Putin’s Patience In Ukraine Will Test West
Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine won’t stop any time soon despite his planned blitzkrieg designed to result in the quick capitulation of Ukraine ending in total and abject failure. Although Russia has retreated and consolidated its forces in the north of Ukraine, intelligence estimates indicate that this is just a preparation for a new offensive with the express purpose of basically consolidating control over the three eastern oblasts of Ukraine and preserving a land link with Crimea. If Putin has shown us anything over the years, however, it’s that retreat and defeat can only be temporary and he is willing to play a very long game in order to win. As he has shown time and time again, if he waits long enough and helps the process along, the West will become distracted and divided and he can try, try again. And this time he may not need to wait that long before he can strike at all of Ukraine again for a third time.
In 1994, Russia attempted to put down a rebellion in the neighboring republic of Chechnya. Despite turning its capital, Grozny, to rubble in the same way they are destroying Mariupol and other cities in eastern Ukraine, two years later the Russians were forced to leave Chechnya in total defeat. Yet, three years later, within weeks after Putin came to power, he used what is believed to be a false flag operation of apartment building bombings that killed hundreds of Russians to once again invade Chechnya, which had basically become a failed state after the devastation of the first war. This second Chechen war was perhaps even more brutal and filled with war crimes than the first and only officially ended in 2009 with the Russians installing a seemingly psychotic warlord to rule the region. For Russia and Putin, patience and unimaginable brutality finally carried the day in a minor and strategically unimportant region after 15 long years. One can only imagine the price he will be willing to pay for a far more strategically and economically important country like Ukraine.
In fact, Putin has now played an even longer game in Ukraine than he did in Chechnya. In the 2004 Ukrainian election, economic reformer Viktor Yushchenko faced off against the hand-picked successor of then President Leonid Kuchma, Viktor Yanukovych. As opposed to Kuchma, who had tried to tightrope an almost Tito-like balance between Russian and the West, Yanukovych was very much pro-Russian and his base of support was in the more Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine such as Donetsk. Yushchenko was not permitted to campaign in Yanukovych strongholds and was poisoned just two months before the election but survived. It is hard not to see Putin’s hand behind the poisoning considering all the other poisonings of Putin opponents over the years, although the Ukrainian security services probably delivered the actual toxins.
That election ended in dispute, with Yanukovych winning the initial vote amidst charges of widespread fraud that set off the original Orange Revolution and resulted in the Supreme Court ordering a new election. This new election was won by Yushchenko, but he proved to be an ineffectual leader, spending most of his time cobbling together coalitions to keep himself in power on multiple occasions. The 2010 election saw Yanukovych finally win a close but reasonably fair election and he proceeded with more pro-Russian policies, including extending the lease to Russia on the critical port of Sevastopol in Crimea that is the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. He also formally abandoned Ukraine’s goal of joining NATO. In addition, Yanukovych orchestrated the imprisonment of his most important and mostly more pro-Western political rivals. With Yanukovych, it looked like Putin had his Ukrainian puppet without really firing a shot.
That all ended in late 2013 when, under enormous pressure from Putin, Yanukovych killed a planned agreement for Ukraine to increase its political and economic ties with the EU, originally negotiated under Yushchenko, just days before it was set to go in effect. That decision set off firestorm of protests across the country, even in Yanukovych’s base in eastern Ukraine. Those protests and Yanukovych’s attempts to crack down on them both escalated over the next few months, culminating in the massacre of dozens of protesters in Kyiv’s Maidan square. At that point, Yanukovych’s government essentially collapsed and, facing impeachment and probable prosecution for the massacres he ordered, he fled to Russia.
As Yanukovych’s government was falling, Putin ensured that Russia would keep control the critical port of Sevastopol. Unidentified Russian troops essentially took over the Crimean government and installed a pro-Russian functionary who proposed a referendum on secession from Ukraine into Russia. Unsurprisingly, the fraudulent referendum, in which some cities like Sevastopol reported substantially more ballots than eligible voters, found that 97% of Crimeans wished to secede. Russia formally annexed Crimea and Russian troops took over the existing Ukrainian military facilities in the region. With Crimea now part of Russia, Putin abrogated the lease agreement with Ukraine for Sevastopol, which included a deal that allowed Ukraine to get Russian gas at discounted prices. Instead, Putin now raised those prices, increasing pressure on the new, interim Ukrainian government.
