ukraine would not accept it.

So Putin chose to trade the diplomatic bargaining chip for a military one. Instead of trying to limit Kyiv’s ability to make important decisions by creating a constitutionally ensconced fifth column, he’s going to use the constant threat of overwhelming force to achieve the same result.

The people’s republics’ constitutions contain claims on more Ukrainian territory, but it’s highly unlikely that Russia will immediately back these up militarily, although the implicit threat will remain. Putin’s next step, spelled out in his recognition decrees, is to send troops to the current contact line to “maintain peace.”

This creates a number of dilemmas both for the Ukrainian authorities and for their Western backers.

Ukraine has been saying for eight years that it’s been fighting Russia, not the separatist republics. In his recent speech at the Munich Security Conference, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy repeated the claim that Ukraine has served as Europe’s “reliable shield” against Russian aggression. Now that Putin has given up on acting by proxy, it will be regular, official Russian troops, not Russian-backed militias, that Ukrainian soldiers face across the contact line — and anyone who’ll try to say there’s no difference will be guilty of wishful thinking.

Shooting at the Russian military, even returning fire, will now be fraught — the riskiest since the conflict entered a slow phase in 2015. The Russian troops massed at Ukraine’s borders — and now indefinitely occupying neighboring Belarus, whose dictator Alexander Lukashenko has given up any pretense of independence — are, to a large extent, there to stay, making the threat of overwhelming punitive action permanent.

On the other hand, not shooting at the Russian troops — which are, in effect, annexing territory that Russia recognized as Ukrainian under the Minsk agreements — is politically tricky. One reason is that the Ukrainian troops and veterans believe it’s Russia they've been fighting all along. Popular support for the military is one of the foundations of Ukraine’s current statehood. The reliable shield rhetoric directed at the West is another reason. A sudden pacifist turn would negate it, making a de-facto capitulation difficult for Zelenskiy.

Elected as a potential peacemaker, he faces a stark choice between becoming a war leader in a potentially suicidal conflict — the role former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili once played — and trying to demilitarize a nation that is accustomed to seeing itself as fighting a just war, gallantly keeping invading hordes away from Europe. Ukraine’s political destabilization is one of Putin’s key goals, and the recognition of the republics undermines Zelenskiy’s domestic and international standing.

The recognition also is a crafty move in Putin’s geopolitical game against the US. Is it an invasion or isn’t it? The Biden’s administration has vowed to punish a Russian invasion of Ukraine with the harshest sanctions imaginable. The US will undoubtedly crank up its own sanctions, but it will be difficult to drum up support for drastic action among its European allies. Many of them, likely including France and Germany, will argue that the statelets have been under Russian control for years and not much has changed. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s united front on Ukraine, which Biden has engineered and enjoyed in the last few months, will be undermined by the sanctions debates.

After beating Putin at his own infowar game for months, Biden may need to shift gears from predicting a major, World War II-style Russian offensive in Ukraine — especially if Zelenskiy chooses the responsible pacifist option in order to spare Ukrainian lives. Yet now that Putin has made an aggressive move by casting away deniability in eastern Ukraine, it won’t be easy for the Biden administration to claim it has prevented an aggression. Proving the US wrong is an important motivation for Putin, one that is often underestimated in the US. If Russian troops move no further and merely maintain a threatening posture, Biden will need to engage in damage control both at home and in Ukraine, where he has earned no points by evacuating diplomats to a safer area.

Of course, a large-scale conflagration remains possible. An accidental clash, a move by rogue actors on either side and Putin’s unconcealed hatred of Ukraine could all cause events to escalate at a moment's notice. The Russian president appears to understand, however, that his interests are not served by such an escalation, or at least not just yet. Otherwise he would have already made a more radical move, or gone for the incorporation of the republics in Russia — a scenario Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, brought up at the Security Council meeting, only to be slapped down by Putin: “This is not being discussed now.”

The separatist statelets’ Crimea-style inclusion remains an escalation option for Putin — one, at any rate, that he'll use before bombing Kyiv.

Short-term, Putin has shown as much restraint as he could muster in his obviously emotional state. Long-term, the destruction of a Western-leaning Ukraine remains a strategic goal for him. He may be satisfied with a Georgia-like scenario — a government that is not openly pro-Russian but fearful of bringing on another Russian incursion and, thus, susceptible to pressure — or he may choose harsh action to achieve more. But he’ll not give up on undermining the neighboring country. Both Ukrainian and Western politicians still need to figure out how to live with that for the foreseeable future.