Putin Escalated To Save His Aggressive Ukraine Policy From Collapsing -- But His Strategy Hasn't Changed

In an analyst’s note on August 28, Morgan Stanley published its takeaways from the recent meeting in Minsk between Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. “If negotiations make progress on the terms of a ceasefire and a political settlement for Donbas,” the note beings, referring to Ukraine’s restive eastern region, “we think there is a good chance of de-escalation, leading to a gradual dismantling of broad sanctions.”

The note balances that assertion by negotiations might not resolve the crisis, leading to deeper, additional sanctions against Russia. But the fact that observers believed in a viable peace process on the same day that over 1,000 Russian troops entered Ukraine — an action that Lithuania, a NATO member state and Russian neighbour called an “invasion” — reveals a disconnect between Russian actions and outside perceptions that Putin has successfully exploited over the past six months of crisis in Ukraine.

In late May, Russia sent in a trusted and disciplined Chechen proxy militia to organise the rebellion in Donetsk. In mid-July, militants were firing rockets into Ukraine from Russian territory just days before Russian-allied separatists shot down a Malaysia Airlines plane. Armoured Russian columns were spotted entering Ukraine on August 21st. Weeks earlier, a Russian soldier’s Instagram photo revealed that Moscow’s forces were operating across the border. Igor Strelkov, the head of the self-proclaimed Donestk People’s Republic, is an agent of Moscow’s General Intelligence Directorate.

In reality, the invasion of Ukraine — not counting Crimea, which Russia annexed in March — began months ago. Putin has been adept at sewing uncertainty, taking actions that suggested both escalation and peaceful resolution. He’s repeatedly accumulated Russian troops on the Ukrainian border only to withdraw them, a belligerent head-fake often paired with more conciliatory measures, like allowing Ukraine’s May 2014 presidential election to proceed peacefully and recognising its results.

All the while, Putin has been backing the separatists and sending troops, armour, and materiel into Ukraine. This week, though, the situation required a more overt response from Moscow and escalated to the point where Russia’s actions became harder for the rest of the world to rationalize or deny.

“The previous ‘incursions’ had largely been into rebel-controlled areas,” Hannah Thoburn, a Eurasia analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative, told Business Insider. “This is the opening of a new front in a very strategic area.”

Russian forces are moving into the coastal area around Mariupul and into towns around the besieged rebel stronghold of Donetsk, in an attempt to reverse Ukrainian government gains in recent weeks. This past week’s actions are Putin’s attempt at staving off defeat, while possibly establishing a corridor between mainland Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea.

Putin’s earlier policies were based on the rebels establishing a permanent foothold in Ukraine’s east, so that Moscow could maintain pressure on the new, potentially more pro-European government in Kiev without having to go to the trouble and expense of a conventional invasion and occupation. Moscow’s policy in Ukraine collapses if those pockets of resistance were ever threatened, as they has been over recent weeks ofUkrainian army advancesaround the former separatist strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Moscow is trying to salvage its policy in Ukraine, but its strategy hasn’t fundamentally changed in recent days. And if the past months are a guide to what’s to come, Putin will likely de-escalate once his tactical advantage is re-established — only to inflame the crisis further when the opportunity or the necessity arises.

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