Faced with mounting problems at home and abroad, Vladimir Putin seeks “a breathing space,” one he believes he can obtain now in the same way he has in the past by “a combination of the imitation of concessions … and attempts at blackmail,” according to Moscow commentator Igor Eidman.
Putin and his entourage are afflicted with a sense of their own greatness and genius and the conviction that they cannot be defeated, he writes. They will thus not end their aggression but rather expand it to take “revenge for defeat in the Cold War” and to establish Moscow’s hegemony over the former Soviet space (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=54AED61BDC145).
They are thus reversing Lenin’s dictum and following a tactic which could be called “one step backward and two steps forward,” an approach that almost certainly means “after each imitation of a pulling back, there will follow a still bolder attack and the threat of a big war will thus grow.”
“The chief object of [Putin’s] aggression in the new year as in the past one will be Ukraine,” Eidman says. “But open or covert aggression against other countries, including Moldova, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia and even Kazakhstan, is also possible.”
Putin’s “ambitious” goals both abroad and at home remain unchanged, the Moscow analyst says. Abroad, he wants to continue to destabilize Ukraine, to gain international reaction for his Anschluss of Crimea, to force Kyiv to take responsibility for the social welfare costs of Donetsk and Luhansk, and to get the West to reduce or end its sanctions on Russia.
But events are likely to move in just the opposite direction, Eidman says. Ukraine is likely to stabilize and improve its military capabilities, Russia will have to feed the Donbas, and an “anti-Putin and pro-Ukraine coalition” is likely to broaden and deepen as Putin’s goals become ever clearer.
At home, Putin wants to strengthen the stability of his regime, maintain his own popularity and ensure that domestic problems do not lead to “a new wave of protests.” But again events are likely to move against him: His rating is likely to fall, mass protests are likely, and a new “radically nationalist opposition” is likely to arise.
The Kremlin leader also wants to overcome the economic crisis, to stabilize the ruble, and to reduce or end the outflow of capital, but yet again, Eidman says, he is unlikely to get what he wants: the ruble is likely to continue to fall as is the Russian standard of living. A banking crisis is likely to occur, and the country’s prospects to deteriorate.
The near certainty that Putin will not be able to realize his goals will drive his tactics. He is likely to dismiss Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister in favor of a “quasi-liberal” figure like Kudrin in order to gain foreign support. At the same time, he is likely to increase repression against the opposition.
With regard to Ukraine, he will use any Ukrainian refusal to support the population of the Donbas as a justification for “reanimating” his “greater Novorossiya” idea and beginning “a new direct Russian military aggression for the formation of a larger pro-Russian enclave on the territory of Ukraine.”
Putin may even declare that Ukraine’s failure to support the population of the Donbas means that Russia will “annex them de facto and then he will begin a new war with Ukraine under the pretext of the defense” of what he will proclaim is Russian territory.
Any failures in Ukraine – and they are likely – will almost certainly “push Putin toward aggression against other countries in order to compensate for image losses.” Belarus would be a logical target not only because Putin would like to annex it but because “he knows that the West will not defend such an odious figure as Lukashenka.”
At the same time, Eidman argues, “Putin’s special services may begin to muddy the water in Russian-speaking districts of Estonia and Latvia,” as well as to put additional pressure on Moldova “and certain other former Soviet republics, and actively recruit Western politicians to form “a pro-Russian lobby” in the EU.
Given Putin’s commitment to a strategy of “a step backwards, two steps forward,” Eidman continues, all this will “inevitably lead in 2015 to a growth in international tensions,” with a big war in Europe becoming a possibility, albeit still a small one. But Putin’s approach is making it ever more so.
The Kremlin leader is quite prepared for a East-West crisis like the 1962 Caribbean one, but “if things reach that point, Putin, unlike Khrushchev will not be stopped even by the threat of a global war. The current Russian president has concerned in his hands much greater power than any of the post-Stalin Soviet leaders” and he is prepared to take enormous and unjustified risks.
There is an analogue to this domestically, Eidman says. “The main threat of the year is the beginning of mass repressions against the Russian opposition … If Putin is convinced that the policy of targeted strikes at opposition figures (a la the Navalny case) isn’t giving the result he wants, then he may move toward a mass ‘purge’ of citizens inclined to opposition.”
“As long as Putin is in power, these threats will not disappear,” however many “imitations” of concessions he makes. Those have only “one goal,” Eidman argues, and that is “to gain a breathing space in order when the situation becomes more favorable to continue his efforts to realize his strategic imperial goals with new forces.”