Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The Kremlin’s “Ukrainian gambit”

Lilia SHEVTSOVA: “It has begun to destroy the model under which the Russian system existed by using Western resources”
28 March, 2018 - 18:44
Photo by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day

All over the world, no one doubted that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be re-elected for a fourth term. Indeed, the Russian regime had done everything to ensure the necessary turnout and, most importantly, a convincing victory in the first round.

During the election campaign, the Russian regime widely exploited anti-Western rhetoric, using as an excuse the expulsion of Russian diplomats from Britain because of the involvement of Russian security services in poisoning a former Russian spy and his daughter.

Now, after the end of the campaign, many politicians and experts ask a question: what will Russia’s policy under Putin be with regard to the EU, the US, and Ukraine, and vice versa, how will the Trump administration build relations with the Kremlin, given that its head has not personally criticized Putin and is trying to establish friendly relations with the Russian leader? The Day asked Russian political analyst, expert in Russian-American relations Lilia SHEVTSOVA to answer these questions.

“WHILE MAINTAINING AGGRESSIVE RHETORIC, THE KREMLIN IS TRYING TO LOOK FOR WAYS TO EASE TENSION”

“The Kremlin’s foreign policy has always been an instrument for ensuring its domestic agenda succeeds. Until recently, the Kremlin was able to resolve tactical issues of survival at the expense of foreign policy. For instance, the annexation of Crimea added about 30 percentage points to Vladimir Putin’s support level and allowed him to obtain legitimacy for a time as a ‘gatherer of Russian lands.’ But at the same time, the ‘Ukrainian gambit’ of the Kremlin has begun to destroy the model under which the Russian system existed by using Western resources.

“The main foreign policy challenge of Putin’s new presidential term is to find a balance between deterring the West and maintaining dialog with it, which would allow Russia to go back to using the Western financial and technological potential. Putin, apparently, hopes that by escalating tension and threatening to ‘break windows,’ he will force the spineless liberal democracies to accept his rules of the game and return to the previous policy of appeasement. He obviously expects that the Russian elite and society will be compelled to agree to living in a ‘besieged fortress’ for an indefinite period of time.

“However, neither the Russian president nor the ruling team is fully confident that this madman blackmail will succeed. And it is already obvious that, while maintaining its macho and aggressive rhetoric, the Kremlin is trying to look for ways to ease tension. ‘You did not hear us, you did not respect us, and look what you have made us to do! Listen to our complaints now and we will again comfortably coexist!’ is the current Kremlin mantra.

“The problem is that the Kremlin, while knowing how to escalate, does not know how to retreat when it becomes clear that the West is not ready to return to the pre-Crimea consensus. Meanwhile, the blinking game can end badly for both sides.

“Of course, the Kremlin’s main focus is on the US. Donald Trump’s presidency turned out to be much more unpleasant for Russia than fairly harmless Barack Obama’s America. Despite Trump’s inexplicable sympathy for Putin, his administration is pursuing a rather tough course against Russia, which the previous American president did not dare to do during his term. The Kremlin, of course, will try not to provoke the US to take even tougher measures. But here is the question: how is one to swallow insults without losing face?!”

“THE KREMLIN HAS BEEN QUITE DISMISSIVE ABOUT THE ABILITY OF EUROPE TO DETER RUSSIA SO FAR”

“Speaking of Europe, the Kremlin has been quite dismissive about the ability of Europe to deter Russia so far. The Kremlin did not expect at all that the Europeans would be prepared to maintain sanctions against Russia for so long. But now, when the position of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who ensured European unity on the issue of sanctions, has begun to weaken, the Kremlin will again hope that Europe can be split, either by intimidation or by seducing with ‘carrots’ businesses and politicians who are ready to cooperate with Moscow.

“The Europeans’ reaction to the Skripal case will be a test of their ability to take a tough stand against Russia: to what extent will Europe support Britain in its confrontation with the Kremlin over a poisoning with a neuro-paralytic agent in the UK that Russia denies its involvement in? But no matter how this story ends, Russia will continue its old policy towards Europe, which is to disregard the EU outright and to try to split the Europeans and create blocs of Russia’s own making with ‘Trojan horses’ – the countries which stand ready to resume dialog with the Kremlin.”

“THE ‘RUSSIAN FACTOR’ IS THE MOST IMPORTANT TOOL THAT STRENGTHENS UKRAINIAN IDENTITY”

“What about Ukraine? Russian leaders understand that Ukraine remains the main reason for Russia’s current confrontation with the West. Undoubtedly, the Kremlin will hope that the Ukrainian issue will vanish from the main international agenda and the West will get tired of Ukraine. By exacerbating the issue of international security and shifting attention not only to international terrorism, but to the threat of the collapse of the strategic security system, as well as turning nuclear weapons into an instrument of blackmail, the Kremlin effectively tells the West: look, we have more important problems for discussion and we have a means of coercing you to adopt our vision of global priorities and the rules of the game.

“Of course, as long as imperialism and the view of Ukraine as an element of the ‘Russian civilization’ remain elements of the political mentality of the Russian ruling elite, Ukraine will always be in a zone of geopolitical instability. On the one hand, having Russia in the neighborhood and the Kremlin’s desire to undermine Ukraine’s territorial integrity will destabilize the situation in Ukraine. On the other hand, the ‘Russian factor’ is the most important tool that strengthens Ukrainian identity.

