11 May 2014
Suggestions that President Putin has backed down over Ukraine are misplaced. Instead, he has cause to celebrate after a meeting with the OSCE gave him exactly what he wanted.

Keir Giles

Senior Consulting Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme


Flags of newly annexed Crimea and Sevastopol are placed on the tanks during the victory day parade at the Red Square on 9 May 2014. Photo by The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images.
Flags of newly annexed Crimea and Sevastopol are placed on the tanks during the victory day parade at the Red Square on 9 May 2014. Photo by The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images.


Today, 9 May, is celebrated in Russia as Victory Day, a commemoration of the end of the Second World War. This year, the traditional military parade in Moscow was supplemented by celebrations in Russia's newly-acquired territory of Crimea, with President Vladimir Putin flying between the two events. This triumphal visit coincided with additional cause for celebration for Putin, after significant progress in achieving Russian objectives in Ukraine. 

Two days previously, Putin appeared to relax his position on Ukraine significantly following a meeting in Moscow with OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Didier Burkhalter. He lent qualified support to the Ukrainian presidential election scheduled for 25 May, and distanced himself from separatist plans for an earlier referendum on national status. 

Speculation in Western media on the background to Putin's apparent U-turn has been wide-ranging, but a common assumption is that this represented a compromise or retreat by Russia. But Putin has not 'backed off', 'climbed down', or 'blinked'. Instead, he has obtained a promise - via the OSCE - of exactly what Russia has been consistently demanding: namely, endorsement of the Russia-backed separatists as a legitimate party in deciding the constitutional future of Ukraine. Or, as described by the Russian Foreign Ministry, a 'truly all-Ukraine national dialogue on constitutional reform'. 

Current discussions of the content of the OSCE-sponsored 'roadmap' toward a resolution in Ukraine form a delicate stage of a significant process. The 'dialogue on constitutional reform' will inevitably include demands for various 'rights' for eastern Ukraine and its inhabitants, whose interpretation is likely to be controversial in future. Once again, as with the Georgia ceasefire six years ago and the Geneva agreement just last month, careless drafting of any accord would play into Russia's hands by allowing an entirely different interpretation to what is intended by the West.  

But however they are read, they will almost certainly further the Russian aim of federalization of Ukraine, supporting Moscow's long-term goals of maintaining powerful influence on Ukrainian policy and removing still further any prospect of accession to the EU or NATO. Furthermore, Russia can hold Ukraine to international agreements which the separatists do not have to observe, tying Kyiv's hands and allowing Moscow to blame Ukraine for any failure in the accords.

Easing off the pressure 

Meanwhile, the OSCE intervention allows a relaxation of Russian actions in Ukraine, since Moscow now has an alternative route to its objectives, and one which is internationally supported. Easing the political pressure will allow Russia to avoid the risk of more painful sanctions - especially from the US and Canada - targeting individuals who are significant to the Kremlin leadership. Furthermore, the OSCE agreement potentially allows Russia to avoid supporting a wider and more expensive insurgency in eastern Ukraine, with the additional risk of direct confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian forces leading to loss of control and unpredictable results 

Putin has also taken the opportunity to make a bid for the moral high ground by disclaiming separatist referendum plans in the east of Ukraine. At present, even though there is little evidence of realistic preparation for an actual vote, separatist leaders have said they will proceed with the referendum regardless of Putin's public statement. 

This would serve three purposes. It continues pressure on the authorities in Kyiv despite Russian objectives already being in sight. It provides a spurious legitimation to separatist claims. And it conveniently supports the narrative of Russia not directing or supporting operations in the east. Until now, Russia's counter-argument to accusations of sponsoring separatists in Ukraine, besides implausible denials, has been to attack the West for not exerting control over the interim authorities in Kyiv. But actions by separatists which ostensibly go against the express will of President Putin will help sow doubt in some minds as to where the real decisions are made. 

Russia's next steps

Ukraine, and to some extent Syria before it, have set the pattern for future use by Russia of unconventional warfare to achieve its objectives without overt invasion. 

The danger is of a return to an era of superpower proxy wars - but using a distinct new form of unconventional warfare, elaborated by Russian military thinkers over recent years when considering what they see as the new, indistinct boundaries between war and peace. As seen with the example of Ukraine, full-scale military intervention is both unnecessary for Russia to achieve its aims, and undesirable; Russian objectives have been met primarily by diplomatic, information and economic means, with both threatened and actual military action playing only a minor role. 

In a recent short story published under a pseudonym, Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov seems to have coined the term 'non-linear war' (nelineynaya voyna) - which could potentially become as widespread a term for the new Russian way of war as his earlier 'managed democracy' did for describing Russian politics. 

So while the future of Ukraine plays out, urgent attention is needed to what Russia's next aspiration might be. There is no shortage of preparatory work in evidence. To take just one example: Russia walked away from the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, with its intensive verification regime, shortly before the war in Georgia in 2008. This week, Russia caused concern in Lithuania by quietly suspending a bilateral agreement which gave a degree of oversight over military deployments in Russia's neighbouring Kaliningrad exclave. 

This does not, of course, mean that Lithuania is necessarily Russia's next target for hostile destabilising action. But continuing to outmanoeuvre the West after Crimea will only confirm the Russian calculation that the range of tools used against Ukraine are effective and achieve the desired result.

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