Monday, 1 September 2014


Things are hotting up in the Ukraine. After earlier gains by the Ukrainian army, the pro-Russian rebels have successfully counter-attacked. They have reportedly recaptured Lugansk airport, and have even opened a new front further South near the Sea of Azov, where the city of Mariupol seems to be threatened.

Of course what has happened is that, following earlier setbacks for the rebels, Putin has slowly turned up the dial of Russian military support, either in the shape of more or better weapons or "special volunteers" – probably both. It's not unlikely that a stray column of tanks may have crossed the border as well.

The pattern the war has been developing in recent month reveals very clearly the kind of game Putin is playing, and also how it is likely to play out.

First of all there is Putin's deal position. In a nutshell this is greater autonomy for the majority Russian-speaking parts of the Ukraine – Donetsk and Lugansk provinces mainly – and a settlement that would make it easier for them to secede in the face of future centralizing tendencies from Kiev.

Of course, officially, this is not his position, but simply what he pretends to favour as a fair-minded compromise between two warring third parties in an unfortunate neighbouring country. But of course we know that the rebels in the Eastern Ukraine are his proxies and that he is actually one of the warring parties, and of course he knows that we know this, and he knows that we know that he knows this. The war in the Ukraine is the latest version of the ever popular geopolitical parlour game "we know you know we know," in which leaders base their credibility with their rivals on the degree to which they are knowingly disbelieved.

A slightly bumpy chessboard.
In order to achieve his goals, Putin wishes to rely on resources in the Ukraine as much as possible, that is Ukrainian-grown rebels and equipment seized from the Ukrainian government. But he also knows that the rebels are not strong enough to stand up on their own to a Ukrainian government and army emboldened by support from the West. So he is prepared to slowly turn up the dial of Russian military support until the rebels can maintain a position that applies pressure and economic distress on the Ukrainian government.

A crushing victory is not what he is seeking, as that would ring serious alarm bells in the West, have a unifying effect on Western divisions, and mobilize global opposition. Rather, what he is seeking is a slow-burning effect that won't alarm the unconcerned and which can be translated into a bargaining advantage to achieve his limited goals. Putin, of course, knows that the West opposes this, but he also knows that, beyond economic sanctions, Western countries – of which there are a great many with various degrees of economic engagement with Russia – have little wish to get militarily involved.

At most NATO might think about arming the Ukrainians, supplying intelligence, and even putting in some special forces to train and advise, but he also knows that whatever the West is prepared to do falls far short of what he is prepared to do. Like Putin, the West can turn up its own dial of military support, but not very far. Putin knows this and he knows the West knows this, and they know that he knows this, and, because they do, they also know there is nothing to be gained by playing the game this way and much to lose.

The Western strategy is simple. It depends on its supposed economic and diplomatic hegemony, and its snug alignment with supposedly “universalist values” that privilege the globalist centre, i.e. America and its closest cronies. NATO is very much in the background, and is merely there as a totemic rather than functional force.

But despite all this, the West is effectively fighting the battles of today with the weapons of yesterday, when they faced a much less confident and stable Russia, whose own ideology had just imploded. Under Putin, Russia has a stronger sense of itself and it is not so weak and isolated as it once was. Not only can it resist economic pressures and geopolitical posturing from the West much more than before, but, as opinion polls in Russia seem to indicate, such efforts tend to galvanize Russia behind its president, giving him a strong mandate to keep playing this particular hand.

The West by contrast is in the opposite situation. The tougher things get and the higher the dials are turned up, the less mandate Western leaders feel from their people, many of whom don’t even think sanctions are good idea.

Yes, this again.

The only thing that can reverse this would be if Putin started acting wildly. As long as he stays anchored behind his low-key demands, which can be spun as "a little decentralization," and his slow-burning methods, with gradual turning of the dial when necessary to maintain the rebellion, people in the West are not going to support more robust action or even be aware of what is going on. Putin knows this and the West knows this, and he knows they know, and they know he knows, etc., etc.

The biggest danger to Putin's strategy was the inadvertent downing of the Malaysian Airlines jet. Through a kind of short-lived mass media empathy, it made the conflict real to a lot of people who couldn't care less about it normally. We all travel in jets, and the idea of one being shot down served as an anti-Putin rallying cry. People in the West briefly felt as if Putin was out of control and was attacking them. On the back of this blip in public sentiment, Western leaders started talking tough for a while. This change in global mood also allowed the Ukrainian government to take the initiative by trying to crush the rising before Putin could turn up the dial of military support.

But Putin skilfully rode this setback. He kept the Russian profile low and allowed the Ukrainian army to make the running as the rebels went on the defensive, but once the story faded and the Ukrainian army threatened the twin centres of the rebellion – the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk – he discretely turned up the dial of military support once again. With the world distracted by the antics of Israel, Hamas, and ISIS in the Middle East, and the outbreak of the Ebola virus in Africa it wasn't hard to do.

So the pattern is established now: Putin does not favour wild gambles and moves that allow the Western media to paint him as another Genghis Khan, Hitler, or Attila the Hun. He tries, as much as possible, to stay under the radar and the reaction thresholds of the various NATO members. With former Western interventions against much smaller entities – Iraq, Syria, and Libya – coming badly unstuck, and with a general war weariness in the West, further underlined by the centenary year of the Great War, this is not too difficult to do.

Putin's unwavering focus has been to maintain the rebellion by slowly turning up the dial of military assistance whenever necessary, and to maintain that pressure until the Ukrainian government and their Western backers decide to agree to his terms. This is rather like a geopolitical version of the boiling frog. As long as the changes are gradual, the frog keeps sitting there until it's well and truly poached.

This leaves the threat of sanctions. This is the one weapon that the West is prepared to wield, but in a patchy way that reflects its own diverse economic interests. In pursuit of what he sees as the greater geopolitical good, Putin is willing to pay this price, as long as the Russian public support him. Sanctions can only work if they undermine support for Putin in Russia. As long as Putin sticks to low-key goals that seem reasonable to most Russians, Western sanctions will seem unreasonable and therefore merely serve to galvanize support for Putin in Russia.

Everybody of importance in the West knows exactly what Putin is up to, but they also know that he knows this, and he knows that they know that he knows; and, knowing this, he also knows that they know there is little they can do to stop him.

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