Russia has frequently claimed that the aim of the Western sanctions, in particular for the United States, is to change Russia’s regime. But it is the failings of President Vladimir Putin that have brought the future of his regime into question, not Western conspiracies. While no one in the West wants to face the risks inherent in Russia’s political fragility, easing the pressure of sanctions on Russia, imposed over the crisis in Ukraine, will not mitigate them.
Putin and his colleagues remain determined to reject reforms to Russia’s economy or political system. Their aggressive but ill-conceived actions against Ukraine are of a piece with their instincts for repression at home. Easing EU or transatlantic sanctions without substantial, bankable and publicly recognized Russian concessions might be welcome to Putin and some of his colleagues, but would harm a Russia surely deserving of something better than increasingly despotic rule.
Though there has been no suggestion that the US is prepared to pull back, the case for EU sanctions to be eased or even abandoned has been argued on a number of grounds: that a gradual retreat from their present severity would encourage Putin to move towards a negotiated solution; that tacit or even explicit recognition of Russian rule over Crimea would be a fair exchange for a Russian retreat from eastern Ukraine; that a credible and permanent Western commitment to exclude Ukraine from NATO membership, or presumably from entry into the EU, would be justified; and that EU sanctions are exacerbating the economic crisis threatening the Russian economy, thereby increasing the risk of the regime imploding or becoming still more aggressive.
The assumptions behind these propositions are that, for the EU, Ukraine is of secondary importance to Russia, incapable of reform and should be treated accordingly; that the economic penalties of sanctions for various EU countries are too high; that opposing Russia amounts to provoking it, with all the dangers that might bring; and that the Putin regime is so strongly ensconced that Western attempts to constrain it are futile.
The Kremlin faces difficult choices which ought in principle to persuade Putin and his cohorts to get what they still can in Ukraine, and to give themselves room to address Russia’s mounting domestic problems. The cost of their Crimean adventure is heavy enough without adding an enclave in eastern Ukraine to the burden. Moscow positions itself as though it were a disinterested party seeking a negotiated settlement between warring parties in Ukraine, but it is of course deeply involved. Its proxies would already have lost their territory without Russian money, supplies and men. Even if Moscow were to succeed in establishing a ‘frozen conflict’ zone in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, they would bear the burden of making them economically sustainable. Ukraine has been turned into an enemy. The West has been alienated. Putin’s planned Eurasian Union has been compromised.
But despite some tactical manoeuvres, the thrust of Putin’s policies towards Ukraine has not changed, and he has created a climate in which he would come under criticism in Russia if he backed down now. He may suppose that EU resolve will weaken, and that differences can thereby be widened between the EU and the United States. He no doubt calculates that Kyiv will not be able to summon either the resolution or the money to resolve its domestic problems. He may be persuaded that Russia’s proxies in Ukraine could still become the focus of a widespread popular movement of Russian speakers in Ukraine, perhaps through the promotion of violence beyond their present reach. Russia has increased its support for them despite its commitment under the Minsk agreement to withdraw foreign support, and indeed appears to be preparing for further military action. Putin’s central objective of bending Ukraine to his will remains evident, and the Kremlin’s policies have remained opportunistic, obscured by lies and without a clearly articulated or stable settlement in mind.
The real mark of a change in Russian policy that would make negotiation with the West and Ukraine a realistic option would be the secure closure, envisaged in the now surely failed Minsk agreement, of the Russia/Ukraine border to the movement of troops, weapons and other supplies to the militants in Donetsk and Luhansk. Without that security, easing US or EU sanctions can have only one meaning − that the West is ready to acknowledge Moscow’s right to treat Ukraine as subject to its will. The truth is that Putin is not, so far at least, ready to negotiate any settlement that would last, either with Ukraine or over its head.
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