Staunton, August 10 – With the defeat of the Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine now within site and Western sanctions beginning to bite, many commentators are arguing that Vladimir Putin must choose between sending in the Russian army as part of a full-scale invasion or suing for peace and an end of Western sanctions.
Both of those options carry serious risks: the first could trigger an even more serious conflict between Moscow and the West, and the second could undermine Putin’s standing with a Russian population he has whipped up into a frenzy and might even lead some within his regime to challenge his rule.
But there is a third option -- and that is not taking any dramatic step in either direction but rather continuing to interfere in Ukraine as he has been, writer Aleksandr Goldfarb reminds in a blogpost on Obozrevatel.com (obozrevatel.com/blogs/31259-iz-dvuh-variantov-putin-vyibral-tretij-dlya-sebya-samyij-plohoj--chto-dalshe.htm).
From Putin’s perspective, it seems clear, such an approach has at least three advantages. First, it allows him to keep his options open. He can always decide to do one or the other depending on how things develop – or alternatively, he can create a new crisis elsewhere and then be in a better position to decide how to behave in Ukraine.
Second, the Kremlin leader may be drawing on a Soviet precedent, albeit a tricky one: Leon Trotsky’s argument in 1918 that Soviet Russia should not sign the punitive Brest-Litovsk treaty with Germany but not continue to fight either. Lenin rejected that view in principle but in fact briefly was compelled to follow in that case and then used on other occasions.
And third and most important, pursuing a policy of “no war, no peace” will simultaneously keep interventionist elements in Russia in line because such people will continue to believe that Putin is ultimately on their side, and more important, they will wear out many in Ukraine and the West who want a quick resolution to the crisis.
Almost nearly daily reports that the Russian leader is about to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine keep everyone on edge, but with each day he does not do so, ever more people will argue that he won’t and that the time has come to reach an agreement, possibly offering recognition of Putin’s occupation of Crimea in exchange for his promise not to move elsewhere.
As he has demonstrated throughout his career, Putin is quite prepared to shift quickly and also to make promises that he has no intention of keeping, especially since the short time horizons of Western leaders and publics and their rapid shifts in attention to other problems mean that they want to move on and will not hold him accountable
Indeed, it is quite possible that “no war, no peace” has become Putin’s strategy, one that he has every reason to believe will work against those who seem capable of responding to what he does only on an ad hoc and tactical basis. After all, that strategy allows him a freedom of action that few are prepared to recognize he very much still has.