The downing of Malaysia Flight 17 by Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine put the Ukraine crisis back into the world’s attention, and marked a dramatic escalation in the seriousness of the crisis. 295 people were killed, a civilian airliner shot down, and Russia appears to be at least indirectly responsible through its arming of the separatists. So where do we go from here?
Here’s the situation: Vlad the improviser stumbled into his Ukraine policy with a series of reactions to the downfall of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych. Suddenly Ukraine shifted from a tilt toward Russia to a strong lean towards Europe, and Putin’s reaction was to grab Crimea, and then foment unrest in the ethnic Russian regions of eastern Ukraine. Personally, I get the Crimea gambit. Crimea was traditionally Russian and give to Ukraine by a misguided Khrushchev in 1954. But the rest?
For Putin, who was losing his luster at home, it was an unexpected political opportunity. He could play the Russian nationalist anti-American card and watch his popularity grow. Though the West feared an effort to grab all of eastern Ukraine, Putin instead tried to maintain a balancing act.
Knowing that the Russian economy in the era of globalization needs to keep reasonably healthy ties with the EU, he avoided the massive land grab that could have forced the EU into more draconian anti-Russia sanctions. However, he also sent units from Russian intelligence there to start/support an indigenous uprising, knowing it might flounder, but counting on it destabilizing the hated Ukrainian government and helping keep his nationalist bona fides in place.
For awhile, it seemed to work. The West seemed to be losing interest in the conflict, especially as it was clear the Russian separatists were not faring well against the Ukrainian military. At home his stoking of Russian nationalism kept his popularity high. The balancing act seemed to be a bit of political genius.
However, supporting a rebellion is tricky. While Putin might have been OK with the crisis dragging out indefinitely, the rebels were fighting for a cause. Angry that Russia seemed to be “deserting them” (read: just giving them weapons and support, but not actively participating in the effort to build New Russia), they exercised more autonomy and, as we know, brought down Malaysian Flight 17.
So what now? First, the US has to recognize that there are limited options and all require serious cooperation and even leadership from the EU. While some in the US huff that Obama hasn’t done enough, blaming the American President for what goes on in the rest of the world, the reality is that US power is limited.
The key is that Russian President Putin knows that the Soviet Union fell primarily because its economy was isolated. Globalization began in earnest in the 80s, and the rapid connections in the West combined with the economic failures of Communism in the Soviet bloc made economic disintegration inevitable. If Putin severed ties and focused on building his own internal empire, the result would be disaster.
Moreover, Russia’s future is very much connected to the EU, and Germany in particular. Earlier this month Germans, already incensed by the monitoring of Chancellor Merkel’s phone calls for years, kicked out a CIA agent who was spying on Germany from the US embassy. German Chancellor Merkel is clearly not an American proxy; the Germans have become more independent in crafting a foreign policy to serve European interests. The Cold War is long dead.
It is Germany and the EU that can put the most pressure on Putin, and Merkel’s leverage with the Russian President has been increased by this tragedy. Not only are the Europeans feeling more pressure than ever to turn up the heat on Russia, but Putin has to recognize that his balancing act is a very dangerous one.
President Obama needs to keep rhetorical pressure on Russia and be in close consultation with Merkel, crafting a plan to both pressure the Russian leader but also give him a face saving way to withdraw support from the rebels. What we do not need is rah rah Cold War style chest thumping, nor do we need to up the ante by dramatically increasing military aid for Ukraine. That would force Putin into holding firm – he will not allow himself to be seen as giving in to the US. At best, it would only deepen and lengthen the duration of the crisis. At first, things could spin out of control.
That’s in no one’s interest, saving the hyper-nationalists on either side. A gradual reduction in tension, with action more behind the scenes than in the public eye, is the best way out. So far, the Obama Administration has behaved admirably, keeping up pressure but not being belligerent. More importantly, the US has learned that we do not need to lead, especially not when our direct interests are not at stake.
Ultimately it is up to Putin – he is a very vain politician, and the West needs to construct a path to de-escalate the crisis so that he saves face. Recognizing that the Crimea is part of Russia is perhaps part of the calculus. Putin giving up on any further annexation of eastern Ukraine must be another.