Savchenko’s release signals Putin’s fall to Earth

Nadiya Savchenko far into one of her hunger strikes while in Russian prison

Nadiya Savchenko far into one of her hunger strikes while in Russian prison 

2016/05/28 • Analysis & Opinion

Article by: Dirk Mattheisen

The return of Nadiya Savchenko to Ukraine is an inflection point in the Russian-Ukrainian [political and military – Ed.] conflict.  It is the moment when Putin tacitly acknowledged that the cost for Russia of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is too high, and he has to do something about it.  Cold calculation, not the sudden embrace of humanitarianism, accounts for Putin’s change of heart.

However, Nadiya’s return to Ukraine will prove costly to Putin as well.  Nadiya has become the Joan of Arc of Ukraine.  Her belligerence while on trial in Russia on fabricated war crime charges made her the embodiment of Ukrainian pride and resistance to Russian aggression.

While captive in Russia, she was also the embodiment of Russia’s ability to act with impunity.  Now that illusion is gone.

Russian nationalists, and all stripes of the Russian political right, will not readily accept this betrayal.  Already the Russian blogosphere is alive with indignation and shouts of betrayal.  The general Russian population will be left confused and uncertain. Giving Nadiya up in exchange for two hapless Russian soldiers [military intelligence operatives carrying the ranks of a captain and a sergeant – Ed.] captured in Ukraine does not obviously support Putin’s narrative of a strong Russia pushing back a duplicitous and weak West.  Putin’s supporters do not give a damn about humanitarian gestures in the face of their imperialist ambitions.

Read also: Savchenko free, Russians furious and confused

Putin’s awareness of this is reflected in the treatment of the two Russian soldiers who were swept away from public view as quietly as possible when they arrived in Moscow, unlike Nadia who made a one-woman victory march through Kyiv before thousands of enthusiastic Ukrainians.

Putin did not give up Nadiya without a thought about how it served his larger purpose.  Possibly, the West made it clear that Minsk II could not advance without Nadiya’s release, and Putin buckled.  But, possibly, also, there is an understanding already between the West and Russia about how Nadiya’s release will lead to next steps to unwind the conflict.  News reports at the time of Nadiya’s release that the “The Kremlin supports Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s wish ‘to return Donbas’ for humanitarian reasons” may be a tiny scent of something more in the air.  Either way, it doesn’t matter.

Putin has started down this road because he needs an exit—and well before the 2018 presidential election.  Although most Russians still support his imperialist ambitions, the Russian economy is Putin’s Achille’s heel.  The headline GDP number is not falling as fast as last year, but underlying indicators, such as sales and consumption, are still in freefall.  GDP is reported to have fallen by only -1.2% in the first quarter of 2016.  However, real wages fell by -1.7%, retail sales by -4.8%, and disposable income by -7.1%.  The export sector, including military sales, may slow the fall in the headline GDP number, but it isn’t enough to turn the economy around and the risks are to the downside.  Alexei Kudrin, now deputy chair of the Russian Presidential Economic Council, believes the economy has hit bottom but there is no evidence it will grow.  Wages will still go unpaid or fall.  Working hours will be reduced.  Wages and pensions will not be indexed to inflation, which remains high enough to erode the average Russian’s sense of economic security.  The appointment of Kudrin as a deputy means he can argue for reform from within Putin’s administration, but he can’t command the reforms to happen.  This suggests that Kudrin’s appointment is more about using his prominence to take the steam out of opposition criticism of the economy before this fall’s parliamentary election, without actually doing anything.  His ideas will in any case be strongly opposed by others resulting in policy gridlock.

True patriots, Russians welcomed easy victories to restore Russian glory and even tightened their belts to weather the passing storm, but they did not sign on for continually falling wages and pensions.  And they did not sign on for retreat from Russian glory.  Nadiya’s release signals Putin’s opening gambit in dialing down the Ukraine conflict so that he can project normalcy to the West and relieve Russia’s isolation (while continuing more subtle forms of subversion; after all, the big game is still in play).  However, each retreat from what has been acclaimed as restoring Russia power and glory will suck air out from under Putin’s wings and bring him quickly to earth.

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  • anonymous

    Putin’s motives for the exchange can only be a best guess. I have a different guess. The two Russians said this and that about what brought them to Ukraine. At trial, they told what their lawyers suggested. They told that with the understanding that they would be sent back to Russia. Failure to exchange would have resulted in both stating that the lawyers suggested they lie in court. The truth would be told that they had specific orders from the chain of command and knowledge of others with similar orders. Those two might one day supply powerful testimony in future international court cases. Putin is a criminal with only criminal motivation. Putin has no empathy or concern for either the Russians or the Ukrainian. His motive is to never be punished for his criminal activities.

    • Oknemfrod

      Yours is a good guess and quite likely part of the reasons why he agreed to the swap.

    • Terry Washington

      I agree with this assessment. My countryman Samuel Johnson once quipped that when a man knows he will be hanged in a fortnight it concentrates his mind wonderfully. The prospect of falling from power and ending up in the dock at the Hague is probably one reason Putin agreed to the swap of two GRU (military intelligence) officers from Nadya Savchenko!

    • Dirk Mattheisen

      What you write is different then what the press is reporting. According to the press, Putin wanted Victor Bout who is in jail in the US, and the two soldiers were consolation hostages. However, I can’t argue with your logic. They were potentially powerful witnesses in war crime trials.

    • Alex George

      Interesting point.

  • Lev Havryliv

    Excellent analysis. Putin is starting to look like a loser to the Russian people and in particular to the Russian imperial cheer squad.

    Putin is now failing to provide “bread” ie. improved living standards for Russians and his “circus” ie foreign military adventures is off the rails.

    And when a dictator can no longer provide bread and circuses the beginning of the end has started.

  • Vlad Pufagtinenko

    I hope Savchenko has a competent security team around her. We all know what Russian vermin are capable of.

  • Dagwood Bumstead

    If anyone thinks “Savchenko’s release signals Putin’s fall to Earth” he/she is deluding himself/herself. It signals nothing of the sort! His goal- a pro-Dwarfstan dictatorship in Kyiv- hasn’t changed. His aggression in the Donbas hasn’t decreased; on the contrary, it is increasing, despite the so-called “ceasefire”. He is sending increasing amounts of ammo and weapons, plus Dwarfstanian regulars, into the Donbas. Why, if he really wants to disengage, wash his hands off the Donbas?
    Nadya’s release has more to do with getting increased pressure from the EU on Kyiv to change the Ukrainian Constitution to the dwarf’s demands, and for increasing divisions inside the EU. He desperately wants the sanctions, paltry as they are, to end because his economy is in trouble, despite all claims to the contrary. Not to mention that Nadya, being the tigress that she is, will put increasing pressure on Poro to REALLY start tackling corruption, something Poro is very reluctant to do for reasons best known to himself- thus hopefully increasing political deadlock in Kyiv.

    • Alex George

      Putin wants corruption to stay in Ukraine even more than the Ukrainian oligarchs. The last thing Putin wants is a corruption-free Ukraine.