In the 1930s, Hitler pursued a simple policy: he simply said one thing and did another. Putin has innovated: he not only lies but uses forces to do his bidding for which no one holds him responsible and thus has the chance to be accepted by some in the West as a “responsible” statesman while continuing his aggression in Ukraine.
Thus, the most important news from Minsk is not that there has been an agreement between the Kremlin leader, the German chancellor, the French president and the Ukrainian president on most of the aspects of a ceasefire but rather that the leaders of the undeclared “peoples republics” are refusing to go along.
Citing “an informed source,” TASS is reporting today that the leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics have refused to sign the document “agreed upon by ‘the Noman quartet,’” thus in one sentence presenting Putin in a way the West will like and showing that what he has signed will have no impact on what he continues to do.
That is just one of the important conclusions about the Minsk meeting suggested by Andrey Piontkovsky who points out in a commentary today that “the very fact of its having taken place is much more important than the little pieces of paper which [these leaders] will sign or not sign.”
The Minsk meeting which follows on the Moscow meeting between Putin, on the one hand, and Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, on the other, reflects a significant change in the way the West is dealing with Putin over all issues and is showing up the Kremlin leader’s position at home, the thing he cares most about.
At the time of the Brisbane summit, Western leaders were demonstratively isolating someone who was invading Ukraine and otherwise violating the international rules of the game. According to Piontkovsky, that threatened Putin’s standing with precisely those on whom his survival depends.
“The power of the dictator depends on the unqualified subordination to him of two or three dozen people: senior civilian, police, media and military officials,” he writes. And these people are completely behind Putin as long as he could guarantee them wealth based on stealing from Russians at home, the ability to keep the results of their theft in the West, and “a sweet life there for several generations of their descendants.”
After Brisbane, it began to look as if he no longer could provide such guarantees, and they began to question their support. But Putin responded with a clever campaign in which he caused the leaders of Europe to change their approach and thus restore his unchallenged authority at home with precisely those on whom his dictatorship depends.
Putin’s response took the form of suggesting that Moscow was prepared to use nuclear weapons if the West armed Ukraine, a campaign that has its roots in the words of Dmitry Trenin, the former GRU officer who heads the Moscow Carnegie Center, first in 2009 and most recently in an interview to a British newspaper.
That sparked fear in Europe that Putin might in fact use nuclear weapons, split Europe from the United States with regard to Ukraine, and led both Merkel and Hollande to “walk to Canossa” first in Moscow and now in Minsk, a dramatic shift that convinced those around Putin that the Europeans are so afraid of Russia that they won’t do anything to oppose its actions.
This nuclear “blackmail” has been “at many levels, taken many forms and been creative,” Piontkovsky says. It has made use of the North Koreans, Rogozin, Ivanov, Shoygu and others. And most recently, it has taken the form of a Russian TV spot showing Russian tanks “visiting” the capitals of Europe on Victory Day.
And Putin’s propaganda ploy has worked. The day after US President Barack Obama’s nominee to be defense secretary said the US would increase military assistance Ukraine, including possibly lethal arms, Chancellor Merkel announced that “Germany does not intend to sell arms to Ukraine since it considers that the conflict does not have a military solution and that diplomatic efforts must continue.”
She certainly had read Trenin in the “Financial Times” and heard the warnings of German analyst Alexander Rahr, and she drew exactly the conclusion that Putin hoped for: The Americans are engaged in a reckless policy and Russia might respond with “tactical nuclear weapons,” something that would affect Europe but not the Americans “beyond the ocean.”
Consequently, she and Hollande rushed to Moscow and then to Minsk, allowing Putin to put on the show of being interested in peace even though his agents show that he is not and thus taking exactly the steps that shore up his dictatorship rather than weakening it and leading Moscow to change its dangerous course of aggression.