When the Gaza War and the threat from ISIS pulled global attention away from Ukraine, you could almost hear the sighs of relief emanating from the Western capitals: Finally, something to distract us from this Eurasian conundrum! This isn’t to say that Western leaders don’t understand that the war in Ukraine has implications for both the international order and the West’s own internal workings. By now they appreciate the stakes (or at least they ought to); they just haven’t been able to come up with an answer.
Meanwhile, Russia itself faces a conundrum of its own. By attempting to shift Russia backward to an older civilizational model, Putin has already inflicted a deep strategic defeat on his country. His efforts to turn Russia back to the “Besieged Fortress” model will only rob Russia of its chance to become a modern society. Moreover, Putin has also unleashed forces he can’t hope to contain, thus accelerating the agonizing decay of his own regime. Nevertheless, though he has lost the battle with history, Putin has been moving from one tactical victory to the next by forcing the West to constantly react and try to accommodate his reckless behavior.
Russia’s recent “humanitarian invasion” of nearly 200 trucks—which crossed the border and then returned, the Ukrainian government alleges, with stolen factory equipment—is only one of the more recent Kremlin experiments aimed at testing both the global rules of the game and Western leaders’ readiness to confront Russia. This alleged mass theft, in particular, took place just before Ukraine’s Independence day, on the eve of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Kiev and before the meeting between Putin and Poroshenko. It was an intentional slap in the face, meant to bring across a simple message: “Screw you! We don’t care what you say!”
The Kremlin has been intentionally escalating tensions in order to ready us for Putin’s attempt to assume the role of Peacemaker—albeit on his terms. Peacemaking, for the Russian leader, is merely a means to another goal: forcing the West to accept the Kremlin’s right to change the rules of the game whenever it suits its interests. Indeed this is precisely what he demonstrated at the recent meeting in Minsk between the EU, Russia, and Ukraine, where Putin stubbornly refused to admit to the Russian military’s involvement in the war in Ukraine.
What this means is that there are no concessions on the part of the West and Ukraine that can satisfy the other side. This is true not because of bellicosity or incompetence of the Russian leader; he is quite rational and competent. Rather, he understands all too well the logic of personalized power in Russia—that, at this late stage of regime decay, it requires him to keep Russia in a state of war with the outside world. The war with Ukraine has thus become an existential problem for the current Russian political regime. It can’t afford a defeat. Yesterday Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko claimed—and NATO satellite imagery appears to confirm—that Russian troops have openly invaded the Ukrainian territory, proving that the Kremlin is no longer interested in forestalling an escalation. Hell is unfolding… ...