He increased that pressure just weeks later as, once again, approximately 40,000 unidentified Russian soldiers took over a number of eastern Ukrainian cities and installed separatist partisans who also scheduled a referendum on independence, which, unsurprisingly, was thoroughly fraudulent, with Ukrainian police uncovering around 100,000 ballots already pre-marked with a “yes” vote. All this happened within weeks of Yanukovych’s ouster.
Later in 2014, Petro Poroshenko, a more pro-Western reform-oriented oligarch, was elected President of Ukraine. For the next four years, a low-grade war continued in Ukraine’s eastern regions, occasionally interrupted by short-lived cease-fires and failed agreements that were designed to lead to a real referendum on self-determination in those areas. During that time, the Ukrainian military occasionally made progress against the separatists who were increasingly being supported by more and more sophisticated Russian weaponry and even Russian forces. Poroshenko finally signed that economic agreement with the EU that Yanukovych had earlier scrapped and he began the formal process for Ukraine to withdraw from the Confederation of Independent States, the association of former Soviet republics that coordinated members’ policies. But Poroshenko’s term was again badly tarnished by corruption and a disgusted Ukrainian public, worn down by economic troubles and a seemingly never-ending conflict in the east, elected a true outsider, the popular comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, in a landslide in July 2019.
It’s important to note that many saw Zelensky as a puppet for another Ukrainian oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, and his initial proposal for a peace agreement that would require both Ukrainian and Russian-backed insurgents to withdraw from the areas of conflict was also seen as a capitulation to Moscow that would legitimize the separatist control of those regions. His campaign statements about improving ties with Russia as well as his total lack of political experience also supported the idea that he could become an easily manipulated Putin appeaser. That is certainly how Donald Trump appeared to approach Zelensky when he demanded an investigation of Biden in return for the congressionally-approved military aid to Ukraine that Trump had withheld as part of his blackmail scheme. At the time of Zelensky’s election, Putin had been meddling in Ukraine’s internal politics for at least fifteen years, from Yushchenko’s poisoning to the subversion in the Donbas, and had occupied parts of the country for five. And it now appeared that Zelensky would be willing to formalize Russian control of those occupied regions.
The patience Putin had shown in attempting to control Ukraine was also reflected in his attempts to sow divisions in the Western alliance. Beginning in 2009, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, Putin began financing far-right parties across Europe, helping to fuel opposition to both the EU and NATO. By the middle of the next decade, far-right parties in France, UK, Germany, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Belgium, and Austria were all more or less ideologically aligned with Russia and many received direct financial assistance. In 2016, Putin saw his efforts come to fruition. In the UK, Russian propaganda and possible funding helped lead to Brexit and the country’s departure from the European Union. Similar efforts in the US helped Trump win the presidency and a change to the Republican platform that restricted weapons sales to Ukraine in 2016. Current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s quip that Putin pays Trump did not come out of nowhere.
Beyond the political meddling, Putin’s oligarchs were also ingratiating themselves inside Western economies. The real estate markets in London and the US became fertile ground for Russians desperate to launder their ill-gotten gains. Western banks, including major firms like Deutsche Bank, UBS, and HSBC, were used to launder billions of dollars. Oligarchs like Roman Abramovich were reportedly sent to Europe by Putin to “build a bulkhead of Russian influence” by purchasing legendary soccer clubs. Other oligarchs ingratiated themselves to the West through philanthropy, promoting everything from the arts to gun rights. Most importantly, Europe’s reliance on Russian gas and oil had made Putin economically indispensable to many countries in Europe, particularly Germany and Italy. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder essentially became a lobbyist for Putin in Germany, obtaining board positions at NordStream, the natural gas pipeline to Europe owned by Gazprom, and Rosneft.
So, by the time Zelensky was elected in 2019, Putin probably could not have been more pleased about where he stood. Across Europe, there was significant support for parties that were aligned with Russian interests, although those parties might not have been quite as popular as in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis. In Hungary and Serbia, there were openly pro-Russian governments, with Hungary able to sabotage the EU from within. Britian had been peeled away from the EU. He was so confident about his position with respect to Britain that he could act with impunity by assassinating a number of opponents inside the UK without significant repercussions. And in the US, Trump was leading an American retreat from its traditional allies, negotiating a withdrawal from Afghanistan with the Taliban, was preparing to pull thousands of troops out of Europe, and looked likely to pull the US out of NATO should he win a second term, a likely scenario given America’s history of two-term presidents. For Putin, looking at a seemingly pliable Zelensky and an imminent collapse of NATO, it seemed possible that he could absorb Ukraine back into Russia without firing an additional shot.
