There was a small clue that indicated something unusual was happening in the Kremlin to which too few observers paid attention. Ten days ago Russian president Vladimir Putin gave a major speech on Ukraine and Russian foreign policy in Crimea. It had been much hyped in advance. The speech itself, when it came, was fairly pacific in tone. And it led to or even confirmed speculation that Russia was moving toward a diplomatic settlement of the Russo–Ukrainian war in talks planned for (and subsequently held on) Wednesday of this week.
Then, as Carl Schreck and Luke Johnson of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty pointed out here, the speech suddenly became a non-event. A live feed of it was canceled. The only video footage of it that appeared on Russian television had no audio. The official press release was delayed, and when it came, it included only one direct quote from Putin: “We will do all we can to end the conflict as soon as possible, to stop the bloodshed in Ukraine.” Unusually, almost uniquely for a speech by Putin, it was a bigger news story in the outside world than in Russia itself.
Why did the dog not bark in the night? Three possible explanations present themselves: first, that the speech was always designed to deceive the West about Russia’s aggressive intentions but was also the wrong message for domestic audiences; second, that disagreement over Ukraine still divided the Kremlin, making it necessary to keep any statement quiet; and, third, that the diplomatic approach described by Putin in his speech changed when Kiev’s military successes in eastern Ukraine meant that such a settlement might end up ratifying a simple Russian defeat.
Whatever the explanation, however, the first and third explanations both point toward the same policy: Putin would attempt to halt and reverse Ukrainian gains while bargaining with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko to negotiate a peace that would create a Russian-occupied enclave in Ukraine like Transnistria in Moldova and, in addition, provide Moscow with endless opportunities to destabilize its neighbor. This policy he is now pursuing with two undisguised Russian invasions across the border with troops and hardware. Presumably Putin now hopes that, in negotiations, Ukraine under Western pressure will agree to a settlement that gives him both outcomes.
Even if that were to happen, his Ukrainian policy would still amount to a series of failures. Putin had all of Ukraine this time last year; he has now lost it forever. His hopes of a spontaneous pro-Russian uprising in its eastern provinces proved delusive; he unified Ukraine against himself. His attempt to stage a Potemkin uprising has now been exposed as simple Russian aggression. He faces more-severe U.S.-EU sanctions against Russia as a result. And Ukraine is not Moldova; it will not be crippled by the loss of two small enclaves. Indeed, the West would soothe its guilt by assisting Kiev to revive its economy and establish a stable modern democracy with generous aid. After which, as Conrad Black has argued on these pages, Ukraine would pull away from Russia and — whether inside or outside of the EU’s embrace — it might become the same pole of attraction for Russia’s near abroad as the EU was for Central and Eastern Europe.
But Putin is likely to gain less than this. Though the West’s response has been weaker than it should have been — its failure to send modern weaponry to Ukraine is inexplicable — it has not been insubstantial. Russia’s economy has been hit by sanctions; they are certain to become more severe; and their impact is likely to grow. Moscow’s blatant decision to break the most basic international laws has alarmed and alienated previously friendly countries in Europe, notably Germany. And as the last few months have demonstrated, even the success of Russian arms is not guaranteed — Russia could find itself drawn into a long inconclusive war because it cannot secure the defeat of Ukraine without advancing ever deeper into Ukrainian territory.
Not even the recovery of the whole of Ukraine could be worth such costs and risks. But that outcome is not remotely in the cards. Putin is invading Ukraine to secure a few small slices of Ukrainian territory that will soon become costly burdens to the shrinking Russian treasury — and to save his face. Behind the propaganda outpourings of the Kremlin, that’s the reality. We shouldn’t be misled into treating this as a victory for him.