The Wall Street Journal published an editorial last Thursday arguing that the recent escalation of conflict on the border of Russian-occupied Crimea is “a pretext…to pull out of peace talks,” and that these events are the latest indication of Western (particularly the Obama Administration’s) weakness in the face of Russian aggression.
It further suggests that these geopolitical maneuvers are deliberately aimed at shaping the US Presidential election. While the Journal correctly identifies the escalation of tensions as coming entirely from the Russian side (as was the case during the Kremlin-driven crackdown on the Euromaidan protests, the Russian anschluss of Crimea, and the invasion of Ukrainian territory around Donetsk and Luhansk), and that Russia has provided next to zero evidence for its accusations against Ukraine, its editorial represents a vital misunderstanding of the broader Ukrainian crisis.
The Journal’s argument neglects to note the serious escalation of hostilities that have already been taking place in Ukraine for months, and further fails to recognize both the fundamental decrepitness of the Minsk II Ceasefire framework and how the agreement adequately fits the political needs of both Kyiv and Moscow. These shortcomings lead the Journal to erroneously argue its usual neoconservative narrative of a feckless Obama Administration and Western political leadership being pushed around by an emboldened, empowered Russian tyrant. Instead, we should examine these developments for what they say about those who are actually responsible–the Russian government. The renewed saber-rattling in Ukraine represents the same thing that Russia’s other saber-rattling (and occasional saber-striking) have for the entirety of the Russian President’s current term–desperate, panicking maneuvers by a fundamentally weak and decrepit Russian ship of state.
There is essential context for what is happening right now on the borders between Ukraine and its territories under Russian occupation. Russia’s accusations against Ukraine and mobilization of forces in Crimea have not taken place in a vacuum, but against a backdrop of serious escalation of violence along the line of contact in Donbass. There, in the Russian-occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts in Eastern Ukraine, heavy artillery bombardments (with weapons prohibited under the Minsk II ceasefire) by pro-Russian separatist and Russian forces, along with intense skirmishing, made last month the most bloody for Ukrainian forces in almost a year. Based on reports from the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission for Ukraine, which is tasked with supervising the Minsk II ceasefire, both sides have routinely taken to shooting down monitoring drones, and pro-Russian forces have been frequently and openly threatened and intimidated OSCE monitors and denied them free, rightful access to areas in the conflict zone.
The Journal further puts forth Vladimir Putin is seeking to abandon the framework of the Minsk II Ceasefire agreed to in 2015, noting that the Russian President rejected the idea of a fresh round of negotiations on the sidelines of the September G-20 meeting in China, and quoting a “senior Western diplomat” saying that “Mr. Putin’s accusations represent an attempt at ‘sabotaging the diplomacy around Minsk.’” There is no reason to doubt the authority of the quoted diplomat and the authenticity of the quote, but the Journal’s neglects to note that the authority of Minsk II has been eviscerated from its very inception. Not only have there been routine, unmistakable, and profligate violations of Minsk II for over a year, but as the very ink was still drying on the ceasefire’s pages, Russian separatist forces, with the participation of the the Russian 5th Separate Armored Brigade from Ulan-Ude (just north of the Mongolian border), completed an offensive to capture the key rail junction of Debaltsevo in a Ukrainian-held salient.
More importantly, the Journal does not appreciate the essential convenience which the ceasefire implementation has afforded to both Kyiv and Moscow. On the Russian side, Minsk II’s vague and unrealistic prescription for the gradual de-escalation of tensions and re-integration of pro-Russian occupied territories into Ukraine has given Moscow and its vassals in the so-called ‘Donetsk & Lugansk People’s Republics’ cover to ignore their obligations to remove non-Ukrainian (read, Russian) soldiers and military equipment, hold elections only in accordance with Ukrainian law, and return control of the full Ukraine-Russia border to Kyiv’s control. With all of this, the Kremlin is able to maintain a war-ready foothold in Ukrainian territory and keep Ukraine burdened with a cancerous abscess of war, death, poverty, and gross human suffering, thus keeping the country too weak to fully invest in the massive, painful reforms it needs to truly advance towards membership in the European project. On the Ukrainian side, the Minsk II Ceasefire allows Kyiv to discharge responsibility for the feeding, sustaining, and day-to-day administration of the war-torn, physically-devastated, gangster-infested occupied territories unto Russia. Meanwhile, the looming specter of Russian aggression keeps the Ukrainian people sufficiently wary of agitating their government to fulfill the promises of the Euromaidan Revolution, and it gives Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his Bloc in the Verkhovnaya Rada (the country’s parliament) cover to continue pampering and protecting their oligarch benefactors, and even to silence valid criticism of their shortcomings as nefarious Russian subversion.
