Wed, Nov 19, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Russian frozen conflicts show no signs of thaw

By Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev

What is the geopolitical payoff for Russia in turning an unstable Donbas into an enduring fixture of its southwestern hinterland? Why would the Kremlin show “respect” for elections that virtually no other country will recognize?

The answer could be simply that the Kremlin has painted itself into a corner. Russia’s state-owned media, together with domestic nationalists, have fomented a frenzied public atmosphere that deprives Russia’s policy toward Ukraine of tactical flexibility. In lieu of a comprehensive strategy, the Kremlin is relying on ad hoc gestures to ensure that the Russian public, on whose support it depends, does not view it as betraying the rebels in Ukraine. For their part, Ukrainian rebel leaders, loath to lose their newly acquired fiefdoms, are lobbying fervently against any rapprochement between the Russian and Ukrainian governments.

At the same time, Putin presumably wants to show the West that its policies toward Russia, including tough economic sanctions, will not work. Creating more frozen conflicts, which the West abhors, but is powerless to resolve, might seem like a useful way to achieve this.

In short, Russia’s actions in Donbas may be more symbolic and opportunistic than strategic, but that does not make them any less dangerous. Putin has now lost the initiative that he seized in Crimea by turning the bloody battle over Donbas into an unresolvable stalemate. With oil prices tumbling, Putin might now feel compelled to make another desperate and destructive move, in the hope of convincing the world that he is still in control of the situation. However, efforts to identify some grand strategic vision behind such spoiler tactics will continue to prove futile.

Facing pressure from all sides, Putin is losing his geostrategic footing. His foreign-policy accomplishments over the past year should not be overestimated. By annexing Crimea, he lost Ukraine. And by “freezing” Donbas, he has buried his quasi-imperial EEU dream once and for all.

Stephen Holmes is a professor at New York University School of Law. Ivan Krastev is chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, Austria.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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