Mark Galeotti has a post, Blowback’s a bitch: MH17 and the east Ukraine campaign’s long-term costs for Russia in which he makes the case that Putin's bad actions are going to catch up with him, and the West's response -- condemnations and sanctions -- are going to affect his bad behaviour and we're going to see changes.
I think this is all wrong, and misjudges the nature of Putin and the Kremlin regime -- and their highly-controlled proxies, the rebels. It's a coherent, scholarly attractive argument of the sort that many policy-makers find compelling, but it is based on past flawed reasoning and Western mirror-imaging of Moscow as being, in the end, pragmatic in some Western sense. It's not, and even when it acts seemingly "not in its interests" in fact we discover it was in its interests all along because it persists.
When I say "flawed reasoning" I mean like the analysis that said changes in the GRU were a reduction or weakening of that body -- when it fact it was being prepared for its great Ukrainian/Novorossiya mission by becoming leaner and more under Kremlin control! Or the analysis that said Putin's ideology had "changed" or worsened over time from a once more liberal and pragmatic position -- when in fact it can merely be said that his inherent bad nature merely became more manifest!
The "glasnost half-empty or half-full" problem of Sovietology is an old one, but that's why you need debate. There isn't enough of it. In the old days, when the Soviets took military actions there were 50 arms control wonks and experts on the Soviet military to comment and debate and form competing schools of thought, necessary for policy-makers to make coherent policy. Now we have little of that.
Here's what's wrong with all these premises as Galeotti has outlined them:
1. You don’t have control over events on the ground but (rightly) get blamed when bad stuff happens.
But Putin has high control over the rebels because his armed forces and specifically GRU and FSB are largely supplying them and advising them directly and closely. The notion that these rebel leaders -- who spend lots of time in Moscow and say "yes, sir, yes, sir" when on the phone with Moscow operatives -- are "getting too far ahead" is a treasured one of Western journalism and punditry because then they don't have to face the real facts: Putin is the rogue, not merely Strelkov, and Putin hasn't "gone rogue"; he was always that way and the West was deceived.
There's a hypothesis that the shooting down of planes is even done by a cross-border team of Russians in Russia and separatists in Ukraine -- this deserves serious study. That means the thesis that it's "just the rebels and their mistake" could really be quite wrong.
To be sure, MH17 -- unlike South Korean 007 -- was likely a mistake even if committed by Russian-Russians but Putin isn't sorry. He grew up in the era of the Korean shoot-down and knows for sure that shooting down planes means never having to say you're sorry.
The useful idiots aren't going to go away, but as time wears on and the West remains weaks and divided, will grow in number.
2. You inject yourself into the negotiations, but can’t deliver on a deal.
But that's because Putin isn't interested in the slightest in making a deal. What deal? The separatists are doing ok fighting the Ukrainian ATO and persist as a major thorn in Ukraine's side.
Far from pulling them back or reining them in, except in a few cosmetic ways like allowing the discreditation campaign of Strelkov to gather a little steam, or Pushilin to get let go or Khodakovsky to get demoted, Putin is only upping the supply for the rebels and reinforcing their leadership by having the old wolf Antyufeyev sent to the DPR front now.
Putin is only even more boldly keeping troops at the border and having them slip in either to fight themselves or switch drivers with the rebels who take Russian tanks and happily drive away to kill Ukrainian soldiers with them -- not to mention civilians in the villages where they set up all their checkpoints and batteries and shoot recklessly and even crazily.
There's this fiction that the rebels have "gone out in front" of Moscow. They haven't. They are exactly where Moscow wants them to be, which is...out in front of Moscow, so Moscow can feign unininvolvement or powerlessness. Nonsense. The troops at the border, the tanks going over the border, the Grads firing from Russia -- all of this could be switched off tomorrow and the rebels would then flee. It is not being switched off. Stop having illusions about this.
3. You create chaos on your border.
This "creating chaos" stuff is one of the memes I find least persuasive. It implies that "events have been unleashed over which we have no control" or "it may go too far but never mind, it's useful to us."
But in a situation where the rebels are trained, armed, fed by Russia, it's hardly "chaos"; it's a plan. A plan by that "weakened and diminished GRU and Army that in fact is quite capable of pulling off this very organized and far-from-chaotic plan.
If you think buildings in rubble and refugees fleeing means "chaos" and "unintended consequences," you're forgetting that Putin ran these operations for decades in Chechnya and Georgia and elsewhere and they know exactly what to do and not do.
Chaos for ordinary people doesn't mean chaos for the Kremlin; they staged it.
