Putin’s Long War

Elizabeth Pond

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of Beyond the Wall and The Rebirth of Europe.

A year after Russian President Vladimir Putin shocked Europe by annexing Crimea and fomenting rebellion in Ukraine’s previously quiet Donbas region, his undeclared war on the Russians’ East Slav brothers has become the new-old normal on the continent. It has displaced the seven-decade interlude in which Europeans thought they had established a post-modern peace order in their heartland, and made armed land grabs of neighbors’ territory obsolete. It has induced a loss of hope in restoring Europe’s embodiment of the liberal peace first envisioned by Immanuel Kant within less than one or two generations—if at all. It has confronted the West with a stark choice between appeasement of a regional bully or war with no mutually understood restraints in a still nuclear-armed world.

Already the truce hammered out by the Ukrainian, Russian, German, and French leaders on 12 February in all-night negotiations at Minsk has collapsed in reality, if not in name. Separatists in eastern Ukraine and their allied Russian “paid volunteers” never halted their saturation shelling of the town of Debaltseve at one minute past midnight on 15 February, as was agreed, but kept up the barrage for three and a half more days until the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers surrounded there either died, were captured, or managed to retreat under withering fire to contiguous Ukrainian territory. As of this writing, only a few of the heavy weapons that were supposed to begin withdrawing from the designated buffer zone on 16 February have been pulled back on either side. The rebels have not allowed international monitors to take up their designated posts in the ceasefire zone or on the Russian-controlled Ukrainian border.

The truce that was patched up again after the devastation in Debaltseve will probably provide no more than a brief winter respite before a spring offensive by rebels and Russian professional soldiers in eastern Ukraine. (Moscow still denies that any of its troops and modern heavy weapons are there, despite all the direct photographic, electronic, and eyewitness evidence of their presence and the indirect evidence of artillery and multiple rocket shell targeting on Debaltseve with a precision that only well-trained Russian crews could provide.)

Even before this month’s ceasefire, German Chancellor Angela Merkel provided the epitaph for European peace in warning that she could see no realistic scenario in which any arms the West might give Ukraine could trump Moscow’s escalation dominance in the theatre. Russia had the credibility of caring more about its immediate Ukraine environment than any outside power did, and possessed the dominant local military might to enforce its interests by upping the ante ad infinitum over any weapon friends of Ukraine might introduce. The only hope Merkel could offer was that, with strategic patience, the West might eventually triumph, just as it ended the Cold War—in tandem with the unmentioned Soviet statesman Mikhail Gorbachev—with the bloodless fall of the 28-year-old Berlin Wall in 1989.

This dark prognosis has only been reached in recent weeks. Throughout 2014, Europeans still hoped that their accustomed peace order could be restored soon. As Russian special forces in unmarked uniforms and masks abruptly ended the quarter century of amicable coexistence of the Russian and Ukrainian fleets in their Crimean port last March and deposed the peninsula’s regional government at gunpoint, U.S. President Barack Obama dismissed post-superpower Russia as little more than a regional nuisance. Chancellor Merkel took Vladimir Putin’s irredentist threat far more seriously. She warned the American president that his Russian counterpart was living “in another world” of czarist-era nationalism that, she implied, precluded any cost-benefit rationality or compromise. Obama, preoccupied with pullback from America’s overstretch in the Middle East and Afghanistan and his pivot to Asia, in effect outsourced second-rank diplomacy about Ukraine to Berlin. For the first time since 1945 Germany had thrust upon it geopolitical leadership of Europe commensurate with the country’s economic clout. And for the first time Merkel, whose hallmark was leading from behind, stepped out in front.

As Putin raced toward annexation of Crimea, Merkel told the Bundestag on 13 March last year that the previous sixty-nine years of reconciliation, peace, and freedom that had been created by an integrating Europe and the transatlantic democratic alliance was a feat that “till today borders on a miracle.” Russia’s heist of Ukrainian territory was unacceptable in twenty-first century Europe and represented a reversion to “the law of the jungle,” to “the right of the strong against the strength of rights,” Merkel said. She reprimanded Russia for violating international law and specific treaties that Moscow was a party to, including the 1975 Helsinki ban on changing European borders by force and Russia’s 1994 assurance of Ukrainian borders in return for Kiev’s surrender of its huge arsenal of inherited Soviet nuclear weapons to Moscow.

