The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has finally spurred the United States and Europe to agree on imposing additional sanctions on Russia. But Vladimir Putin’s tactics in Ukraine are likely to be far more influenced by his domestic political calculus than by international pressure. In fact, given how important winning — or at least not losing — the proxy war in Ukraine has become to the popularity and legitimacy of the Putin government, the sanctions are unlikely to have much effect in the short run. Instead, it seems probable they will lead to an even greater resolve on Putin’s part to support the separatists in Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine has been good for Putin domestically. As recently as late 2013, after 14 years in power as either president or prime minister, Putin was in trouble. His popularity and the public’s trust in him were at an all-time low. Most troubling for the Kremlin, at least half of Russians did not want him to be reelected president in 2018. But today, despite economic stagnation that could easily lead to recession, Putin’s popularity is again sky high and he seems to be forging the foundations for a lifetime presidency (with or without “elections”).
Rallied by a massive state propaganda machine that has celebrated the annexation of Crimea and cheered on the current, Russian-stoked conflict in southeast Ukraine, Russians seem to be swept up in the euphoria of “saving” their ethnic brethren from the “Nazi junta” in Kiev. At the same time, they have been instilled with a propaganda-induced paranoia about alleged “NATO plots,” and believe Putin is the man most able to defend the motherland from them.
But Putin may soon learn that the propagandistic hysteria he has fanned has a downside. Russians who have embraced the idea that their country is on the side of right in the conflict won’t want to see Putin retreat, physically or rhetorically. Putin knows only too well the history of another strongman, the late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who similarly rode high on the nationalistic sentiments he fanned and then found that his people turned on him after NATO forced him to abandon his foray into Bosnia and Croatia on behalf of ethnic Serbs. Putin is convinced that a retreat — or worse yet, a defeat — in Ukraine is not an option.
In an attempt to thwart what looks like a successful Ukrainian ground offensive to recover sovereignty over the country’s industrial heartland, Russia has, in effect, imposed a no-fly zone over southeast Ukraine. Just since mid-July, separatists have brought down at least four Ukrainian planes — three fighter jets and a military cargo plane — in addition to the Malaysia airliner. There are indications that Russia has escalated the movement of men and heavy equipment across the border.
If, despite these efforts, the separatists continue to lose ground, Putin has two options, which are not mutually exclusive. He might declare Ukraine to be in the throes of a “fratricidal civil war,” using that claim to justify direct military intervention by Russia to protect “innocent civilians.” In that case, Putin would probably invoke the “Libya precedent,” insisting that Russia is only acting the way the West did in Libya in 2011.
This option, however, is not without risks. The Ukrainian army might well put up a fight and, if Russian casualties begin to multiply, Putin’s domestic support could erode quickly. Nearly half of Russians, according to polling, do not want Russia to invade Ukraine.
Putin’s other choice is, while continuing to rattle sabers, to call for an immediate cease-fire followed by “direct negotiations” between Kiev and Russia’s proxies in southeast Ukraine. In such an event, the West would probably put pressure on Ukraine to stop its offensive and enter into the talks. Even though European and U.S. leaders have agreed to impose tougher sanctions, Western countries would like to keep Russian cash, oil and gas flowing — not to mention avert the first war between two major European nations since the end of World War II.
Needless to say, by enabling the separatists to stay in control of the territories they hold today, a Russia-engineered truce would allow Putin a victory at home as well as abroad. He would have stopped the Ukrainian offensive without committing regular troops. Moreover, if the truce and negotiations were to drag on, Ukraine’s economic situation would weaken, undermining support for Ukraine’s activist, pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko, whose government might then be replaced with one that was more pro-Russia. In any case, a truce could be quickly broken by the “rebels” on orders from Moscow, just as the most recent unilateral Ukrainian cease-fire was at the beginning of July.
Despite Monday’s sanction announcement, Russia’s strategy in Ukraine will continue to be shaped by the domestic political needs of the Putin government. Which means a long and bloody stalemate.
Leon Aron is resident scholar and director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.