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Putin’s long game in Ukraine

He can afford to wait out the Europeans while reminding them how much the sanctions are costing them — and how much they need Russia.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin shaking hands with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan, on Saturday.
REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

There is a complicated game of chess playing out in Europe over Vladimir Putin’s meddling in Ukraine. Or maybe it’s a game of chicken.

Oh, sure. Jeb Bush was also in Europe last week, calling Putin a bully. But that’s part of a different game — looking presidential before announcing your candidacy — which Bush is doing today.

And it’s not as if Bush is pushing for a radically different U.S. strategy than the one pursued by the Obama administration for the past year and a half. That strategy consists of containment, sanctions, and — according to news reports over the weekend — the possibility of positioning U.S. military equipment in NATO countries most at risk from another Russian military adventure. 

The game we’re concerned about here is built around knowing your opponent’s psychology and your own tolerance for pain. It was launched by an impending European Union decision about whether to continue sanctions against Russia, which are set to expire in July. EU countries will decide what to do before the end of this month — and they have to be unanimous.

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EU sanctions are important because European countries and the United States need to show Putin that they’re on the same page. If they can apply consistent pressure, and the pain is bad enough for long enough, the thinking goes, maybe they can change Russia’s behavior. So how much pain can Putin tolerate? 

On the other hand, if Putin can peel off just one EU outlier, he might be able to start dismantling the sanctions, which — along with a steep fall in oil prices — have hurt the Russian economy. 

There is little doubt that EU heavyweights like Britain and Germany are on board with keeping up the pressure. Members of the world’s leading industrialized powers, the so-called G7, meeting in Germany last weekend, said they would maintain the sanctions.  

It’s not quite so certain when it comes to Greece — like Russia an Orthodox Christian country — which has its own problems with the European powers that be, and has made a point of courting Moscow. Or Hungary, which is governed by right-wing populists, who hosted a visit by Putin earlier this year. Or any number of other EU members with weak economies and longstanding business ties to Russia. 

That helps explain why Putin visited Italy last week. (He also made a stop at the Vatican to see Pope Francis.) It would’ve been hard for the Russian president to be more obvious about the reason for the trip — he said after meeting Italy’s prime minister that the sanctions have cost Italian businesses millions of dollars. A number of them have strong ties to Moscow dating back well into the Soviet era. 

This Economist piece also points out that after Russia got through marking the 70th anniversary of the Allies’ victory over Germany in World War II (which allowed it to continue linking what it calls Ukrainian fascism back to the Nazis), it shifted its story line.

The change probably signals a more subtle effort to influence the thinking of mainstream Europeans (and probably Russians, too) on the current crisis.

In this new telling, Ukraine is a basket case that no amount of Western involvement can fix. Russia, on the other hand, is the indispensible regional power. One you can’t do with; the other you can’t do without.

Such manipulation, in the anguished view of Russian writer Mikhail Shishkin, places Putin in a long line of Russian leaders who have managed to transform that World War II victory, which Russians still commemorate with great pride each year, into a defeat: “Russia’s rulers have stolen my people’s oil, stolen their elections, stolen their country. And stolen their victory.” 

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But does Putin really think he can stop the EU from extending the sanctions this summer? Does anyone else think he can? 

It’s unlikely. Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, said it would be very risky for any member to defy the rest of the EU. A diplomat quoted by the BBC was blunt about the cost: “If Greece or Cyprus says ‘We’re with Russia,’ they’re finished. It won’t happen.”

Putin’s probably playing a longer game.

When oil prices were at their lowest late last year, it appeared that Russia was in for a very tough time. But oil has since rebounded a bit, and although the Russian economy will shrink this year, a new World Bank analysis says things won’t be as bad as they might have been. 

So Putin isn’t really desperate for the EU or anyone else to ease the economic pressure. A 2.7 percent drop in GDP, which the World Bank forecasts for this year, isn’t great. But neither is it the end of the world for a leader who controls the media and retains very high popularity ratings at home.

He can afford to wait out the Europeans while reminding them how much the sanctions are costing them and how much they need Russia.

If he doesn’t win the chess game, he’s betting he still could win a game of chicken.