In dozens of phone calls she warned a disbelieving Putin that Europe’s hard-won peace order trumped commercial interests and that this time he could not count on Germany’s pro-Russian business lobby to veto European economic retaliation for his provocation. Europe and America announced publicly that they would not intervene militarily to defend Ukraine, a non-NATO member, but would gamble instead on countering Russia’s immediate military faits accomplis with slow-impact financial sanctions on Putin’s entourage.

Merkel was the West’s logical interface with the Russian president. She was the ultimate Putin-Versteher, or “Putin understander,” not in the original coinage of this euphemism to describe German apologists for Putin, but in the sense of someone who grew up in Communist East Germany, spoke Russian, and sensed intuitively the Russian mindset. She understood Putin’s paranoia about being encircled by NATO, even if that alliance expanded not by armed seizure of neighbors’ territory but by responding to the clamor for membership by Central Europeans fearing Russian recidivism to Soviet-style forced hegemony. She comprehended the threat to his own rule that Putin feared from street protests in Kiev; he had served as a KGB recruiter of spies in East Germany in the 1980s and watched the Berlin Wall fall to people power overnight.

Merkel also grasped Putin’s resentment at the subsequent Soviet implosion that he calls the twentieth century’s “greatest geopolitical catastrophe”—and at the independent Ukraine that emerged from it and illicitly tempted its people, in his view, to betray their elder brother Russians by no longer obeying them as tradition required. And the humiliation felt by Putin over the cumulative shrinkage of his influence in Ukraine was well known in Berlin. He first lost all of Ukraine when his protégé, the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, let police snipers murder scores of pro-democracy Euromaidan protesters a year ago. The violence alienated even Yanukovych’s own party and left him no choice but to abscond to Russian exile—thus ensuring that Ukraine would not add its Slavic weight to Putin’s pet “Eurasian Union” project and effectively voiding the enterprise. Putin’s insistence that Kiev join the newborn Eurasian Union, sometimes called the Soviet Union lite, was the original trigger to the pro-European Euromaidan demonstrations.

Putin next lost Novorossiya, as he anachronistically called the eastern third of today’s Ukraine that he suddenly claimed for Russia because Catherine the Great called it that when she seized “new Russia” from the Ottoman empire in the eighteenth century. He seemed to believe Russia’s own drumbeat propaganda message that discontented Russian speakers in the entire region would rise up if Russian special forces just ignited a rebellion there. Yet the masses failed to revolt. Only in the rustbelt of the Donbas could Russian proxies mobilize ill-paid retirees and buy or coerce enough additional support to set up the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Indeed, in the east as a whole, where many made no clear distinction between Russian and Ukrainian ethnicity, opinion polls showed that a majority still favored staying within the Ukrainian state.

Moreover, Merkel realized that Moscow’s cost-free takeover of Crimea in the name of restoring Russia’s lost greatness—the greatly outgunned Ukrainian army on the peninsula did not resist the regional coup, and no Russian blood was shed—was boosting popular approval ratings of Putin to more than 80 percent. This gave him new domestic legitimation even as his decade-old social contract of restoring order and a better life to a new urban middle class in post-Soviet Russia was becoming ineffectual in a time of economic slowdown.

Merkel therefore did not expect to budge the Russian leader from his zero-sum view of international relations and turn him into a cooperative win-win pragmatist, however much his own bank account was profiting from globalism and hydrocarbon rents as he reestablished the authoritarian rule that was the historic Russian default from the Romanovs to Stalin to Putin. Nor did she expect to deflect him from his reversion to the historic Russian sense of victimhood and need for a security so absolute that it required the absolute insecurity of neighbors in its sphere of influence.

She did, however, see Putin as an improvising tactician rather than a single-minded strategist. This made him unpredictable, but it also allowed for movement. In the first stage of the Ukraine crisis she repeatedly offered to help him save face if he would cease his depredations, to the point of suggesting European Union-Eurasian Union talks on a common economic space. She hoped to keep him talking rather than shooting for as long as possible and to nudge him toward a more realistic perception of the advantages he was losing and the tactical costs he was incurring in his drive to punish the Ukrainians and the West for their treatment of Russia as a second-class power.

Merkel first prepared the domestic foundation to support her diplomacy. She forged a close policy partnership with her Social Democratic Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He and others in his parliamentary caucus weaned the Social Democrats from their romantic nostalgia for the old Ostpolitik days of Chancellor Willy Brandt. Together, the grand coalition between the Social Democrats and her own conservatives gave Merkel an 80 percent majority in the Bundestag in support of targeted sanctions against Russia.

The chancellor then rallied German businessmen to the cause of sanctions—well before the tragic shooting down of the Malaysian passenger airliner over rebel Ukrainian territory in mid-July, an event that is widely credited with causing a change of heart in Germany’s pro-Russian elites.

