After ‘little green men’ took control of Crimea’s parliament in February in the first stage of Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula, US diplomats spoke of finding an ‘off ramp’ for Vladimir Putin to stop him going further. Yet there was no indication of what could persuade him to act otherwise.
The Kremlin saw the Maidan revolution as the latest Western attempt to pull Ukraine away from Russia. To a visibly furious Russian president, the logic of revenge appears to have been compelling, regardless of the consequences.
Meanwhile, Russia’s efforts to bring about its concept of a federalized Ukraine have run into the sand. The insurgency in eastern Ukraine, instigated by Moscow and backed with fighters and weaponry, has been a spectacular failure, serving only to highlight the lack of support for separatism in eastern Ukraine and unite much of the rest of the country against Russia.
At the same time, Russia’s relations with its Western partners have suffered a precipitous deterioration, culminating in economic sanctions that are highly damaging for Russia. There is also now a realization in Russia that Moscow’s policies in support of federalization in Ukraine have the potential to provoke separatism within the Russian Federation itself.
If ever an ‘off ramp’ were needed for Putin, it is now. Unless he and his siloviki advisers can find a face-saving means to reverse his current policies towards Ukraine, he will stay locked into the logic of escalation, risking the need to commit ground forces to counter the Ukrainian Army’s advances. Having released a wave of national-patriotic emotion in Russia, Putin’s main difficulty is that cannot afford to lose − or at least, to be seen to lose.
Much as he may believe he can rally the nation behind him against what can be portrayed as the latest Western aggression against Mother Russia, support could start to crumble if large numbers of Russian soldiers lose their lives fighting a brotherly people. Against a background of declining living standards, Putin would have good reason to worry about the security of his system.
The next phase of the Ukraine crisis in Moscow’s relations with the EU is likely to revolve around the security of gas supplies for the winter. Negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv on the price for Ukraine’s gas imports from Russia remain deadlocked, with Ukraine not currently buying gas from Russia. This is not a sustainable position for either side, since Russia needs to guarantee flows of gas through Ukraine to its European customers while Ukraine requires sufficient gas to survive the winter. It has no alternative to buying Russian gas.
If Western countries want to signpost an off ramp to Putin and seek a broader resolution of the Ukraine crisis, the gas issue provides the opportunity to bring Kyiv and EU member states to the table.
This is achievable without a grand bargain or accommodation with Moscow at the expense of Ukraine.
The outline of a deal that can work for both Kyiv and Moscow is clear:
First, Russia prevails on separatist forces to halt the insurgency in return for an end to Kyiv’s anti-terrorist operation and guarantees of stronger representation of the eastern regions in government, including direct elections of governors and increased regional autonomy. Kyiv can do nothing less, in any case, if it is to provide the population of the east of Ukraine with a future
Second, Kyiv commits not to pursue NATO membership without the support of an overwhelming majority of the population (perhaps 70 per cent support in a referendum). In this way, NATO membership for Ukraine could be put on the back burner without formally ruling it out. In return, Moscow drops its objections to Ukraine pursuing its relationship with the EU and agrees not to impede the implementation of the Association Agreement
Third, Kyiv guarantees continued protection of the Russian language in Ukraine (already a stipulation of the 2004 constitution) with preservation of some elements of the 2012 language law that made it an official language in the south and east of the country. Again, Kyiv will have little to lose on the issue of language since it needs to show a degree of flexibility to Russian speakers in the east in order to secure their loyalty.
Of course, Putin is not a man who believes in win-win outcomes. However, faced with the prospect of being seen in Russia to have lost his battle with the West over Ukraine, he cannot be insensitive to the increasingly urgent need to change his game in and find a way out.
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