Putin’s Mixed Signals
May 29, 2015
What a few weeks it has been for Russian President Vladimir Putin. As the crisis in Ukraine grinds on and Russia’s economy continues to sputter, Putin seems to recognize that it is time for a new approach, and it appears the stasis that has prevailed since the signing of the Minsk-II agreement in February may be coming to an end. Whether the period of stasis will give way to renewed fighting in Ukraine or some effort at a genuine diplomatic resolution remains to be seen.
The signals coming out of Moscow in recent weeks have been mixed. On the positive side of the ledger, leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine announced on May 20 that the Kremlin’s Novorossiya project was over. Putin had invoked the concept of Novorossiya, a Tsarist-era term for the area that today comprises much of eastern and southern Ukraine and Moldova, during the initial stages of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. While the exact contours of Putin’s Novorossiya vision were never articulated, observers took it to mean that the Kremlin was seeking to dismember the Ukrainian state by force (like Crimea on a larger scale) while openly challenging the post-Cold War international order with its emphasis on state sovereignty and the inviolability of borders.
Acknowledging that Novorossiya is dead could offer one path forward for a diplomatic resolution of the Ukraine conflict. The Minsk-II agreement called for the withdrawal of all foreign fighters and equipment, and for the government in Kyiv to resume control over the state border between Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and Russia. Ending the Novorossiya project, and with it, Russian support for the “people’s republics,” could be one step towards fulfilling the Minsk protocol, which U.S. and European officials have confirmed is a requirement before sanctions on Russia’s economy are lifted.
The timing of Novorossiya’s demise was also potentially significant, coming in the aftermath of Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Sochi to meet with Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on May 11. Kerry’s visit was light on announced deliverables, and even many Obama administration and State Department officials were frustrated by what looked like a public relations coup for Putin (Kerry never even mentioned Crimea during his press conference—which the Kremlin declared meant that the United States had in essence accepted Russian sovereignty over the peninsula). However, it is easy to draw a line from Kerry’s visit to the announcement that Novorossiya was headed for what Trotsky once called the ash-heap of history.
That possibility remains open, but in the meantime, developments in Russia have given little grounds for optimism. Even as Novorossiya was being lain to rest, large numbers of Russian troops and equipment including artillery, tanks, and rocket launchers, were being massed along the border with Ukraine. Worryingly, journalists reported that the soldiers assembling in Russia’s Rostov oblast were removing the insignia from their uniforms and identifying information from their vehicles, just as the infamous “little green men” who seized Crimea in early 2014 had done.
Meanwhile, Putin signed a decree on May 28 making publication of information about the deaths of Russian servicemen during peacetime a state secret. In other words, since the Kremlin strenuously denies its troops are fighting in Ukraine, any discussion of the alleged deaths of these alleged troops is now a very real criminal offense. Between the massing of thousands of heavily armed, unmarked troops on the border and the criminalization of discussion of casualties, the possibility of a major new military operation—with or without the Kremlin’s Novorossiya stooges—appears an increasingly real possibility.
Among all of this speculation about war and peace, Putin also found time on Thursday to loudly criticize the U.S. arrest of several FIFA officials in Zurich. Putin’s rush to defend embattled FIFA head Sepp Blatter, who was re-elected to his position on Friday, was especially bizarre, calling to mind his defense of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a “great statesman” brought down by his jealous foes. Like Berlusconi, Blatter is a certified “friend of Putin” who was happy to overlook Russia’s poor record on transparency and human rights in awarding Russia the 2018 World Cup.
Putin’s criticism was also in line with much of his previous rhetoric about the U.S. overstepping its bounds, ignoring international law (this from a guy busy annexing territory from his neighbor), and applying U.S. law outside U.S. borders. In the Kremlin’s world, the arrest of corrupt FIFA officials is really part of the United States’ long-standing campaign to weaken and humiliate Russia while pursuing a strategy of regime change. Even though Blatter was not among those detained, the arrests raised the possibility that FIFA members would finally vote Blatter out of office (though they did not), and that his replacement could decide to re-open the bidding for the 2018 World Cup (as well as the 2022 Cup in Qatar) in response to evidence of corruption in the bidding process.
For Putin, a man for whom sporting excellence is an important proxy for national greatness, few developments could be more humiliating than becoming the first leader to forfeit the right to host the World Cup, particularly when corruption has stalked FIFA for decades, but only now has Washington chosen to make an issue of it. Of course, several U.S. senators have already called for FIFA to pull the World Cup for Russia over its occupation of eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
If Russia does renew its offensive in Ukraine, these calls will only grow louder, and the Ukraine crisis could spill over onto an entirely new pitch. In the West, the FIFA drama seemingly overshadowed the significant shifts taking place around the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. With the post-Minsk pause seemingly at an end, Putin faces a fateful choice between more overt intervention by Russian forces, which could have dramatic consequences for both Russia and Ukraine, and some effort to find a way out. Both countries face the prospect of a long, hot summer.
Jeffrey Mankoff is deputy director and fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.