So far Putin has been on the offensive, while Ukraine and the West are drawing back.
Kremlin analysts have accurately noted a key weakness of democracies – their fear of a European war. Unfortunately, a war is already on, but democratically elected leaders in the West are still afraid to use the word. They still expect that there is some diplomatic silver bullet to force President Putin to at least halt his aggression.
The Minsk agreement was to be the outcome of one such silver bullet. Both the German chancellor and the French president have now entered embarrassing pages into their respective biographies; the Russian leader has simply made fool of them.
Mr. Putin won’t come to a halt not only because European leaders are going easy on him, forgetting the bloody mistakes of history where attempting to appease an aggressor only increased his aggression. Putin won’t stop because he simply cannot do so. This can be explained through three key reasons, although other factors do come into play as well.
I’ll start with the most distant of the three, more of a background factor, albeit an important one. This is the longing for the Soviet glory. Not just Putin or his team, but also many ordinary Russians long for the days when the Soviet Union was one of the two major powers in the world and would never be excluded from any major decision making. Russians, nostalgic of this past, feel like their state has a say in global matters again. Unfortunately, this is a misguided sense of importance created by the help of Kremlin-controlled media.
The second reason relates to the social structure created during the 15 years of Mr Putin’s regime which one really cannot call capitalism. Russian business people suggest calling it something along the lines of feudalism, as capitalism is based on respect for private property and independent judiciary, set up to impartially resolve disputes between businesses as well as with the state bureaucracy.
It is a well-known fact that, in modern Russia, it is certainly not unheard of to see businesses raided by law enforcement institutions; as witnessed by tens of thousands of entrepreneurs in Russian jails. No need to even get started on judiciary independence. Ukrainians in the Maidan expressed hopes of becoming a normal European country, but such a state would be a threat to the Kremlin regime. European values are lethal to the regime, therefore it focuses on ridiculing them, trying to create an illusion of a rotten Europe and brilliant Russia.
The third reason is the most important – the Russian economy has been relying on rising gas and oil prices for the entirety of Putin’s rule. With those prices dropping, the regime cannot provide adequate living standards for Russians who have gotten used to relative prosperity over the past 15 years.
Any government will always want to maintain and strengthen the obedience of its citizens. Unable to dole out cash and a certain standard of living, Putin’s regime has offered a war, which – obviously – was started by the US, not Russia, although for some odd reason it is being fought in the Ukrainian territory.
So Mr. Putin won’t stop on his own, because a small but victorious war has become possibly the only way to validate his rule. Russia is under attack by NATO and Mr. Putin is the one strong and irreplaceable leader who will steer the country to safe waters in these difficult times.
Fostering this siege mentality has become the key tool to ensure citizen loyalty to the regime and victories over the Ukranian forces, dubbed the “NATO Legion”, make Russians happy because the hated Americans got hurt. Because how else do you divert attention from rising prices and unemployment?
Many analysts agree that Putin’s main goal is to maintain his power, as without it all he has left is jail. As such, all efforts need to be made to make this war inconvenient, causing risks to his power base. But how does one do this? Most likely a large loss in Ukraine would do the job, creating fear of a further fiasco.
Vytautas Dumbliauskas is political scientist at Mykolas Romeris University. The commentary was read on LRT radio