Russia has achieved its minimum objective in Ukraine by creating a “frozen conflict”. This is the standard operating procedure of the current Russian regime, which has no concept of mutual benefit in its relationships with its neighbours. Instead, it is stuck in a “zero-sum” mentality whereby for it to prosper, others must be made to suffer. This has long been its approach in, for example, Georgia and Moldova. As with those countries, Russia has created a situation on South-Eastern Ukraine whereby it can accelerate or decelerate the conflict depending on how obedient the Ukrainians are being to the Kremlin.
But despite the appearance of short-term Russian success in achieving their own cynical aims, the invasion of Ukraine could turn out to be the occasion when Russia bit off more than it could chew.
Ukraine is much bigger than Georgia and Moldova and the areas Russia has occupied so far are much more populous than the regions it seized in those countries. Support for the Russian occupation amongst the people of the Donbass region is patchy. It will only decrease as living standards continue to nosedive as a result of the Russian invasion.
The paralysing of this important industrial region will also hurt the Russian economy, with which it has been well-integrated since Soviet times, as well as the Ukrainian one.
Whilst Ukraine cannot defeat Russia militarily in the area under occupation, it can inflict significant casualties on the Russians, particularly as external support for its armed forces gradually increases. Some Russians are, understandably, already angry about their boys being returned in body bags from this unnecessary war. Even though it controls the domestic media, it will become ever harder for the Russian leadership to maintain its preposterous pretence that these victims are merely unfortunate tourists who wandered over the border by mistake.
It should also be remembered that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was motivated by fear and weakness, rather than strength. Russians see Ukrainians as ethnically, culturally and historically more like them than anyone else. As a result, Putin has long been terrified of the ideas that would be planted in the minds of the Russian people if a mass movement of Ukrainians succeeded in bringing freedom and corruption-free prosperity to Ukraine.
This fear has led Putin to interfere in Ukraine ever since he came to power, in an attempt to keep it subservient to Russia. The current invasion is not a new phenomenon. Rather, it is a lethal advance on previous Russian pressurising of Ukraine by shutting off energy supplies and more covert acts of aggression.
Whilst the Ukrainians are suffering most at the moment from the conflict, there are indications that pain might be starting to pinch the Russians too.
The sanctions imposed by the EU and the US against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine have been widely derided as inadequate. Stronger and more rapidly enacted measures would indeed have been better. But the sanctions were smartly designed to take account of the modern world of globalised economics and are starting to work on the feeble Russian economy.
Russian banks are increasingly struggling to find financing as a result of the sanctions and hard currency is pouring out of the country as its owners seek a safer haven for it. Important investors are being scared away from Russia in droves too. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, for example, has suspended new investments in the country and the huge Blackstone group is the latest to “give up on Russia” according to the Financial Times.
Internally, Putin’s power depends on his status as the arbiter between Russia’s oligarchs. He shares out of the spoils of the Russian economy between them, settles their disputes and generally uses the levers of power to act as “first among equals” amongst them. One of the wealthiest oligarchs, Vladimir Yevtushenkov, was arrested last week. At the very least, this might be a pre-emptive strike by Putin to warn the oligarchs against launching a palace coup against him. But it could also be the first sign of unrest amongst the oligarchs about the detrimental impact Putin’s actions in Ukraine are having on their wealth. What it definitely is not is a sign of sweetness, light and stable business as usual amongst the elite in Russia.
Yevtushenkov is the most powerful oligarch to be arrested in Russia since 2003. Interestingly, his predecessor as Russia’s richest prisoner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, chose last weekend to return to the limelight. Khodorkovsky has been living quietly in exile since his release from prison in Russia in 2013, with his silence allegedly being the agreed price of his freedom. In a move guaranteed to infuriate Putin, Khodorkovsky announced the re-launch of his pro-democracy foundation, “Open Russia”, and declared his willingness to serve as President of Russia. This may be an indication that Khodorkovsky smells blood in the water too.
The great lesson of the revolutions in Eastern Europe 25 years ago was that seemingly impregnable walls collapse rapidly when the right circumstances align. Soon we might look back at the invasion of Ukraine as being Putin’s dictatorship in its paranoid and angry death throes, rather than an expression of a strong and powerful regime.