7:23 AM Saturday, May 26, 2018
Facing Voters in March, Putin May Hold off Escalating War in Ukraine
image/svg+xml Kyiv Lutsk Rivne Zhytomyr Lviv Ternopil Khmelnytskyi Uzhgorod Chernivtsi Vinnytsia Chernigiv Sumy Kharkiv Poltava Cherkasy Kirovohrad Lugansk Dnipropetrovsk Donetsk Zaporizhzhia Mykolaiv Odesa Kherson Simferopol Sevastopol Ivano- Frankivsk

LONDON -- A number of factors suggest that Russia will want to keep the military situation in the Donbas relatively contained for the time being, or at least without a major bout of reescalation.

Ukraine’s Minister of Defense Stepan Poltorak presents Lt. Gen. Antoliy Syrotenko as head of the Ivan Chernyakhovsky National Defense University, Wednesday, in Kyiv. (UNIAN/ Vladimir Gontar)

First: the opinion polls posted this week by the Social Monitoring Centre and the Ukrainian Institute for Social Research must have been encouraging for Moscow. Poroshenko trailed Tymoshenko with 9.5%, versus 11.2% for YT. Yuriy Boyko, the former minister of energy under Yanukovych and leader of the Opposition Bloc came third with 7.5%, and then Vadym Rabinovych with his For Life party also on 7.5%. Boyko and Rabinovych are seen as more aligned with Russian interests, and supportive of cutting deals with Moscow. The populist Oleh Lyashko then polled 6.7% and the pro-EU reform Anatoli Grytsenko had 5.1%.

Net-net, these polls suggest that the pro-EU reform crew might struggle to form a working coalition come elections in 2019. Remember Putin signed a gas deal with Tymoshenko back in 2009 – which eventually put her in jail. The assumption is that another deal could be cut with Moscow. In recent months Poroshenko has taken out two reform hopes – Sakaashvili and Sadovyi. Vakarchuk is keeping his powder dry.

With risks for Moscow from military re-escalation -- and perhaps mindful how political events worked against Saakashvili in Georgia with the emergence of Bidzini Ivanishvilli and Georgia Dream to take the UNM out -- a similar strategy may now be the preferred option for Moscow. Keeping the conflict in Donbas simmering creates fissures in Ukrainian domestic politics.

Plus it gives some leverage with the US. So we won’t see peace, but a continuation of the still relatively high intensity conflict status quo. Moscow also awaits the Surkov-Volker meeting later this month to see how far the new US administration is willing to trade.

Soldiers from a US Army airborne unit laid a wreath Wednesday in an annual memorial ceremony in Lviv honoring three American pilots who died flying for Poland in the 1918-1920 Polish-Soviet War. One century later, airborne American military are back in Western Ukraine, training Ukrainian soldiers at the Yavoriv Combat Training Center, 60 km west of Lviv. (UNIAN/ Yevhenii Kravs)

Second: The crisis in US-North Korean relations has created opportunities and potential “leverage” for Moscow.

My sense is that Kim trusts Moscow much more than Beijing, reflecting his own travel arrangements. Putin has made clear that he despises the idea of forced regime change, “colored” revolutions. Opposition therein is central to his foreign policy ethos, and “sovereign democratic” concept.

But at this stage Beijing would not be that averse to political changes at the top in Pyongyang, at least sideways, with a slightly more deferential replacement to Kim emerging from within the leadership ranks. Likely Moscow has been signaling its “usefulness” to the US over the crisis in North Korea, and hoping this secures better leverage in the Great Power summit it now expects with Trump – assuming Trump survives that long.

But importantly, and despite the Congressional US Russia sanctions bill, I don’t think Moscow has given up on Trump as a politician who can deliver Putin’s agenda.

Trump’s own agenda increasingly looks close to that of Putin – support for strong man regimes overseas (at least not those posing a nuclear threat to the US), not pushing a Western values agenda (human rights/democracy) overseas (any maybe even not at home), a return to foreign policy based around the nation state rather than working through multilateral agencies (whether Paris Climate Change, or NATO) and America First. Indeed, Russia First has been Putin’s own agenda for some time. I think that Trump and Bannon’s views around threats from a clash of civilizations, and that Moscow and the US should be aligned in this final battle, are likely quite close.

Third: There is a desire not to rock the boat for Trump domestically with further tensions/strains with Moscow. In Moscow, there is a desire to wait to see how domestic US politics unravels. While there may be irritation in Moscow over the latest US sanctions bill, as payback for Russian meddling in the US election, there is understanding that this will have a slow burn negative impact on the Russian economy, with no killer punch in the short term.

The bigger goal is a US-Russia rapprochement under Trump, which might still cast aside the Congressional sanctions bill or see limited implementation, even easing, from Trump. There must be plenty of enjoyment now in Moscow from the political and social upheaval playing out in the US under Trump. Why would Russia feel the need to stir things up, when Americans themselves seem engrossed in tearing their own country apart?

Moscow is happy to sit on the side lines. And perhaps is eager not to give the US establishment an easy external target. More military aggression in Ukraine could rally Americans again against the external foe.

From a Russian perspective – and perhaps also Bannon’s – long running contradictions/social/political fault-lines now are playing out in the US. Why not just watch how these evolve? More a case of “fire in the hole” from a Moscow perspective!

In a best case for Moscow, Trump emerges victorious, stronger and able to cut a Great Power deal with Moscow, aligning the two around the Clash of Civilizations mantra.

In a worst case, the US establishment will continue to tear itself apart, weakening itself (and the US in the process), and its ability to conduct foreign policy and military endeavors overseas.

Indeed, the longer the Trump show continues, the less the US looks like a global power, and a global leader, for other to follow, and less able to impose its will and agenda overseas. A weaker USA, all this time, relatively speaking, makes Russia look stronger.

So why take risks now in places like Ukraine which still have the potential to backfire, and damage the Putin story this side of presidential elections in March 2018?

A counter argument might be that Moscow might look to take strategic advantage in Ukraine while the US (and West for that matter) is weak and distracted. Perhaps. But Putin is cautious by nature. Given Ukraine's greater military capability such an outcome would risk major military casualties before presidential elections. More likely, he will want to await to see how events in DC with Trump evolve before committing more wholeheartedly to a conflict with Ukraine.

Timothy Ash a senior sovereign analyst for BlueBay Asset Management in London.

Posted Aug. 16, 2017

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