Riding a wave of military gains by Russia-backed rebels, President Vladimir Putin has made it exceedingly clear that he wants a peace deal for Ukraine on his terms and will not be stopped by economic costs.
The four-month conflict has now reached a breaking point, where Russia and Ukraine could either negotiate a political settlement or plunge deeper into hostilities.
Prospects for a political settlement looked dim just a few weeks ago, while the Ukrainian troops were methodically tightening their noose around pro-Russia rebel strongholds in the east, but Kiev’s hopes for a quick victory were short-lived. A rebel counter-offensive has quickly turned the tide against the Kiev government, inflicting huge losses and raising the threat of Ukraine losing access to the energy-rich Sea of Azov.
The West has accused Russia of sharply escalating the conflict by sending regular army units into Ukraine after months of covert assistance to the rebellion and has threatened more sanctions.
Putin’s apparent response is: What you call a Russian invasion is nothing compared to what we could do and all options are on the table. The Kremlin’s halfhearted denial of Putin’s warning that Moscow could seize the Ukrainian capital in two weeks if it wished, which he reportedly made to European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso last week, only reinforced the signal that Russia will not back off.
Putin’s comment last week emphasizing Russia’s nuclear arsenal appeared to send the same tough message to the West: Don’t mess with us.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama will make a symbolic show of Western support for the Baltic countries by traveling to Estonia on Wednesday before heading to a NATO summit Thursday in Wales that is expected to draw out plans to boost the alliance’s military commitments in Central and Eastern Europe.
With fighting raging in eastern Ukraine, representatives of Kiev, Moscow, pro-Russia separatists and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe met in the Belarusian capital on Monday to begin a new round of talks on settling the crisis.
Hinting at a possible compromise, the rebels dropped their previous demand for full independence and expressed readiness to discuss keeping the eastern regions inside Ukraine in exchange for a blanket amnesty and broad autonomy.
The talks were quickly adjourned until Friday and it wasn’t clear if the parties could narrow their differences.
Moscow wants Kiev to give the rebel regions sweeping powers that would let them keep close ties with Russia and allow the Kremlin to maintain leverage over Ukraine and prevent it from ever joining NATO.
Repeated attempts to negotiate a settlement have failed, prompting the West to introduce several rounds of economic sanctions that targeted officials and businessmen close to Putin and, finally, entire sectors of the Russian economy. Russia responded last month by banning most food imports from the West.
While most experts agree that the penalties will eventually inflict significant damage on the Russian economy and push it deeper into recession, they will need time to take effect. So far, the sanctions clearly have failed to serve their stated purpose of stopping Putin’s hand.
The Russian leader seems ready to face much tougher punishment instead of backing off. If attempts to negotiate a peace deal fail again and more economic sanctions come, Putin’s likely response would be to further raise the ante to push the West into making a deal.
Carving a land corridor along the Sea of Azov for supplying Crimea, which has faced power and water shortages since the annexation, is something Russia could threaten to do next.
Russia could have easily grabbed more land at the start of the crisis, when it annexed Crimea in March, but Putin apparently has seen it as an unnecessary burden, hoping to reach a deal with the West to protect Moscow’s interests in Ukraine without an open invasion.
He has failed in his calculus as the United States and the European Union have ignored his demands and methodically raised the costs for Russia. But the West, in its turn, also has clearly underestimated Putin’s stubborn resolve and his readiness to risk economic damage, falsely hoping that sanctions will force him to back off.
The apparent judgment errors by both sides now have pushed the crisis closer to a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine.