News / Europe

Analysts: Putin Wants 'Frozen Conflict' in Eastern Ukraine

Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks during the BRICS 2014 summit in Fortaleza, Brazil, July 15, 2014.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks during the BRICS 2014 summit in Fortaleza, Brazil, July 15, 2014.
Daniel Schearf

As Ukraine's military continues to retake eastern territory seized by pro-Russian rebels earlier this year, the Kremlin is threatening retaliation for a civilian death in Russia.

Moscow claims Ukraine's military shelled across the border, killing one Russian civilian and wounding others.

Kyiv denies firing into Russian territory and blames rebels for trying to provoke Russia to intervene militarily in Ukraine. The rebels denied responsibility for the attack.

Russian officials threatened Ukraine with “irreversible consequences” while NATO officials warned that at least 10,000 Russian troops had moved back to the border with Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Kyiv says a military transport plane shot down Monday was hit by an advanced missile probably supplied by and fired from Russia. Moscow denies any involvement, while Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko this week claimed Russian officers are fighting alongside the rebels.

'Frozen conflicts'

Defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, a columnist with Moscow's Novaya Gazeta newspaper, says Russian President Vladimir Putin is stepping up military pressure because Moscow cannot accept a collapse of the rebel movement in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region.

A rescuer stands near a shattered five-storey building, which was damaged by a recent shelling, in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk July 16, 2014.A rescuer stands near a shattered five-storey building, which was damaged by a recent shelling, in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk July 16, 2014.
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A rescuer stands near a shattered five-storey building, which was damaged by a recent shelling, in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk July 16, 2014.
A rescuer stands near a shattered five-storey building, which was damaged by a recent shelling, in the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk July 16, 2014.

“Right now, as I understand, the Russian government is prepared to introduce the Russian air force over Donbas unofficially ... as unidentified warplanes,” said Felgenhauer. 

At the same time, Russia is supporting a cease-fire in Ukraine.

Felgengauer says Russia is pushing a truce while supplying weapons to the rebels in order to keep the conflict going and therefore retain leverage over Kyiv and prevent the expansion of Western influence.

It's not an unprecedented strategy. Moscow has used similar tactics in other post-Soviet conflicts in Russia-leaning, breakaway regions of Georgia and Moldova's Transdniestria, often referred to as "frozen conflicts."

“Keeping this kind of separatist enclave secure in Donbas, having a comprehensive ceasefire, having negotiations, it's like a Transdniester kind of ceasefire — more than 20 years of negotiations that can last until hell freezes over," he said. "And that's what basically Russia right now is trying to achieve.” 

Preventing a Western alliance 

Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin says Putin's prime objective in Ukraine is keeping it from joining NATO, the Western defense alliance.

He says Russia hopes to attain that goal by pushing for a higher degree of autonomy for eastern Ukraine's Russia-leaning population.

“It is not dismemberment of Ukraine for the sake of annexing bits and pieces of Ukraine to the Russian Federation," Trenin said. "It is not instability for the sake of instability.”

NATO is reluctant to accept new members with security issues as it could drag the organization into military conflict.

“Putin's strategy with regard to NATO is probably not failing," Trenin said. "I do not see any reason to believe that either Georgia or Ukraine, and I would include Moldova in this category, is on a path to join NATO in the foreseeable future. I just don't see it. I see very little appetite for that, particularly in Europe.”

Economic results

As Trenin sees it, Putin also wants a peace agreement in Ukraine to escape increasingly crippling economic sanctions from the European Union and United States.

A pro-Russian separatist stands guard during a rally in support of Novorossiya on Lenin Square in the center of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, July 13, 2014.A pro-Russian separatist stands guard during a rally in support of Novorossiya on Lenin Square in the center of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, July 13, 2014.
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A pro-Russian separatist stands guard during a rally in support of Novorossiya on Lenin Square in the center of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, July 13, 2014.
A pro-Russian separatist stands guard during a rally in support of Novorossiya on Lenin Square in the center of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, July 13, 2014.

“Mr. Putin's performance will not be judged by his past accomplishments including Crimea, but rather by his economic results, Russia's economic results," Trenin said. "And there Mr. Putin has a lot of concerns. And he's, in my view, more focused today on those concerns than even the crisis in Ukraine.”