Finally, Merkel took the sacrifices that German importers and exporters were ready to make—the huge Russian-German trade would shrink by a fifth from 2013 to 2014—to her EU partners. She argued that the French should make their own sacrifices by not delivering the two Mistral helicopter carriers they had contracted to sell the Russians and that the British should enforce their money-laundering laws in dealing with the many Russian tycoons who have made their second home in London. In the end, she was able to deliver the unanimous vote of all twenty-eight European Union members that was required to approve sanctions—and she saw to it that the authorization was written with enough flexibility to add or subtract names on the target list without making every shift subject to a new vote of unanimity. It was a quiet tour de force.

One task Merkel did not take on was persuading the generally Russophile German public that Putin’s behavior was unacceptable. That did not matter, however, because foreign policy remains an elite exercise in Germany—and because the Malaysia Air tragedy did change popular perceptions of the Russians and yield 70 percent public approval of sanctions.

In mid-April Merkel initiated a brief Geneva agreement that put onto paper a basic wish list: stopping the violence, disarming illegal armed groups, returning seized buildings to their rightful owners, and giving international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) a monitoring role in eastern Ukraine. By bringing Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart together at the same table, the Geneva accord also finessed Moscow’s tacit recognition of the legitimacy of the interim Ukrainian government (appointed by parliament after Yanukovych fled) that Russian propaganda was presenting as the illegitimate result of a fascist coup.

Ironically, in this first stage the West was aided by the weakness of the provisional Ukrainian government. Over five weeks in April and May, Putin mounted menacing war games by placing up to 80,000 Russian troops on high alert on Ukraine’s northern, eastern, and southern borders. But he did not need to invade in order to extend his influence. Local mercenaries, criminal gangs, and other proxies under the command of Russian special forces were doing quite nicely in occupying administrative buildings in a string of medium-sized towns in eastern Ukraine. And Putin presumably thought he could control whichever leading politicians emerged in Kiev without having to shed Russian blood. In this decision he displayed a tactical caution in preferring the weapon of intimidation to the weapon of military occupation, with its risks of quagmire and perhaps even guerrilla resistance.

The second phase of the Ukraine crisis began with the unexpected landslide election in late May of President Petro Poroshenko, the “chocolate king” oligarch who had served in several previous crony governments but had supported the Euromaidan demonstrations from their beginnings in late 2013. Poroshenko quickly sent the Ukrainian army and militias on an “anti-terror” counteroffensive to recover territory lost to the rebels and their Russian special forces allies. In April the long-neglected, underfunded army had failed miserably in the same mission, in part because hardly any soldiers had such simple protection as Kevlar vests or night goggles, and also because the Ukrainians still couldn’t believe that they must shoot at brother-Russians who were shooting at them. There were defections to the pro-Russian side. Some troop carriers were lost because they were surrounded by local pro-Russian babushkas, and the soldiers didn’t want to use force against them.

In summer, however, older Ukrainian soldiers who had once formed the backbone of the NCO equivalent in the Soviet Army helped the ragtag Ukrainian forces and the better equipped militias to get their act together. They gradually recovered most of the territory held by the rebels and by mid-July were besieging the remaining rebel strongholds in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. In Kiev hopes rose that the Ukrainians could prevent further dismemberment of their country. On the rebel side, Colonel Igor Strelkov, the designated Russian military intelligence commander of the local Russian proxies and mercenaries who were being pushed back, complained bitterly that they were being deserted by the Russian leadership and pled for more heavy weapons. The Russians obliged by rolling over the border into the Donbas more multiple rocket launchers, anti-aircraft missile systems, plentiful ammunition, and the powerful Russian ground-to-air Buk missile system that could reach the altitude of 10,000 meters, where the Malaysian Air jet was flying when it was shot down. The Russians apparently also removed Strelkov from his post as defense minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic—although, officially, he resigned and returned to Moscow.

“From the first half of August, the situation changed fundamentally,” wrote Russian academic and human-rights activist Nikolay Mitrokhin recently in a post on the opposition website Grani.ru that is now blocked in Russia. “The Ukrainian army was no longer opposed by divided and poorly armed groups of militants,” but faced instead a Russian army with dozens of tanks and artillery pieces, under the leadership of an experienced Russian general. In late August the first known direct invasion of eastern Ukraine by Russian units of paratroopers followed, rolled back the Ukrainian sieges, and delivered Putin’s clear message that he would not let his proxies in the Donbas be defeated. Some or perhaps all of the Russian airborne troops returned to their home bases after their punitive raid. The third phase was about to start.