Considering that violence in Ukraine has simmered for months, but also that the so-called “frozen conflict” status of occupied Donbass has been critically advantageous to both Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko, why would Moscow decide to ramp up the fighting and even declare a crisis in Crimea? The Journal argues that the Russian President is “pressing his geopolitical advantage” at a moment when “he sense[s] complacency in the West,” and that “[t]he Russian (sic) could also be creating a narrative to justify further incursions into Ukrainian territory even as Europe’s will to maintain sanctions on Moscow falters.” Not only does the Journal ignore the great unlikelihood that Vladimir Putin would try to bring more hostile, resource-draining, war-torn territory under Russian control after unceremoniously abandoning the so-called ‘Novorossiya Project’ more than a year ago, but it fails to mention that the European Union enacted another six-month renewal of its sanctions against Russia in June. As prominent Russia commentator (and frequent Wall Street Journal contributor) Stephen Sestanovich noted, one of Putin’s best prospects for getting the EU sanctions lifted fell through on August 4 when the Italian Parliament (a body keenly receptive to Russia’s “business bait”) rejected a bid to ease the restrictions against Russia and its officials. While this most recent rollover of sanctions featured murmuring that it was likely be the last complete one, similar things have been said for almost every renewal of the Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia. Moreover, the serious Russian escalations of violence since June are likely to eliminate the excuses of enduring stability that several EU members were keen to use for gradually restoring more normal relations between Brussels and Moscow. Washington and its European partners certainly have not increased pressure on Russia in the past months, but contrary to the Journal’s insinuations, they have not ceded Putin ground to maneuver (with Brexit, which will not be completed and implemented for several sanctions-renewal cycles, notwithstanding).
Even further, the Journal claims through its editorial’s very title, “Putin’s August Surprise” (harkening to the meme of the “October Surprise”), and through its suggestion that Putin “may want to stir more trouble while Barack Obama is heading out the door,” that the Kremlin is deliberately re-stoking conflict in Ukraine as a way to manipulate the American presidential elections. Characteristic of its America-centric narrative, the Journal fails to note that Russia itself is holding State Duma elections next month. While there is almost zero likelihood of Putin’s United Russia Party losing its grip on power, or that any real political opposition will see its stock rise at the polls (Russia’s most prominent ‘opposition’ blocs are token in nature and almost always submissive to the Kremlin’s directives), Russia’s facade “elections” are a critical ritual through which the Russian government refreshes its airs of legitimacy and reminds its people that they have consented to their leadership (whether or not they had any choice in the matter). In order to be effective, these theatrics require substantial audience participation and, as the unrest following the 2011-2012 Russian election season showed, cannot feature too much overt fraud. It is the strong consensus of the Russia Studies community that the sharp anti-Western turn in Russian politics since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency was in great part (if not primarily) a ploy to divert national attention from the atrophy of living standards, enduring colossal corruption, and simmering ethnic resentment that caused United Russia to fail to win a majority of votes in the 2011 State Duma election and caused Vladimir Putin to barely win a majority of votes for President in 2012, despite the lack of any viable opponent. Given that the overall Russian economy is in dreadful shape and that more than 40% of Russians are struggling to feed and clothe themselves (not accounting for any fudging of numbers), the Kremlin faces a very tall order to pull off a sufficiently well-attended, plausible performance of electoral theater.
Instead of accepting the Journal’s attempt to cast world events primarily as consequences of American and Western decisions, we should see the escalation in Ukraine in the context of the current, potentially pivotal moment in Russian politics. If we needed any further confirmation of Vladimir Putin’s insecurity as the clock ticks down to the Duma elections, we need only look first to his re-shuffling of the Russian security services to create a new paramilitary police force that answers directly to the Russian president and which takes authority away from pre-existing security organs in the Russian Interior Ministry. Even further, Vladimir Putin just sacked the head of the Presidential Administration and his longtime ally, Sergei Ivanov. There is a wide array of informed speculation about the reasons for and the significance of Ivanov’s departure and the promotion of his successor, Anton Vaino written by people far more qualified than I. However, the coincidence of Ivanov’s sacking, the escalation of tensions along the borders of Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory, and the imminent September Duma elections can hardly be seen as coincidental. Vladimir Putin is looking inward and adjusting his footwork accordingly.
The shortcomings of the Journal’s editorial do have significance. By representing the current events in occupied without so much as a sentence’s worth of context regarding the regional and Russian domestic political dynamics at play (which a Washington Post editorial of similar length did), the Journal gives its readers–people who, according to the paper, are our country’s business, political, governing, media, and social elites–a fundamentally flawed understanding of an issue of key international importance. They continue the oft-repeated trope of Vladimir Putin as a masterful, unbeatable, frightening geopolitical manipulator who the West’s leaders are incapable of and/or unwilling to confront, whereas the reality points to a far more desperate, scrambling, frightened despot trying to out-dance his self-inflicted doom. By arguing that the Kremlin’s keeper is connivingly shaking up the geopolitical chessboard to manipulate the American presidential election, the Journal is lending Vladimir Putin mystical political power that he does not possess. Moreover, it actively contributes to a mistaken, even dangerous narrative that all of the world’s events are the result of decisions made by the United States–a mindset that has gotten our country into such dreadful trouble before.