20 Years of Leading Analysis

The Russian Convoy

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In his wide-ranging remarks to the members of the Russian State Duma in Yalta on August 14, President Vladimir Putin only mentioned Ukraine briefly. Russia, he said, would do all it can to bring an end to the bloodletting there. Even as Putin was talking, the Russian humanitarian convoy was slowly making its way from Moscow to the Ukrainian border.

Meanwhile, at Yalta, an interesting exchange followed. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Deputy Speaker of the Russian parliament, who spoke after Putin, ostensibly criticized the president' "softness." The last tsar, Zhirinovsky said, when faced with a crisis in the Balkans, did not bother about sending humanitarian relief to the Serbs, but extended military aid to them. "This was a mistake," Zhirinovsky quickly added. Putin, responding to this fake rebuke, said that he proposed to learn from others' mistakes rather than to make some of his own.

In the West all last week, the Russian aid convoy was a subject of intense speculation. It was alternatively seen as a modern version of the Trojan horse, delivering weapons to the beleaguered rebels, or a spearhead of the Russian military invasion force. Both suppositions, however, were wide off the mark, based on misreading the Kremlin's logic. There are other, less conspicuous ways, of sending supplies across the border, and more effective forms of engaging an enemy.

By sending the convoy, Vladimir Putin sought to switch the international attention from the fighting in Eastern Ukraine to the human suffering there, and to present Russia as the one country that cared about the people of Donbass. Putin was also clearly responding to the calls in Russia—parodied by Zhirinovsky—to "do something" in the face of the Kievan forces' continuing assault on the rebel strongholds. That "something," however, in Putin's view, did not have to be reckless and leading to catastrophic consequences—just as the Russian emperor's fateful moves in 1914.

Russia, of course, may yet intervene in force—if, for example, the Ukrainian government's efforts to restore Donbass to its control result in a massive loss of civilian life, way above the dozen or so people who are reported killed on a daily basis now. Absent that, Moscow's strategy will focus on helping the rebels to fight Kiev's forces to a standstill—and negotiating a ceasefire making the rebels a party to an agreement.

The sudden departure recently of the top rebel leaders in both Donetsk and Lugansk suggests that Moscow seeks to field a more authentic and presentable group for eventual future talks. While Kiev is desperate to achieve a full military victory almost at any cost, Moscow is reaching out with humanitarian aid, confusing and confounding its opponents. At the foreign ministers' meeting in Berlin on Sunday, a measure of progress was achieved on the issue of the Russian humanitarian aid to Donbass. As to the war there, it still continues.


Comments (2)

  • Fred Eidlin
    A major component of Russian strategy in Ukraine is to let things play out. The uprising probably would probably have been ended long ago if Kyiv had agreed to negotiate with the rebels. Even if they win a complete victory, the Ukrainians face an enormous task in repairing the damage, restoring the economy, and winning the loyalty of the population. Problems of the southeast are only the beginning. It is hard to see how the government can stave off economic collapse. With all the aid that has been put together, there still appears to be a substantial shortfall. What will be the social and political impact of the austerity measures imposed by the IMF? The political tensions in the Verkhovna Rada are worse than they were before the Euromaidan, and will likely be even worse after the elections to the Rada. Relations between President and Rada are problematic, and it seems to me that reversion to the 2004 guarantees stalemate. Corruption and oligarchs were at the center of the revolution. What indication, if any, is there that there has been, or will be substantial change in these areas. The nationalists (some have other names for them) already have four ministerial postions. Will they not be demanding their fair share of the power, in light of the fact that they and their allies brought victory to the revolution?   On the one hand, national unity looks impressive, greater than it has ever been since independence. But what about all the people who are not content with the results of the revolution? Anti-Maidan view do not appear much in public space, but that does not mean they do not exist, and will not re-emerge. What will happen after expectations raised by the revolution are disappointed? The EU and US have neither the will nor the means to rescue Ukraine. Perhaps the Russians are waiting for all of this to play out, and break through into the consciousness of Kyiv and the West
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  • Nagesh K Ojha
    The analogy of a Trojan horse is good;however, even if it is not a physical Trojan horse, by all means, it belongs to a psychological one in many ways. Nuclear lobe would warmly welcome such moves of the Russian state at the earliest. As we know "Ukraine imports about $600 million worth of nuclear fuel from Russia on the average annually, ...In January-July 2014, Ukraine imported $389 million worth of nuclear fuel from Russia, an increase of 73.4% from the same period of last year" (Kazinform, 21 August 2014, "Rosatom confirms $100 million nuclear fuel supply to Ukraine in July 2014"
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