While most in the media (and not a few experts) were trying to prove that Donald Trump was put in the White House by Vladimir Putin—that the Kremlin changed the outcome of the election in favor of its “puppet”—almost nobody paid attention to how the Kremlin itself looked ahead to its future with Donald Trump in the White House. It turns out that the man most analysts in the West seem to flatter as being more powerful, cunning, and far-seeing than the entire American state has started preparing for a confrontation with Washington.
The day after Putin and Trump spoke over the phone, a new armed clash broke out in Donbas, around the city of Avdiivka. Russia-backed separatists fired into a military “gray zone” in attempt to storm it, and the firing hasn’t stopped since. Martial law was announced in the region, and Ukrainian government started preparing to evacuate civilians.
On his trip to Budapest last week, Vladimir Putin commented on the situation in Avdiivka and blamed Kyiv. “Тhe Ukrainian leadership needs money, and the best way to drum up some money is to go to the European Union, individual countries of Europe, the United States, or international financial institutions, posing as a victim of aggression,” Putin said.
The statement contains two points, and both are true. Ukrainian officials have been mired in various corruption scandals, and they would like to get money from the West—money that would no doubt be misspent. And Ukraine is indeed a victim of Russian aggression. But in respect to Avdiivka, it’s the Russian side that demonstrated a more determined objective in shattering the ceasefire in Donbas. Ukrainian troops may have been in the “gray zone” initially, but Russian attacks have not stopped since the attacks commenced. Clearly a bigger strategic objective is in play.
But before we get to that, an illustration of how an escalation in Ukraine is just “business as usual” for the cadre of well-connected businessmen surrounding Putin: two days ago, it was revealed that the son of sanctioned crony Arkady Rotenberg, Igor, bought a 46.17 percent stake in the Tula ammunition factory. The deal was finalized on January 20. It wasn’t a “privatization” in any sense of the word—this wasn’t Putin demanding that his friends “pay their debt to Mother Russia” by donating money to a dangerously depleted federal budget. No, in this case, Rotenberg bought his stake from a private businessman, Alexei Solovov, who was charged with fraud last year and sentenced to three years’ probation. As of September 2016, the other major owner of the Tula factory was the privately-held Capital Share Company, with an identical stake of 46.17 percent. The Tula factory makes ammo of various calibers under the Tulammo brand, for pistols, light semi-automatic rifles, machine guns, and sniper rifles. It exports its wares worldwide—the EU, the United States, South America, and CIS countries—with more than 50 percent of the company’s products going abroad.
Given that the Rotenbergs have been among the biggest beneficiaries of state contracts in Russia (routinely placing high on Forbes Russia’s “Kings of State Tenders” annual ranking), it would be surprising if the purchase didn’t have something to do with insider information—namely, that the Russian Ministry of Defense was preparing to make a sizable purchase. The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, admitted as much in his own inimitable way. When asked at a press conference on Thursday if the Donbas separatists would have enough weapons to fight the Ukrainian army, Peskov said that he “hopes there will be enough.”
Back to the bigger picture: commenting on the Avdiivka fighting, Peskov said that the “renewed fighting shows another reason for a swift resumption of a dialogue and cooperation between Russia and the United States.” As RFE Power Vertical podcast host Brian Whitmore recently put it:
Russia, it appears, is again deploying its tactic of reflexive control—the shaping of an environment to compel adversaries to behave in a manner advantageous to Moscow. The Kremlin wants a grand bargain with the West, and particularly with the United States, that gives it a free hand in Ukraine. Renewed violence in Ukraine would suggest that the Minsk ceasefire and the European-centered peace talks—the so-called Normandy Format that includes Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine—are a failure. The solution, of course, is for Russia and the United States to solve the problem without the Europeans and over the heads of the Ukrainians.
Whitmore also cites Russian journalist Oleg Kashin who reports that pro-Kremlin journalists were dispatched to Avdiivka before the shooting started.
In the meantime, the White House has wrong-footed all of the U.S. analysts and pundits convinced that President Trump is somehow Putin’s “Manchurian Candidate.” First, the Trump Administration’s new Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley strongly denounced the Russian aggression in Donbas, and reiterated that sanctions would not be lifted until Crimea was returned to Ukraine. American journalists scrambled to see if the new Ambassador was freelancing her comments, but it was soon confirmed that the statement had been coordinated with the White House. The very next day, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer confirmed Haley’s statement and denounced Russian aggression as well.
The honeymoon appears to be over, and the Russian and American Presidents are raising the stakes in their “relationship.” Both have clearly realized that the other is not such a good guy, even when only calculated in terms of vital national interests.