What is Putin up to in Ukraine?


Escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine are reflected in their media, with claims that both sides are trying to take advantage of alleged Ukrainian armed incursions in Crimea, the BBC reports:

Although Russian state TV channels are most interested in the Olympics, their Crimea coverage largely follows President Vladimir Putin’s call for the West to put “appropriate pressure” on Ukraine. Channel One TV says “Ukraine’s Western allies should realise what such subversive activities might lead to”. 

Putin is at least partly motivated by the need to drum up nationalist sentiment prior to next month’s Duma elections, according to Stephen Sestanovich, senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

An analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, an independent think tank, agrees that Putin’s claims are aimed at boosting the Kremlin’s popularity before parliamentary elections.

“He constantly needs a series of quasi-wars to keep the pro-Putin majority mobilized,” Andrei Kolesnikov said in an interview. “It’s very hard to believe in a [military] operation that is extremely unfavorable for Poroshenko and very beneficial for Putin.”

Like Hitler, Putin believes that the West will not live up to its commitments, says analyst Andrey Piontkovsky (right), a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the NED, a view that some in Western governments are unwittingly encouraging by continuing to send senior officials to Moscow to seek agreement with him much as Neville Chamberlain did with the Nazi leader by going to Munich.

Putin “wants to return to the international arrangements of the Yalta and Potsdam agreements. Such a model makes the world more secure because the powers divide among themselves responsibility and control,” with Moscow having responsibility “for the Donbass and for all Ukraine,” Paul Goble’s Window on Eurasia reports.

Russia’s accusations should not be regarded as a new stage in its war of attrition against Ukraine, says Adrian Karatnycky, a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council and co-director of its “Ukraine in Europe” program. They are more likely part of the long-running disinformation campaign that has accompanied the country’s military aggression, he writes for Politico.

Daragh McDowell, a principal analyst for Europe and Central Asia at Verisk Maplecroft, agrees that Russia’s actions in and around Crimea are “more about domestic politics than anything else,” calling it a continuation of the “demonstrative strong-man security state,” characteristic of Putin’s regime.

“Anything that can enforce a mentality of ‘Russia against the world’…all serves the same basic message that it’s big hostile world out there, everyone’s against Russia, and I’m (Putin) the only one that can protect you,” McDowell told CNBC.

A Ukrainian political analyst said he doubted the veracity of Putin’s claims, which he believed were part of Russia’s efforts to force Ukraine to give up the breakaway regions, The LA Times adds.

“This is a murky story, hardly believable, but what’s important is its consequences,” said Vadim Karasyov of the Institute of Global Strategies. Putin is “criminally blackmailing the West so that it forces Ukraine to fulfill the Minsk agreements.”

The Minsk II agreement has been moribund for some time, and despite the fact that it was Russian aggression which began the conflict more than two years ago, Moscow has persisted in blaming the Ukrainians for the slow implementation, argues Hudson Institute analyst Hannah Thorburn. Now, should Russia succeed in portraying Ukraine—rather than Russia—as the problem creator, that beleaguered nation may come to find itself increasingly friendless and, even worse, potentially excluded from future negotiations about its border and its future.

But Ukraine must ask itself what is more important–its survival as a strong state without the occupied Donbas or its transformation into a failed state with the occupied Donbas, Rutgers University’s Alexander Motyl writes for Foreign Policy.

Russian observers said Ukraine and the west were right to be concerned, The FT adds. “The Russians have lost whatever hope they had left of stabilising the situation along the lines of Minsk II as interpreted by the Kremlin,” said Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, referring to a deal for a ceasefire and political solution struck in early 2015.

Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor who studies Russia, pointed out that Crimea would make little sense as a staging ground for military action against eastern Ukraine, which borders mainland Russia but not Crimea, and that the rest of the country is better defended, The New York Times reports.

“It’s highly unlikely that the Russians are truly planning some major offensive,” Mr. Galeotti said. Rather, “We’re looking at a classic Russian strategy of building up tension.”

“It’s a standard Putin tactic — he wants to try to go there from a position of strength,” Mr. Galeotti said of the next peace talks, planned for early September. “And the only real strength is to say, ‘I could make things much, much worse if I wanted to.’ ”

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