Friday, September 11, 2015

Putin Seeking to Destabilize Ukraine While ‘Imitating’ a Russian Pullback in Donbas, Portnikov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 11 – In an effort to get the West to end its sanctions on Russia, Vladimir Putin will continue to sharply reduce pro-Moscow military actions in the Donbas over the next month, Vitaly Portnikov says; but even as he does so, the Kremlin leader will do everything he can to destabilize and thus discredit Ukraine from the inside.

            This combination, Portnikov argues, suggests that Putin is preparing for a “Minsk 3” agreement when he meets with the leaders of France, Germany and Ukraine in Paris on October 3, an agreement that will require “joint guarantees.” Otherwise, the four could have met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (

                It appears, the Ukrainian analyst says, that “if it isn’t seeking a way out of the dead end it finds itself in the Donbas, Russia will attempt to imitate this exit” in order to extract as much as possible from the West.  Indeed, since August 29 when Hollande, Merkel and Putin spoke on the telephone, “the intensity of fire from the side of Russian forces … has fallen sharply.”

            That fall-off, Portnikov continues, has prompted the French president to speak “even about the possibility of lifting sanctions against Russia” if the Minsk accords are fulfilled.  It is unlikely that Holland would have said that “if he did not feel that the Kremlin beast was not really close to withdrawal and needed support from the civilized world.”

            Putin “really is in a very complicated situation, perhaps the most complex from the moment power was transferred to him by Yeltsin,” Portnikov says. The Russian economy is collapsing, and even his advisors are talking about the lack of sufficient gold reserves to support the ruble.

            The Kremlin leader may soon not have the money needed to pay its social security obligations, and Putin and his entourage “remember what happens with Russians when bravura television hysterics are not accompanied by the payment of their accustomed subsidies, pensions and salaries.”

            This means, he suggests, that “Russia is again in the customary fog of revolt and destabilization” itself. Putin has to do what he can to avoid that, and one important step in that direction is to eliminate sanctions or at least ensure that there won’t be new and more serious ones imposed.

            Putin always faces a serious problem in the Middle East, Portnikov argues, primarily because he wants to show that he can support a totalitarian regime that has loyally supported Moscow. If he doesn’t back Syria’s Asad, he will have shown that he won’t or can’t support even his allies, not a message the Kremlin leader wants to send.

            “But the resources of the Kremlin adventurist are really limited, and for sending forces to Syria, Putin needs relief in the Donbas,” and hence the current reduction in violence there. In this situation, what concessions is Putin prepared to make, given his own goals and given the attitudes of the West?

            According to Portnikov, it is quite likely that even Putin hasn’t decided yet and that he realizes that what will happen in Paris on October 2 will depend to a large extent on what happens over the next three weeks.

            Putin may very well keep violence in the Donbas at a low level: that will help him with his Western interlocutors. But he will beyond any doubt “rock the boat” of Ukraine “because it is important to him that [Ukrainian President] Poroshenko will arrive in Paris without any sense of prospects and be ready for new concessions” of his own.”

            Moreover, over this period, the Ukrainian analyst suggests, Putin may also take actions in the Middle East designed to drive up the price of oil, something that will give him more leverage and reduce that of the West on Russian behavior.

            With regard to Ukraine, it seems clear that Putin will now “throw all his reserves into the destabilization of the situation” there, making use of everyone from “the most anti-Ukrainian chauvinists to the most patriotic patriots” to embarrass and weaken Ukraine both in reality and even more in the eyes of the West.

            Thus, Portnikov says, the next few weeks are critical because “the stakes in October are really high.”

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