President Poroshenko understood Putin’s red line instantly and on 5 September agreed through an envoy on a truce with rebel leaders that made the half of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts then under rebel control a no-go zone for Ukrainian troops. The ceasefire was never fully observed, but it deescalated the fighting to low-intensity shelling, and the frontline was relatively stable for four months.

German diplomacy in this interlude consisted of trying to freeze the conflict by converting the 5 September truce and subsequent protocol into a permanent comprehensive ceasefire or at the least into an acceptance of common constraints on escalation. If that could not be agreed on, the fear was that Europe would enter a new era of acute Russian-Western hostility without even the mutual restraints that the two superpowers settled on for the sake of humanity’s survival at the height of the Cold War. The nightmare was only fuelled by Putin’s less-than-veiled threat that he possessed escalation dominance and that he could resort to nuclear weapons to maintain that dominance. He boasted that his troops could be in Kiev within two days if he so ordered and could be in the capitals of NATO member states— Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and Romania—just as fast. Indeed, he has been graphically illustrating the point by aggressively testing NATO defenses of the Baltic and Atlantic states daily on the seas and in the air—and endangering passenger flights by sending bombers with transponders turned off into airspace that civilian liners use.

Any deal on de-escalation would have had to rest on a realistic admission in Kiev that all the moral outrage in the West at Putin’s bullying of a weak neighbor would not put Western boots on the ground to defend a non-member of NATO on Russia’s doorstep—and that the least worst outcome for Ukraine would be to surrender parts of the east to Russia de facto if that could prevent deeper dismemberment of the country. It would have had to rest further on an admission by the tactician in the Kremlin that the West’s sanctions, along with the drastic fall in the market price for Russia’s hydrocarbon exports, were already ruining the Russian economy—and that rescuing the national economy should take priority over the czar’s personal grip on power.

Neither precondition was fulfilled. Poroshenko acknowledged the harsh facts with his head but not with his heart, and whatever inclination he might have had to endorse a bitter compromise withered when the first post-Euromaidan parliamentary elections were finally held in October and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s harder-line party outpolled Poroshenko’s by 0.3 percent. And in Moscow Putin held firm in his conviction that politics and will trump economics—and the Russian muzhik’s stoicism in suffering will always trump the West’s effete narcissism in any duel.

The deadlock of the period was ambiguous enough to keep alive a residual hope that the opportunistic Putin might still heed the mounting costs of military overstretch, growing opposition by Russian women to sending their sons and husbands to die in the secret war in Ukraine, revival of a moribund NATO, and consolidation of a new Ukrainian identity in opposition to the Russian enemy. No Russian would, of course, explain to the czar that Russia was in long-term decline demographically, economically, and ideologically, and could not long support a belligerent defiance of the West in a globalized world. Yet realists like Alexei Kudrin, a former Russian finance minister and economics adviser to Putin who remained on good terms with his ex-boss, did enjoy a license to admit publicly that the nation’s economy was already reeling from the sanctions in annual capital flight of $130 billion, a close to 50 percent drop in the value of the ruble, approaching negative growth of up to 5 percent, and a drought of incoming Western investment and know-how that would condemn Russia to the stagnation of a pre-modern extraction economy. The problem was that Kudrin never seemed to break through the president’s small inner circle of secret police, rentier oligarchs, and yes-men to persuade Putin of the looming catastrophe.

Now the debacle of this month’s last attempt at truce has killed the last residual hope. What will the fourth stage of the Ukraine crisis look like in 2015?

Clearly the end of today’s neo-Cold War will not occur the way the original superpowers did a quarter-century ago, when Washington ostentatiously outspent and out-innovated Moscow in weapons as well as general prosperity just as the Soviet economy and society reached a dead end, and Mikhail Gorbachev decided to trade in empire and feud for soft power and animal spirits. Nor will it come alone from Angela Merkel’s strategic patience that the Financial Times’ Philip Stephens parses as long on patience but short on strategy. Nor will it come from Vladimir Putin’s progressive foreclosure of his own options by doubling down militarily after every failure to persuade non-Russians of the splendors of Great Russian hegemony. The only certainty is that the war between Russia and Ukraine will go on.

Elizabeth Pond is a journalist based in Berlin and the author of several books about Germany, Europe, and the Balkans. They include “Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification” (Brookings Institution)

An abridged version of this article originally appeared on March 5, 2015 in The New Statesman.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.