To review the current state of play in Ukraine right now:
- Russia still has the Crimea, and Rusburger is the new McDonald’s.
- In the Donbass region, the Ukrainian military has won a real, live victory over the rebels, taking back Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, as well as establishing control over the Russian-Ukrainian border. Also, according to Adrian Karatnycky, Kiev is “cutting off pensions and wages to state workers in rebel-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk.” If these new facts on the ground persist, then the ballgame is over for the rebels. Sure, they can hold out in Donetsk and Luhansk for a while. That said, they’re surrounded by Ukrainian forces, fighting amongst themselves, have limited access to resources, and will face an increasingly restive population over time. And as the rebels keep grousing, Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t lifted a finger to help them during their time of greatest need. So whether this ends with a peaceful surrender or a bloody military victory by the Ukrainian government, it’s going to end.
- Putin hasn’t said word one about the developments of the past week. Furthermore, Russian state media has stopped hyping the conflict and stopped calling the Ukrainian government a junta.
- Ukraine now appears to have a good-but-not-great arrangement to import energy from everyone but Russia once the winter months arrive. Furthermore, this could actually spur Ukraine’s economy into being somewhat more energy efficient.
Is it possible that Putin could change his mind over aiding the rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk? Sure, it’s possible, but it’s a pretty bad option for him.
So where does that leave Putin after all of this mess? The Financial Times asked Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, what Putin’s strategy has been:
According to Mr Trenin, that strategy has revolved around three distinct goals since the crisis intensified late last year: keeping Ukraine out of Nato, protecting the status of the Russian language in Ukraine, and maintaining economic links with important Ukrainian enterprises.
If Tremin is correct, then Putin’s tactics in eastern Ukraine have been a complete, unmitigated disaster. Ukraine was never going to join NATO, so he didn’t need to foment a rebellion to secure that gain. The moment Putin cleared his throat on Crimea, Ukraine’s interim president stopped the stupid language law passed by the Rada, so going into eastern Ukraine didn’t help that. As for the maintenance of economic links, well, Ukraine has signed the trade deal with the European Union that was the trigger for the past eight months of craziness.
So it would appear that the outer boundary of Putin’s Novorossiya is … the Crimea. For economic and identity reasons, eastern Ukrainians should have been the keenest to rejoin Mother Russia. But as the Guardian’s Balázs Jarábik put it in the understatement of the week, “Moscow has not been able to find credible political leaders in Ukraine to take ownership of the Novorossiya project.” If Putin can’t find them in Ukraine, he’s going to have a devil of a time finding them anywhere else that’s contiguous to Russia.
Putin has kinda sorta accomplished two things over the past six months:
- Crimea is now a legally illegitimate part of Russia.
- Ukraine has been contained.
From a strategic perspective, I suppose this isn’t a bad haul for Russia — except that a year ago, Putin had a pretty pliant ally in Kiev. Now he has a state with a very strong incentive to get its act together to resist Moscow.
One last thought: In conversations I have had about Putin’s tactics and strategy over the past few months, the one thing that I hear from people in the region is that Putin doesn’t care about the same things the West cares about — i.e., he’s perfectly happy to sacrifice economic growth for reputation and nationalist glory. If this argument is correct, then Putin will have no choice but to interdict in eastern Ukraine, and soon. Otherwise, this adventure in eastern Ukraine will look like a strategic retreat.