There are two kinds of people who flee fighting. Those who displace but don't leave Ukraine because they think the ATO will take back their cities and life may be normal again -- or who don't think Russia is a better option. And those who go to Russia because they believe separatist and Kremlin mass media that only -- or mainly -- Ukrainians are shelling and killing them. Life in even a poor Russian Emergencies Ministry camp might be better than life with no food or electricity or water in the "Donetsk People's Republic." The crunch time will come when the 90 days are up for these people, and they have to decide whether to give up their Ukrainian passport and accept life as a second-class Russian citizen. I am betting a lot will return by then -- some of them young men who are now leaving on buses and getting shamed on separatist media but who by the fall may take up arms after their rest.
It has always been the case in conflicts in Africa and Asia and the Middle East that the international community's refugee camps help provide rest and recuperation for the region's rebels, so the cycle of war always continues. This will be the case even with only Russia running the camps in this region -- and even more so.
4. You disappoint people you previously counted as fervent supporters.
Figures like Dugin or Prokhanov or Kurginyan are useful to have as lightning-rods and as gatherers of the tribe, but they don't have the following you might think they do from their tens of thousands of followers on social media; when they held a rally, they got 1,000 people. That's because the fantasy of Novorossiya as a corrective to the reality of Russia is so far better than the reality of the "Donetsk People's Republic" where the lights go off and the graves fill up.
The idea that this is a "fringe" movement and that it "poses no serious threat to Putin" isn't how to understand these people, however. They emanate from the Kremlin. They are projects either of Surkov or others. They exist because they have funding from somewhere that links back to the Kremlin somewhere, even if "private business."
They manifest some of the sides of Putin he may wield when and as needed with utter cynicism. We know from Putin's interview of Zhirinovsky that he views such people as figureheads who "attract constituents". They inspire and manage constituents that Putin needs, but since he has to be "all things to all men," he can't always associate with them.
If Putin needed there to be 10,000 Dugin followers on the square tomorrow, there would be, with plenty of buses and money and even hostels and food and cell phones. Since he sits on the board of Moscow State University - note the word "State" in its title which isn't like "Michigan State" -- he can fire Dugin or not fire Dugin.
The state -- Putin's vertikal -- pretty much infuses every aspect of life. It's like a hologram -- break it off anywhere, it replicates. It simply isn't true that there are "interest groups of oligarchs" or other "forces" like "red directors" or what-have-you that "act as a brake on Putin." They are all simply too dependent on him and his machine to influence him.
Pavel Durov was "an interest group" -- look where he is now. Masha Gessen was an "interest group" -- look where she is now. Sergei Guryiev was an "interest group" -- look where he is now. Worse, Sergei Udaltsov was an interest group -- look where he is. And so on. This is what authoritarianism -- with totalitarian aspects that never went away -- looks like.
5. You undermine your persona as the infallible tsar.
This posits Putin in front of some "quandary" -- which was set up by the previous mistaken analysis based on Putin having "evolved" or "facing pressure" or having "events get out of his control" which don't make sense as I've explained.
Julia Ioffe is one of the "glasnost half full" writers who loves to ridicule people who say Putin controls everything by citing the scientific fallacy of such literalism. Oh, sure, Putin doesn't control school girl's uniform textiles and designs, the way Berdymukhamedov in Turkmenistan does. But like Berdymukhamedov organizing presidential candidates out of people who are merely his lieutenants in the gas industry, so Putin's "rivals" like Prokhorov are really his allies whose interests are aligned not because they are independent and alignable, but because they are dependent on Putin's machine. Putin controls everything that matters, and some that don't really seem to -- see Durov, etc.
Putin doesn't have to make a deal at all, and can keep this conflict going for years as a frozen conflict or worse, a barely-deterred conflict that will simply wear out the Ukrainian's capacity and the West's attention span. Watch him. No deal is coming any time soon. He has no fear of appearing "fallible" because sanctions, far from having him on the run, have him personally more worshipped politically by ordinary people, and in fact, have the effect of making those sanctioned in businesses and banks *depend on him more*.
Trust me, if that weren't the case, we'd have seen at least one of these dozens of people flee for the West, with some of their loot, and play defector or dissident. Haven't seen that at all. Reason: they are dependent on Putin.