That rosy scenario had become out of the question by the start of 2021. Zelensky was a far stronger leader than had been anticipated and there was really no progress in resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Trump had lost the election and Biden’s team was making a strong effort to rebuild its alliances and shore up NATO, even as it completed the withdrawal from Afghanistan that Trump had negotiated. We may never know why Putin attacked Ukraine in 2022, whether because he saw his prior advantage slipping away or his own personal health issues or something else entirely.
The invasion, however, has proven to be one of the most disastrous miscalculations in recent history. NATO is galvanized. Sweden and Finland are set to join NATO. Germany is ramping up its defense budget. Theoretically pro-Russian neighboring republics like Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan are refusing to directly support Putin’s war. While Russia does use Belarus as a staging ground for the attacks on Ukraine, the Belarusian army has so far remained out of the conflict and there have been reports of Belarusians sabotaging Russian efforts. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have even sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The Russian economy is predicted to shrink by over 10% despite increased receipts due to the higher prices of gas and oil. And Putin has lost about one quarter of his combat-ready battalion tactical groups in addition to an enormous amount of military hardware. None of this is likely to deter Putin from his goal of absorbing Ukraine into Russia and it seems likely that it will actually make him more ruthless and determined to do so in order to make it seem “worth it”. He has suppressed the internal dissent, even that from within his own state apparatus, which was seen at the beginning of the war and his propaganda machine has rallied the Russian people behind him.
More importantly for Putin, Ukraine’s continued existence will rely on support from the West, both militarily and economically, for the foreseeable future. Putin can take whatever he can get from the renewed offensive in eastern Ukraine and simply wait for the West to lose focus. Indeed, Putin may also see his prior efforts to sabotage the West from within soon bear fruit again. Hungary has already defied the EU by agreeing to pay for Russian gas in rubles rather than euros. While not economically significant, it does illustrate the disruptive power Hungary has in a consensus-requiring organization like the EU. In France, Marine Le Pen, a xenophobic, racist nationalist whose prior campaigns actually received Russian funding, has advanced to the run-off for the French presidency against current President Macron in an election to be held in just two weeks. Le Pen wants to pull France out of NATO and has, in the past, proposed withdrawing from the EU as well. For this campaign, she has toned down any EU withdrawal to simply reducing France’s funding for the organization and restricting the freedom of movement within the EU, which, combined, would resemble a near total EU withdrawal. A Le Pen victory would put the existence of both NATO and the EU at risk and would provide a critical blow to both organizations’ support for Ukraine.
Later this fall, midterm elections in the US are expected to result in Republicans taking over both houses of Congress. It is possible that a new Republican Congress could severely crimp Biden’s ability to support Ukraine in much the same way Democrats restricted the Reagan administration in Central America with the Boland Amendment. Just the other day, over 60 Republican House members, almost one third of the GOP House conference, voted against a resolution supporting NATO. Last month, 31 GOP Senators voted against an overall spending bill that included nearly $14 billion for Ukraine. The GOP’s emergent far-right has largely backed Putin, either through direct support and praise or by blaming the West for Putin’s invasion. In May, CPAC, the annual gathering of increasingly crazy conservatives, is planning to hold its next conference in Hungary with the pro-Putin autocrat Viktor Orban as a prime speaker.
Within the next six months, therefore, there will be two elections that could dramatically change the direction of the war in his favor. Then, of course, there is the US presidential election in 2024. Trump is still the odds-on favorite to win the GOP nomination, has consistently supported Putin against Ukraine, still disparages NATO, and gives every indication he will withdraw from NATO if he wins the presidency again. You can be sure Russian attempts to interfere on Trump’s behalf in 2024 will surpass all that they have done before.
Putin’s war in Ukraine has been a disaster. But Putin has been working on bringing Ukraine back into the Russian fold for two decades. He shown patience in achieving that goal. However, it seems increasingly clear that he can not win this war on the ground without turning all of Ukraine into Grozny as long as Western support for Ukraine remains firm. Even then, he would be facing a multi-year guerilla war a la Afghanistan. It now appears Putin’s best chance for winning lies in sabotaging the West’s will from within. The next few years will provide the test of whether the West can stand firm against its pro-Putin fifth columnists and outlast Putin’s patience.