The Corner Putin Has Backed Himself Into

Adrian Karatnycky takes a close look at it:

In recent weeks, there had been signs of growing concern among Kremlin moderates and the Russian business community that the proxy war in Ukraine was far too damaging to Russia’s economy and was developing into a potential threat to Russia’s longterm Russian President Vladimir Putin Visits Samarastability. This week, with new U.S. sanctions and the threat of Russian isolation emanating from Putin’s Lockerbie, the Russian stock market fell by over 8 percent.

Putin can seize on this tragedy to move toward rapid de-escalation in eastern Ukraine. He can urge the 15,000 insurgent fighters in Ukraine’s Eastmany of them Russiansto lay down their arms. And he can immediately stop the flow of tanks, missiles, and other weapons to the rebels. Or he can become a Qaddafi-like pariah and plunge Russia into international isolation with his now transparently brazen support for Russian insurgents and Russian proxies who are seeking to create a permanent zone on instability in Ukraine.

No wonder he’s taking his own sweet time. I’m increasingly struck by how little control Putin seems to have over the nationalist, xenophobic and homophobic forces he has unleashed. Ioffe reveals the growing insanity of the propaganda machine:

Did you know Malaysia Air Flight 17 was full of corpses when it took off from Amsterdam? Did you know that, for some darkly inexplicable reason, on July 17, MH17 moved off the standard flight path that it had taken every time before, and moved north, toward rebel-held areas outside Donetsk? Or that the dispatchers summoned the plane lower just before the crash? Or that the plane had been recently reinsured? Or that the Ukrainian army has air defense systems in the area? Or that it was the result of the Ukrainian military mistaking MH17 for Putin’s presidential plane, which looks strangely similar?

Did you know that the crash of MH17 was all part of an American conspiracy to provoke a big war with Russia?

Well, it’s all true—at least if you live in Russia, because this is the Malaysia Airlines crash story that you’d be seeing.

And almost no others so total is the information blackout. Gregg Rowe has a very helpful essay on how this vortex of paranoia controls Putin as much as he controls it. Money quote:

Russia is a nuclear power and a near-dictatorship, but it’s a weak state. This is paradoxical given the overweening authority Putin manages to project, but it’s true. Putin has full authority over the security establishment, but that is no longer enough to endow unquestioned solidity upon the state he built. For one thing, Russia is no longer an isolated command economy. It’s been integrated into the capitalist world … You can police dissidents, but you can’t police the price of natural gas abroad.

If the old Soviet economy has been “privatized” …  so, too, have other parts of Soviet power. Corporate conglomerates, a military-industrial complex, rich and insecure churches, noisy social movements (more of them on the Right than the Left), local governments carving out their own extortion zones, and many more mini- and mega-oligarchies multiply …  For all his shirtless preening, Putin is no muscle-man able to wield top-down control. Instead he must exhort, scare, cajol, and distract the rest of society till he gets his way.

Daniel Berman posits that “the fundamental obstacles to any sort of concerted action against Moscow remain unchanged” for the West. But MH17 will have consequences for Putin:

[T]he tragedy is going to raise the economic costs of Russia’s policy, at a time when even the half-hearted sanctions have started to cause some damage. On a wider level, the events also illustrate the bind that Putin has managed to get himself into with the Ukraine. By encouraging the separatists he has raised their political expectations sky-high in a manner that can neither be met by Kiev nor is it in the interests of Russia to meet, while by arming them, he has vastly increased the amount of damage they can inflict in their frustration. Furthermore, for all the talk about cease-fires, its unclear if Putin could bring all of the groups to the table even if he wanted to, not without leaving the holdouts at the mercy of Kiev, whose success in such an operation would raise the Ukrainian Armies prestige to an unacceptable level.

Putin therefore finds himself trapped. There is no clear political objective behind the separatist campaign that Moscow can sell as a victory; but their abandonment would almost certainly lead to a clear-cut defeat.

Motyl claims that the “Russian militants in eastern Ukraine have lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the local population” and that “formerly pro-Russian populations that the Ukrainian army recently liberated have been genuinely relieved to be free of Russian rule”:

What can continued Russian escalation of the bloodshed accomplish? It can inflict harm on the Ukrainian army and volunteer forces—and only increase Ukrainian soldiers’ resolve to fight. It can increase the physical destruction of the Donbas—and only further alienate civilians. It can encourage the militants to engage in more human rights abuses and atrocities—and thereby outrage the international community. It could even impel the morally desensitized Europeans to impose genuinely painful sanctions on Russia.

And just what does Russia gain from continued escalation? It could establish control over parts of the Russo-Ukrainian border and save its proxies from total defeat. That would permit Putin to save face with his cronies and a Russian population that’s been whipped up to a hyper-nationalist frenzy. But this victory would at best be Pyrrhic. Would Russia annex the territories it devastated? Would it eventually retreat? Neither option qualifies as a strategic victory.

The fact is that Putin has maneuvered himself and Russia into a dead end.