Back in April, in my post entitled “I repeat, Russian isn’t going to take any more of the Ukraine“, I wrote that the Russian forces massing on the Ukrainian border were for nothing more than political leverage:
Putin gets to show off the supposed might of the Russian military, Russia’s neighbours quake in their boots and privately vow to be nicer to the big kid next door in future, and Nato commanders get to pretend they still have some relevance. Then after some extensive negotiation, Russia agrees that in a show of good faith, it will stand down tens of thousands of its troops from border patrol. Presumably, the West will offer Russia something in return – perhaps a relaxing of sanctions and a return to a few diplomatic tables in future. Russia is seen to have given something away, but it’s something it never intended to use. The crisis is seen to have been averted, and life returns to normal.
For a number of months, that seemed correct. Yes, there were suspicions that some of the pro-Russian separatists were from the Russian side of the border, but to my mind it seemed a case of Russia having lost control of the separatists. Putin could agree all he liked that Russia would broker a truce, but that didn’t necessarily mean the separatists were going to listen to him.
However, in the recent weeks it has been increasingly difficult to argue that Russia is not directly supplying the separatists with weapons, training and leadership. Since the downing of Flight MH17, and the pictures of the sophisticated Russian rocket system used in the attack, the Russian aid and influence has been obvious. However, at that time, Russia was still in complete denial, no doubt in large part due to not wanting to own any involvement in the shooting down of a civilian aircraft.
Recently though, Russia is barely even bothering to discuss the troop movements over the border into Eastern Ukraine. Combined with Putin’s change in language (describing the territory held by the separatists as “New Russia”), it’s somewhat ominous times for the Ukrainian Government.
With the separatists having recently routed the Ukrainian army on a number of different fronts, to the point where the Ukrainian Government has had little choice but to agree to cease-fire, it seems increasingly likely that Russia will now carve off a chunk of Eastern Ukraine and put up with the increased sanctions that will undoubtedly follow.
If that’s what ends up occurring, Putin will be gambling that Nato’s recent tough talk is just that – talk only. And his gamble would more likely than not be correct. Europe does not want to go to war, especially not in support of a non-Nato member which has spent the last few decades as a corrupt, largely failed state.
However, Russia’s economy is crumbling, with a huge flight of capital since sanctions were imposed. If the West holds the line, either continuing indefinitely with the existing sanctions or adding a new round of sanctions, Putin’s populist land grab may well end up crippling Russia’s economy for years to come.