Putin’s strategy in Ukraine is to wage a low intensity war that destabilizes the country indefinitely while avoiding broader sanctions. Currently, that strategy is succeeding, but it faces a challenge: Ukrainian forces are now working to seal the border. The Wall Street Journal reports:
“They are methodically cutting off the rebel regions from the border with Russia,” said a rebel commander known as Igor Strelkov in a video posted by Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.Mr. Strelkov said Ukrainian forces were advancing from the north and south along the border with Russia at a speed of up to nine miles a day.
If Kiev’s forces continue to advance, Ukraine could force Putin to choose between upping his military support for the rebels, making an increase in sanctions more likely, or watching Ukraine isolate and wear them down. Either way, he risks losing political support at home. If the economy tanks due to more sanctions, he takes a big hit. If the rebels lose and blame him, his prestige in Russia falls.Meanwhile, the West is trying to impose sanctions based on Russia’s clear, if relatively low key, strategy to cripple and dismember a neighboring state. Western solidarity is not as strong as it might be—see for example France’s decision to go ahead with a deal to sell Russia warships. But Germany is notably edging towards a harsher line as Russia’s flagrant aggression continues. Putin has to watch out for the possibility that any more visible support for the rebels could tip the delicate balance and unite Europe behind painful measures.That said, the energy situation is in Putin’s favor. Ukraine can’t pay for the energy it needs to survive because its economy is such a disaster, and the West is not really interested in subsidizing another generation of corruption and economic drift in Ukraine. Inertia and entropy in Ukraine can tip the balance in Putin’s direction. Putin probably thinks that if he can keep the pressure up, and use a mix of threats and bribes to keep Ukrainian policy-making as incoherent as it has been for the last 25 years, Ukraine will slowly drift in his direction.Ukraine optimists say that Russian invasion and hostility have united the country as never before and that this revolution, unlike the last two, will finally create an effective state that will reform the economy and build a truly independent country that can move toward the West. Pessimists say that this is exactly the same happy-clappy delusional talk that feckless Ukrainian optimists indulged in from 1990 until 2005, and nothing happened.Nobody can know for certain who is right, and it remains unclear whether the West has the wisdom or the will to help prove the optimists right. Putin has placed a large bet that we don’t. The bet hasn’t paid off yet, but wisdom and will don’t seem to be in great supply in either Europe or Washington these days.