“But it is also obvious that President Putin understands that the Donbas is not benefiting him, but harming his reputation and narrowing the room for international maneuver instead. Still, I think that despite this understanding, Putin is not ready to willingly abandon the Donbas and lose this instrument of influence in Ukraine and a possible pawn in dealing with the West. Apparently, surrendering the occupied districts of the Donbas is seen by Putin as likely to have worse consequences than keeping the current conflict going.

“However, the situation is developing rapidly. We extrapolate the current trends into the future, but new circumstances arise all the time, which can radically change the political picture. What is impossible today can become possible tomorrow, and it can happen very quickly and unexpectedly. After all, we are at the stage of the collapse of the former world order and the formation of a new one. In any case, the situation in the ‘Russia-Ukraine’ space is not static and it is hard to freeze, unlike other conflicts in the post-Soviet space.”

Should we expect any progress on the part of the Kremlin in fulfilling the Minsk Agreements?

“I do not see any opportunities so far for the Kremlin’s position on the Minsk Agreements to change, as Putin has repeatedly said. But we are talking about the present moment here. It is difficult to foresee at the moment what will happen in a year or two.”

“ANY THOUGHT OF NORMALIZING RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA MAKES THE U.S. ELITE TO SUSPECT ITS AUTHOR OF BEING A SELL-OUT”

What do the US elite expect from the fourth term of Putin, and what kind of policy are they going to pursue with regard to Russia?

“I think that neither the American establishment, nor the Trump administration can, or want, to think strategically now. Everyone in Washington is obsessed with a situational agenda, often regulated by President Trump’s crazy tweets. It is clear that the ‘collective Washington’ does not expect anything good from Putin. Moreover, we see that any thought of normalizing relations with Russia makes the US elite to suspect its author of being a sell-out. Even Henry Kissinger, who liked to visit Putin in the Kremlin and always called for ‘taking into account the interests of Russia’ on his return, has now fallen silent.

“Deterring Russia and avenging Russian interference in US elections have become key consolidating ideas for the American elite. The Kremlin can be proud of making the ‘Russian factor’ an element of American domestic life.

“As for the White House, here we see a paradox: the Trump team acts in an anti-Russian way, trying to find new ways of deterring the Kremlin. Meanwhile, Trump keeps trying to profess his love for Putin, thus making the anti-Russian rhetoric of other actors inside the American establishment even more strident. It is unlikely that this situation will change during his presidency. It is equally unlikely that Trump’s successor will easily leave behind the suspicion about the Kremlin and Russia that has already become an axiom.

“Finally, John Bolton has never been really good in comprehending the consequences of his statements and his actions. So, he is unlikely to stay in the White House for long.

“The US’ decision to expel 60 Russian diplomats and close the Russian consulate in Seattle in solidarity with the UK has increased tension in the relations of the West as a whole with Russia. The Kremlin will have to respond, although it clearly does not want to. Consequently, a new stage in the confrontation begins, with all the old taboos having already been destroyed.”

Can Americans explain why Trump wants to have Putin as a friend to solve the conflicts that Putin has actually created or is creating himself?

“While the team of Special Counsel Robert Mueller is painting Trump into a corner, they have not provided evidence of collusion between Trump and the Kremlin so far. But Mueller continues to tighten his grip.

“Meanwhile, the main fruit of the American investigation into the ‘Russian trail’ in the latest election is so far evidence of the demoralization of the American elite and the preparedness of its various members to readily sell their principles if the price is good. I call this the Manafort Syndrome, after one of the most successful and influential Washington lobbyists who promoted the interests of authoritarian regimes in the US for a living and who for some time was chief manager of Trump’s election campaign. As we know, he lobbied for Viktor Yanukovych’s interests some time before, for which he was handsomely paid.

“In any case, this incredible story of the investigation into Russian interference is likely to result in a significant turnover of the top layer of the American elite.”

“BOLTON REGARDS POLITICS AS A ‘HAMMER’ WHICH SHOULD BE USED TO DRIVE NAILS”

What does the replacement of Herbert McMaster with Bolton in the position of national security adviser mean?

“I think that the White House will continue to be plagued with high staff turnover. It seems that Trump has troubles finding people who will obey him without question, while those who are ready to obey will be ostracized by other American institutions. So, new national security adviser Bolton is, most likely, not for long in the White House. Especially if we take into account the difficult character of Bolton himself and his unpopularity within the Washington political class.

“I see many critics of Russia applauding the appointment of Bolton. Meanwhile, this appointment has caused the most contradictory feelings in Washington itself. Firstly, the Congress has not held confirmation hearings on his candidacy yet, and this process will not go smoothly. The Congress did not confirm Bolton as US ambassador to the UN back in the 2000s, because he provoked collective rejection due to his extremist positions and ultra-hawkishness.

“Today, Bolton’s views are no longer so sharply out of step with the positions taken by most members of the Washington political class. Still, Bolton irritates people by his penchant for regarding politics as a ‘hammer’ which should be used to drive nails. His excessive aggressiveness, straightforwardness, and disregard for diplomacy can narrow his support base, both in the US and in Europe.”

By Mykola SIRUK, The Day
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