Why Cornering Putin Would Backfire

Separatists in Eastern Ukraine appear to have been driven close to defeat with the territory – that that they control – shrinking by as much as two-thirds, according to the Ukranian military. But can the latter finish the job? Not as long as Vladimir Putin stands in the way.
Some Russia watchers have become hopeful that the latest round of Western sanctions would convince the Russian leader to throw the rebels in Eastern Ukraine under the bus.
But such hopes could prove illusory.  Putin cannot afford lose face in the Ukrainian crisis as this would rob him of the most important source of legitimacy – popular support, which now, to a large extent,  hinges on Putin keeping Crimea in Russia and fulfilling to protect ethnic Russians in post-Soviet Eurasia.
If Putin allows rebels to be completely defeated without attaining a deal that accommodates some of Russia’s and separatists’ wishes, he would lose face and much of the popular support. In fact, there has emerged a notable consensus among Russian experts of various political allegiances on how Putin has come to view the battle for Eastern Ukraine as the battle for Russia that he has to wage against West and its proxies. Not only pro-Kremlin pundit Sergei Markov, but also more independent Sergei Lukyanov of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy and Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center hold that view.
Therefore, I would expect the Russian to put not only covert, but also overt boots on the ground, if he determines that the defeat of the separatists is imminent. Also, even if there is a stalemate in E. Ukraine,  Putin can still send troops to that part of Ukraine, if he concludes that Ukraine is finitely ‘lost’ to West and that the latter is determined to fight a new Cold War. In such a scenario Putin will conclude that he has got nothing to lose by antagonizing  Washington, Brussels and Kiev, further, and, therefore, it would be in Russia’s interest to create a buffer state – that would be not unlike Abkhazia or Ossetia – to separate Russia from NATO in that new Cold War.
As Spiegel has recently reminded us,  Putin has shared his view – that one should avoid cornering opponents – with  authors of his 2000 interview-based biography "First Person". Indeed,  history has highlighted the danger of cornering your opponent time and again. John F Kennedy was aware of that danger when confronting Nikita Khrushchev over Soviet missiles covertly deployed in Cuba. In fact, the nuclear war between the two superpowers might have become inevitable if Kennedy didn’t leave Khrushchev with an opportunity to step back from the abyss without losing face in the course of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Hopefully, both Western leaders and Ukrainian leaders understand what Putin can do if cornered in either of the two scenarios I have described above. Maybe it is this understanding that Russia will intervene overtly (perhaps spelled out to him by Moscow in a private message) that explains why Ukrainian president Poroshenko, in spite of advances of Ukrainian forces, has asked Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko to host meeting of “on resolution of conflict by all interested parties” in Minsk on Thursday. He might be taking a page from Heydar Aliev – who when he returned to power in a coup in Azerbaijan in 1993 as Azeri troops were retreating in Karabakh conflict, first ordered an offensive, which succeeded in regaining some relatively small parts of Azeri land outside Karabakh that Armenians had taken earlier. Once that limited military success was achieved to convince Azeri public of Aliev’s ability to ‘defend Azerbaijan’ and show to Armenians that he is no softie, Aliev built up enough credibility in eyes of his compatriots to negotiate a ceasefire even though hundreds of thousands of Azeri still remained refugees unable to return to their homes. And, unlike previous ceasefires that Armenians and Azeri had negotiated, that 1994 ceasefire actually held and still holds to date.
Hopefully, the Minsk talks will edge the conflicting sides closer to a lasting ceasefire with subsequent resolution of the conflict on terms that would incorporate such elements of Poroshenko’s own peace plan, as decentralization, along with codification of Ukraine’s military neutrality and binding unequivocal guarantees (rather than assurances) of post-Crimea Ukraine’s territorial integrity.


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