In his press conference May 7, President Putin declared: “We were told repeatedly that our forces by the Ukrainian border were a source of concern. We have withdrawn our forces and they are now not on the Ukrainian border but are carrying out their regular exercises at the test grounds.” Later in that same press conference, he called for a delay to the sovereignty referendum that was planned for Sunday, May 11.
In the West, the media reaction was one of near-elation. At the Financial Times, Neil Buckley hailed the “substance” of Putin’s new diplomacy. The BBC’s Steve Rosenberg suggested that Putin was leading a “shift” toward a more peaceful approach.
One week later, the truth is clear. Putin’s words have not translated into action.
The sovereignty referendum took place as scheduled on Sunday. The pro-Russia rebels won. On Tuesday, six Ukrainian soldiers were killed in an ambush. The scale of the ambush shows the military capability that Russian Special Forces have brought to the rebels. On Wednesday, Russia announced its intention to end support for the International Space Station after 2020. That’s a problem for space exploration, since Russia is the only nation that currently has launch-vehicle capability. Don’t worry, though. The Russian deputy prime minister has offered an ingenious solution: U.S. astronauts should consider “using a trampoline.”
Welcome to Putin world. We talk, he acts.
Indeed, immediately following Putin’s May 7 commitment to withdraw his forces from the Ukrainian border, the Pentagon affirmed that there had been “no change in the Russian force posture.” On Tuesday, the Pentagon re-affirmed its assessment with new satellite imagery.
As I say, in general terms, none of this was hard to predict. A more careful analysis of Putin’s May 7 press conference would have made his intentions clear and given some context to those remarks that so many commentators jumped on. Consider three specific statements.
First, the Russian leader insisted that the Ukrainian government cease its “punitive” security operations. Putin’s anger toward Kiev remains unabated.
Second, Putin asserted that Russia would “do everything possible to ensure that people in southeast Ukraine understand, feel, and believe that after the Ukrainian presidential election on May 24 or 25 their lawful rights will be reliably guaranteed.” This quote was largely ignored in favor of Putin’s comment that the presidential election represented a “step in the right direction.” That was a big mistake. With “reliably guaranteed,” Putin broadcast his continuing expectation that Kiev would devolve power to Ukraine’s eastern oblasts. This was, and remains, Putin’s key objective.
Third, Putin also stated that he and Angela Merkel would pursue an “equal dialogue” between Kiev and pro-Russian groups. Of course, “equal dialogue” explicitly qualifies the Ukrainian government’s sovereignty: which is why Putin is so keen on such dialogue. It’s also why Kiev has refused to include rebel groups in this week’s talks.
But Putin’s hint at an alliance with Merkel illustrated another element to his strategy: his broader attempt to drive a wedge between the EU and the U.S. over Ukraine. Remember the phone call between two senior U.S. diplomats that was leaked just before Yanukovych lost power? “F**k the EU.” The leak almost certainly came from Russian intelligence. Additionally, in recent weeks, the Kremlin’s global TV “news” channel, Russia Today, has been trying to persuade Europeans to agitate against the United States. Putin senses an opening here. As his friendly interactions with Merkel prove, for many EU leaders, Ukraine comes second to continued EU access to Russian energy supplies. On the flip side, as I’ve argued before, the EU’s relationship with Russia helps explain why the NSA is conducting operations in Europe. States, after all, act in their own best interests.
The evidence for Putin’s slow consolidation strategy has one more aspect. Over the past few weeks, the Russians have intensified their bomber patrols near the U.S. west coast. In April, Russian aircraft taunted a U.S. Navy vessel in the Black Sea. Putin’s crude signaling doesn’t require a code breaker. He wants the U.S. out of Eastern Europe, and he’s willing to be aggressive in pursuit of that aim.
My concluding point is simple. When analyzing Russian strategy, we must listen to everything Putin says and watch everything Putin does. If we do, we’ll stop surprising ourselves with false expectations. And we might, just might, give ourselves a better handle on our own foreign policy.