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Putin’s brinkmanship explained

Putin and Ukraine & Russian flags b&wThe guns aren’t entirely silent, but it appears that the ceasefire in East Ukraine is mostly holding. In a conflict that has claimed at least 5,000 lives and threatened to consume even more, the deal struck in Minsk between the Merkel/Hollande-backed Ukrainian government and the pro-Russian rebels assisted by Putin will hopefully hold and the business of rebuilding the shattered east begin. Yet consistently, perhaps echoing the feeble isolationism of Dave and the gang, comment on what’s happening is shockingly poor. It basically amounts to a) Putin being nasty, and b) wanting to expand Russia’s border by hook or by crook. Crimea was his Austria, East Ukraine his Sudetenland. If the West don’t stand up to him Russian tanks could be rolling down the Champs Elysses this time next year. Nonsense, of course. Putin is playing a dangerous game, but it’s not one that remotely invites comparison with Hitler’s plans for conquest.

There are three things that strike me about the war in Ukraine. Firstly, I’m not entirely convinced that Putin is in control as much as Western watchers think, and he would like to pretend. The bulk of rebel fighters are Russian-speaking East Ukrainians and, anecdotallyirregulars fighting in a personal capacity, but with more than a nod and a wink from the Kremlin. For example, fighting has continued without pause in Debaltseve, where Ukrainian army units are surrounded by rebels. Was Putin party to a ceasefire he knew was going to hold save for a small and relatively insignificant military target? Or is it the case that fighters on the ground will carry on regardless? Also, what’s true of the rebels applies to Ukrainian forces too. Or, to be more accurate, Ukrainian and allied troops. It seems they too have their own irregular detachments, which raises questions about who they are accountable to and whether they’re following orders from Kiev or pursuing their own objectives. There is slippage on both sides, and it’s that imperiling the ceasefire.

The second is the viewpoint that Putin is reasserting Russia’s place in the world, beginning with the near abroad. This is undoubtedly the case. Putin wants to be the man that tears up the post-Cold War settlement a victorious NATO imposed on a pitifully weak Russia. Whereas previously nothing could be done as former client states and allies flocked to the EU and the military protection of the Americans, Russia’s new found energy wealth and partial modernisation of its armed forces allowed the projection of power to prevent any further Western encroachment. The bloody morass East Ukraine has become, and the accidental-on-purpose incursions into British airspace and Swedish coastal waters are hardly the most sophisticated semiotica Moscow could have used, but it gets the job done. Yet he needs to be careful. As we know, war is something that can be stumbled into.

The problem is, while Putin was happy to play the high wire act and absorb damaging economic sanctions the collapse in energy prices, whether cooked up by Saudi Arabia in cahoots with the Whitehouse or not, is bad, bad news. Not that the economy was in great shape anyway. All of a sudden, the $720bn renovation of the armed forces is looking shaky. Another of Putin’s considerations is that Russia must avoid a damaging, long-running war. Chechnya and Georgia were one thing, but overt military intervention in Ukraine threatens pitting a largely conscript army against a motivated and increasingly well-armed opposition. Shades of Afghanistan? The bottom line for Putin is the security of his own power and authoritarian rule. Confronting the West reaps him some political capital, but further investments threaten diminishing returns as Russia’s other problems mount. He doesn’t want to add thousands of tricolor-draped coffins to the regime’s difficulties.

What then does Putin want? Formed within the internal security bowels of the decaying Soviet state, he’s imbibed the objectives of the gerontocracy that used to run the place. He wants firm government, secure borders, a non-violable sphere of influence, and to strut around the world stage like a power not locked into demographic decline and an economy dependent on primary industry.

Unfortunately, the intellectual poverty of British political discourse demands this comes with the customary disclaimer. It is preferable that Ukraine stays together and graduates to EU membership. I’d like to see a thorough democratisation of the Russian Federation and for it to take up a seat at Brussels also. I also believe that what should matter when it comes to recalcitrant national minorities wherever they’re found is the aspirations and hopes of the people on the ground, not the convenience or otherwise of lines on maps and spheres of influence for the bigger powers. That also applies to the geographical contiguous Russian minority of East Ukraine and Crimea. No amount of paid-for agitators sent by Moscow can whip up a sense of common identity and hard-done-to grievances if they don’t already exist. It has to be said: the job of analysis is always to understand and explain what’s happening, which is different to excusing and apologising.

13 Comments

  1. Jeffery Davies says:

    I wonder would the Americans would allow Mexicans or Canadians to be helped by Russia to cause trouble in their own backyard na tye yanks want to rule everbody just has with ttip jeff3

  2. mikems says:

    Well it is disappointing to read (word deleted – Ed) like this on a left wing site.

    No mention of the coup d’etat, no mention of US geo-political strategy, just reheated nonsense about Russian expansionist aims.

    Well, where is your evidence for this? You have none that can’t be explained as a reaction to US inspired interventions, first in Georgia, now in Ukraine. Their aim being to, again, bring Russia to its knees and grab its resources.

  3. mikems says:

    Utterly baffled how any intelligent person can come to these conclusions based on what has happened and still is actually happening in Ukraine.

