Portnikov: Putin has “only bad options in Ukraine”


2014/09/11 • Analysis & Opinion

Despite a hard-won and well-deserved reputation for being able to outsmart Western leaders in pursuit of his goals, Vladimir Putin, as a result of his own recent actions, has left himself with only bad options for his next move in Ukraine, according to Vitaly Portnikov.

In a commentary on Liga.net today, the journalist says that those who think the European Union and the West are at a dead end in Ukraine are wrong. In fact, it is Putin who is now in a corner and cannot make another move without damaging something of importance to Moscow.

The European Union and the United States have sanctions ready to go into effect if Russia violates the ceasefire, the commentator says, and they are only delaying the implementation of them in order to try to prolong the ceasefire, knowing that if they leave Putin with nothing to lose, he will almost certainly launch a larger attack.

“If Kyiv declares that the ceasefire has been violated and Russian forces attack Mariupol or any other Ukrainian city, the sanctions will be immediately introduced by both the Americans and the Europeans.” In that circumstance, they will not have any need to meet and discuss what to do next.

That brings to the fore two important questions: On the one hand, Portnikov says, it raises the question: what in fact is Ukraine interested in? “In the breakdown of the ceasefire and new sanctions – or in a lengthy peace which will permit us to prepare for the repulse of new attacks by the aggressor?”

And on the other, “how will Vladimir Putin act in this situation? Is he prepared for the end of the ceasefire and new sanctions” or will he play for time to try to push Ukraine into offering the “Donetsk Peoples Republic” and “Luhansk Peoples Republic” the status of “special regions” within Ukraine?

“However strange it may sound” to those who see Putin as moving from victory to victory, the Kremlin leader “does not have any moves in the existing situation” that do not come at a price he may not want or even be able to pay.  Some think he is simply using the ceasefire to regroup his forces for an attack on Mariupol, but that city is not an end in itself.

If Putin “needs” it, he needs it to secure a land bridge to Russian-occupied Crimea and so that the “Donetsk Peoples Republic” will have a port, Portnikov says. But for a land bridge he needs far more territory that just Mariupol – and getting it would require a full-scale military action, with Western sanctions and an end to energy exports to Europe a certainty, and large numbers of combat deaths that he could not hide a probability.

Russian public opinion naturally would be affected by the return of large numbers of caskets from Ukraine, and Putin could not hide them or be sure now just how it might be changed and what that would mean for him. Almost certainly it would not be good.

And as far as Mariupol becoming a port for the “Donetsk Peoples Republic,” the commentator continues, that is almost certainly nonsensical.  “For the Donetsk separatists, Mariupol would simply become another city in which they could steal. In any case, it would not be a port, even if it were “occupied.”

Putin likely retains his desire to annex the Donbas or have it become some kind of frozen conflict he can use against Kyiv.  But Ukraine is not going to agree to that, and the West is going to support Kyiv.  It is obvious, Portnikov says, that “in the Kremlin they do not know how to package all this in a more suitable way. And they are not going to find one.”

A major reason for that is “the basic Russian political trend is a dialogue of tsars. In the plans of the Kremlin, Putin must simply agree with Poroshenko as he agreed with Yanukovich. And if that does not happen, then he needs another tsar.” But that Moscow assumption fails to understand that this is not between two tsars but between a tsar and the Ukrainian nation.

The Ukrainian nation is not going to give way, Portnikov says, whatever pressure Putin brings on Poroshenko.  Consequently, Putin will continue to maneuver “between the renewal of war and a deceptive peace, at least as long as he has the strength to do so – and during this time, the economic problems will build and the money for war and for buying loyal subordinates will become ever less.”

“Putin will burn himself out like a little old lamp,” the commentator says. “And our task along with the West” is to force Putin to maneuver in this way “forever, thereby depriving him of resources, the initiative, and the understanding of what is happening.” In the end, “he must burn himself out.”

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  • nysq1

    Interesting analysis-I hope he is right

  • Stian Bjøntegaard

    As in a chessgame, Putin has played the opening with home prep, but in the middle game, the advantage gets equalized…

  • Dave Ralph

    The greatest danger to Ukraine in this conflict is overconfidence. We’ve already seen the negative effects of such overconfidence in Poroshenko’s decision to prosecute the war in the Donbass with no Plan B. Kyiv has consistently failed to prepare for the worst, instead merely hoping for the best while clinging to various delusions such as NATO military support for taking back the Donbass. Putin is now counting on Ukraine’s radical nationalists to overthrow Poroshenko and install an anti-EU dictatorship in his place. This is an outcome where Putin can keep Kyiv from moving to Europe without the costs of a large-scale invasion.

    • RR

      Ukraine’s nationals are not going to install an anti-EU dictatorship. That’s crazy thinking. I predict that Putin will continue intimidating Ukraine with subversive attacks. He will continue to try to force negotiations of Ukraine giving up sovereignty. When winter comes he will attempt a multi-front attack with the goal of testing Ukraine’s war abilities during winter. He may use his air force as distractions. (Didn’t he just send many planes to Crimea?) In my opinion airspace in southern Ukraine and Crimea needs to be closed. Air defense around major cities need to be strengthened. Strategic parts of the “wall” (Crimea, Transdniestra, Donbas) need to be completed before winter. Ukraine needs to strategically create as many barriers as possible and to raise the stakes for Putin’s planned actions.