Russia And Ukraine: Dangerous Moves Ahead Of Endgame

Although we believe that Russia and Ukraine would both like to end the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, respective presidents Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko cannot afford to lose face. This means that the fighting will not end too soon, and that there are still some dangerous moments ahead.

Regarding Putin's intentions, we never assumed that Russia would invade Eastern Ukraine. The diplomatic, economic, and military costs of doing so would simply be too high. For the Kremlin, supporting the low-level conflict in the East has been a much less risky option, and a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. The 'end' was to weaken the Ukrainian state and ensure that Kiev agrees to a new constitution (which may be adopted in the autumn) that would grant broad autonomy to the pro-Russian regions in Eastern Ukraine. This would ensure that Russia can continue to exert broad influence over Ukraine as a whole.

Regarding Poroshenko's intentions, his task is to reassert Kiev's authority over the separatist-controlled Eastern regions, while avoiding taking any actions that could provoke direct Russian military intervention. Poroshenko's task is much trickier than Putin's, because the Ukrainian military is weak, and because Russia has considerable economic levers to pull vis-à-vis Ukraine. Counting in his favour, Poroshenko has strong backing from the US, and considerable support from EU states.

Both Sides Want To Save Face

Although Russia has in recent weeks appeared to signal reduced support for the separatists in Eastern Ukraine, Putin wants to avoid a humiliating defeat for the rebels. Even though Russia is not officially supporting them, persistent reports have suggested all along that Russia has been providing volunteers, weapons, and money to the insurgents. A total defeat of the rebels would thus lead to rising ultranationalist criticism of Putin at home. True, opinion polls show that two-thirds of Russians oppose military intervention in Ukraine, but the ultranationalist voices are still loud.

Poroshenko, too, cannot allow the rebels to control Eastern Ukraine indefinitely. The longer the separatists control the East, the greater the danger that this will become the new reality. Poroshenko would lose support of Ukrainian nationalists, especially those in Western Ukraine, who would see him as a weak leader.

Has A Tacit Understanding Been Reached?

Against this backdrop, it appears that Poroshenko is willing to grant Eastern Ukraine autonomy, but he still needs to make a military show of force against the separatist rebels, whom the Kiev authorities regard as terrorists. In other words, any concessions from Poroshenko to pro-Russian forces must be made from a position of strength. Meanwhile, Putin most likely recognises that Poroshenko is more pragmatic than virtually any alternative Ukrainian president, and that a deal with him can ultimately be reached. Therefore, Ukraine and Russia must now carefully control the military forces under their control or influence, so that both sides can save face. This is easier said than done.

Dangerous Moment At Hand

The danger is that Poroshenko and Putin could both overplay their hands at a particularly delicate time. For example, if Ukrainian military forces use too much firepower, they risk causing heavy civilian casualties in the cities of Donetsk or Lugansk (where the separatists have fled). Russians and Ukrainians alike would criticise this, and Poroshenko could also face criticism from the West. On Monday, July 14, reports emerged that Russia was considering precision airstrikes in Ukraine in response to Ukrainian cross-border shelling that killed one person in Russia. Putin's spokesman quickly denied the airstrike threat, and it is probable that these reports were a means of psychological pressure on Kiev, but at the same time, we cannot preclude such strikes, if Ukrainian shelling spills over into Russia more frequently. At the same time, Ukraine is also blaming Russia (as opposed to the separatists) for the downing of a Ukrainian military transport aircraft on Monday.

Meanwhile, the US State Department has been sounding a stern tone towards Russia, accusing it of providing more heavy weapons to pro-Moscow rebels and deploying more troops to the Ukrainian border. NATO stated on Monday that Russia has built up its troop presence in the area from below 1,000 in June to 10,000-12,000, although this is still far short of the 40,000 deployed in the spring of 2014.

Overall, while both Putin and Poroshenko want the separatist conflict in Eastern Ukraine to wind down, there is still considerable scope for missteps by one or both leaders that could end up prolonging – and even escalating – the fighting.