    USA’s stated strategy is to isolate and surround Russia and China. Insane, but that isn’t my problem. I accept that what is now happening has some relation to their stated aims. No so in your case, where such strategy doesn’t exist and mustn’t be mentioned or considered when attacking Putin’s evil Russia.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Mike: I don’t know if you actually read Phil’s piece and even if you did I can understand why you would have disagreed with some of it but you do not appear to have grasped the main elements with which I assume you agree, namely:

    2. the warmongers in the West are absolutely wrong to make comparisons with the expansionism of Hitler’s Germany let alone justify any aggressive stance on that basis;
    3. the post-Cold War settlement after the collapse of the Soviet Union was imposed by a victorious NATO on a weak Russia.
    4. the active intervention in East Ukraine by Putin is much exxagerated.
    5. If you support peace and oppose Western militarism against Russia, you would do far better to build an alliance based on these rather than seek to build positive support for Putin’s regime in spite of the overwhelming evidence of the corrupt and authoritarian nature of his regime and the absence of any significant residual progressive features of the former Soviet Union.

  • mikems says:

    How dare you imply that I support Putin and his regime? Or, come to that, the Soviet Union?

    I am critical that apart from the nods to reality that you quote, the real story is left entirely unstated – that the conflict in the Ukraine starts with the coup d’etat and that was backed by the USA because it is in its interests not the Ukraine’s, not with Putin’s ambitions, whatever they may be.

    If you support peace, as I do, then you must oppose the aggressors and that is the coup regime and its western backers.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Of course the coup is relevant background, but it was essentially a matter internal to the Ukraine. Although it clearly involved aggression towards the elected government of Ukraine, and towards demonstrators, I think its role in opposing the separatists could be seen as defensive. I apologise if I miscontstrued your opinions about Putin etc.

  • Barry Ewart says:

    Didn’t I think Khrushev give Ukraine its independence on a whim? Such was the power of the then elite, top down, undemocratic, USSR ‘bourgeois socialist leaders.’ I sincerely hope the peace holds as I have argued what we have seen is a number of Ukranian working people and pro-Russia working people’s killing each other over the profits of others – Neo-Liberalism from the EC and the West and perhaps Putin and his oligarch friends saw Ukraine as their zone of exploitation. I don’t think you can force people to live in a country they don’t want to so there can be a peaceful negotiated solution. But perhaps as democratic socialists we need to work with sister parties in Europe to make a common cause to kick Neo-Liberalism out of the EC whilst democratic socialists in Russia need to kick Putin and the oligarchs out. Yours in peace, hope and international solidarity!

  • jeffrey davies says:

    i neither trust the americans or the russians they both play a game but america is pushing the russians and that isnt good for europe lets look at it another way do we buy cheaper gas of russia or the dearer one from the yanks who will rule us under the guise of ttip it isnt rocket science jeff3

  • prianikoff says:

    If the job of analysis is to “understand and explain what’s happening”, this article hasn’t done its job very well.
    First of all, there’s the title.
    How was the Minsk agreement an illustration of Putin’s “brinkmanship”?
    Putin was genuinely trying to procure a peace agreement by appealing to the enlightened self-interest of France and Germany. He was offering some tangible victories to the pro-autonomy rebels in the Donbass, many of whom saw the ceasefire as a sell-out.
    The notion that Putin was simply “playing for time” while secretly preparing for war is belied by RT’s current editorial line is the same as yours i.e “the ceasefire is holding”.
    Well it’s clearly not.
    It was never going to hold in Debaltseve, because Kiev’s forces there are on the verge of defeat.
    The rebels know that if they win they will be in a position to unite Donetsk and Lukhansk.
    This will deliver them something far more tangible than the empty promises made by Poroshenko in Minsk.
    The real brinkmanship is coming from Obama’s government, from John Kerry, Joe Biden and General Breedlove, who are preparing to send lethal weapons and troops to Ukraine, threatening a direct conflict with Russia.
    This can’t be stopped by feeble calls for the Russian Federation to be absorbed into the structures of the EU- a complete utopia when the EU can’t even handle Greece & Spain!
    What’s been occurring since 1991 is an imperialist carve up and NATO is the aggressor.

  • mikems says:

    So you have decided to censor my reply to you. I used to like this site, but now I am not so sure it can be trusted.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Mike: The comments policy says: “Be nice….” and I censored one word which was not nice. The whole sense of your comment remained.

  • David Ellis says:

    Well this certainly was neo-Stalinist pro-Putin apologetics wrapped in a very thin venere of analysis. Putin has annexed Crimea and is backing pro-Russian fascist irregulars in East Ukraine. This follows on his dismemberment of Georgia and his many barbaric war crimes in Chechnya. There can be no `understanding’ of imperialist annexations by socialists. We are opposed full stop. Russia out of Ukraine immediately. Ukraine, East and West, must be unified under a revolutionary democracy that sweeps away gangster capitalism whichever imperialism it looks to for succor and support. The most urgent matter is the liberation of the people in the East from the fascist gangsters and their disgusting little fifedoms and I don’t care where they get the arms from to achive this.

    1. James Martin says:

      The most urgent matter David? Well forgive me, but I would have thought that the most urgent matter was to deal with the actual open fascists in this situation. You know, the ones having torch lit marches wearing SS insignia, the ones attacking socialists and communists (after occupying their offices and steeling membership lists), the ones who are in their own well armed and supplied regiments that are incorporated into the army structure. All of these things are in the west of Ukraine, not the east David, and in your haste to see the main enemy as Russia you ignore the real imperialists of the US, NATO an the EU and the real fascists they are supporting. In fact it sounds like you are supporting them too.

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