6. You look weak before your other neighbours, undermining claims to regional hegemony.
The object lesson of Georgia was in fact what could make Yanukovych falter and renege on the EU Association Agreement, and think he'd get away with it and stay in power. And we haven't seen Russia unleash its full potential via its proxies yet, and we will. Other countries from the former Soviet Union may not be happy about this, and may grumble, as Nazarbayev or Lukashenka are made to seem especially by the Western press, but they know who has to buy their potash and their kerosene and they are not going to float away on a Peter- Thiel style island of libertarianism, especially not on the land-locked Caspian Sea where Russia has naval dominance and the other countries with the gas know what happened in 2009 when Ashgabat crossed Moscow -- they got their pipe blown up.
Remember how Kyrgyzstan's Atambayev seemed like such a maverick and stood up to Moscow and criticized them about their bases and...Oh, wait a minute. It's the US that got their base kicked out of Bishkek, and Moscow still has its two bases there.
Honestly, people who study Central Asia would benefit much more from studying Russia, which they ignore and pretend is a former hegemon without language intrusion power any more. False. And people who study Russia never look at what Russia does in Central Asia to keep control and keep long-time conflicts unsolved in the old "divide-and-conquer" strategy. They would benefit more from treating Eurasia as a region, and putting Pakistan and Afghanistan into that region as well. Russia is winning, the US is losing, and China is keeping up. The end.
The "pragmatic arithmetic" is not going to change, the slider will only go in a more dependent direction as America really does get out of this region.
7. You are held accountable for your actions (maybe).
No. That never happens. Remember how Russia joined the Council of Europe contingent on a pledge to prosecute its mass crimes against humanity in Chechnya (as if this were something committed only by rogue generals at a local level). Well, it didn't, because they weren't, the orders go to Moscow.
So there's no reason to think that the Kremlin will any more go on trial than it did after the death of Stalin, or it did after the collapse of the Communist Party -- both times when the West either "needed" Moscow and wouldn't prosecute it, or when it felt this went against "liberal values" (prosecuting Communist parties is in fact the embodiment of liberal values that punish human rights violations, not to mention crimes, a discussion I will return to when I describe my fierce debate with a Soros staffer recently).
Indeed, the sanctions, while having some effect, are bearable, and if you want to understand the model, look at Belarus, the West and Lukashenka.
Nothing has changed Lukashenka in 17 years and nothing will change him in the next 17. The West only goes so far, and then it has its own interests and attention spans.
Like Lukashenka, Milosevic stayed in power a really long time, and nothing--sanctions, deals, talks -- worked. Only the force of NATO bombs worked, and NATO isn't going to bomb Moscow. So here we all are.
It's misleading and even dangerous, therefore to make up composite portraits of Putin based on Western mirror-engineering and incorrectly-based premises, and then make policy as if "this will work or that will work".
At this point, only the most credible deterrence will work, and that has to be swift, stiff, and united.
It won't be, which is why we are in for a very long and unpleasant ride.
Here's the thing. Moscow didn't hand weapons to "undertrained, undisciplined and gung-ho rebels."
It handed it to its highly-trained, long-term dissembling and duplicitious operatives who were in resistance to the liberal Yeltsin in the Russian White House in 1993 or even earlier, and who have persisted in the red/brown line ever since turning the "ultranationalism" on and off as needed.
Putin represents that red/brown line, not the line of Yeltsin and liberals like even Gorbachev. They have PLENTY of training, they are seasoned in all the wars where Moscow has prevailed -- Chechnya, Georgia, Abkhazia, Transdniestria. They are seasoned even in the former Yugoslav wars, where they lost, but therefore have a motivation to keep trying harder. If the West is prevailing for now on Transdnestria, don't count on it for ever -- if chased out of Ukraine, those rebels will go somewhere else.
There isn't any "short-term bravado." There's very long-term, cynical, deadly persistence.
I predict the "chaos on borders" -- read planned, sustained, dialed-up-or-down warfare -- will persist for a very long time, way past the ability of the West to pay attention or to put on sweaters if they are cold from lack of gas or poor from lack of markets.
Soon -- very soon -- we will say we "need Russia" again to solve even more urgent conflagrations like Iraq, Iran and Israel/Palestine. Just watch!
I suspect that far from making Putin pull back and make deals with Ukraine and the West, MH17 is going to be followed by even worse acts that will be so terrible that the West, not the Kremlin, will be forced to make a deal.
We all seem to forget in analyzing Ukraine endlessly that Putin has already been propping up Assad for years and leaving us utterly unable to cope with his complicity in what is among the largest crimes against humanity since Hitler and Stalin.
If it weren't for Russia propping up Assad with billions in arms and enormous political intervention keeping the UN and the West paralyzed, there'd be no Assad. It would be over by now. It isn't.
That lets us know what Russia is capable of, and what we can expect. Why no one pays attention to that harsh reality is beyond me.