Putin's failed attempt to encourage a broad Russian alliance in eastern Ukraine is also likely influencing his calls for a cease-fire.

Stanislav Belkovsky is founder and director of the Moscow-based Institute of National Strategy.

“Putin's policies has failed in the sense that I think Putin has seen the vast majority of the population in southern, eastern Ukraine regions does not support him," said Stanislav Belkovsky, founder and director of the Moscow-based Institute of National Strategy. "Does not support the idea of any alliance with Russia or, moreover, leaving Ukraine and go to Russia under Russian umbrella. In this way, Putin should be bitterly disappointed. Because, maybe several months ago, he thought different.”

Putin still retains a great deal of influence over the rebels and can end the conflict in Ukraine whenever he wants, according to Belkovsky, who adds the Russian leader wants to be treated with respect by the West and a full-scale Russian invasion, while unlikely, is not impossible.

“Putin is a very emotional person. He's very reactive," said Belkovsky. "His slogan is 'Don't act, react.' And, when he's very much offended, humiliated by the West, by the situation in Ukraine, he could maybe change his decision. We cannot rule it out. So, though I consider the full-scale invasion of Ukraine very improbable now ... we cannot rule it out 100 percent.”

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by: Not Again from: Canada
July 16, 2014 2:51 PM
The frozen conflict theory is a good one, but it would indicate that Putin is stupid, which we can observe he is not. The other frozen conflicts, did not damage Russia's relations with the West. Western leaders still trusted him.
Russia, not withstanding the frozen conflicts, was enyoing a tremendous gain from the fact that Western markets had very much been opened almost fully, because Putin was seen as a very a "TRUSTED LEADER", a member of the Western club of nations, the few, the G8.
Russia's involvement in the Ukraine, has set back relations with the West at least 15 yrs. If it was not for Russofile Merckel, the situation would have been much more negative for the Russian economy.
On the strategic front, Russia's negative involvement, in forcefully changing borders, has resulted in the re-awakening of the NATO alliance; potentially NATO, especially the European countries, will undertake to increase their assets/resources, to ensure their level of deterrence, is compatible with a potential future un-expected Russian deviation from the normality the West was getting too used to; the requirement to support international protocols/ laws/ agreements... etc re BORDERS Russia looked like a Western country. Russia signed the letter agreement to respect Ukraine's borders, it was a dishonest word, not in good faith, given what has occurred in Crimea.....
The other real down side is trust, and issue that is difficult to measure, acquire and even far more difficult to regain; Putin no longer has the trust of many, if not most, NATO leaders; again, I think, with the possibly exception is that of the German Chancellor, that always appears to give him some reasonable level of confidence, based on her belief that he will get back on a normal path; let us hope she is right for everyone's benefit; she does appear to know him better, so maybe she is correct.
Over the past decade Russia's economic sit has greatly improved, in part due to European trust markets were opened, in part due to its large reserves of hydrocarbons, and in part due to many progressive measures taken by Putin et al, to regenerate Russia's industrial capacity. Loss of trust in Putin = accelerated prospecting and development of hydrocarbons, in Western Europe and other nations, and as they come on stream, down goes one of the pillars of the Russian economy; as doors to markets are closing on Russia, in the West, down goes another pilllar of the Russian economy; lots of reforms with no markets are useless, down goes the employment levels in Russia. One can already observe some of these economic negatives. With more un-employment, down goes Putin's popularity, even the nationalists will abandon him, no more a "great one"; all in all one can predict a negative future, all because Putin is off track on Ukraine, IS IT WORTH IT? Only Vlad can answer the question!

by: Leon from: Cape Town
July 16, 2014 2:32 PM
Imagine what Mr Cameron will do if Argentina reclaims the Falklands ?

by: reubenr from: Cornwall
July 16, 2014 2:04 PM
Mr. Putin is an oil slick on humanity. He is the dumb of the dumb. He had to have the port. He couldn't ask. He had to blow up everything. What a child. I would be more harsh, but it's near the end, and we might as well all give up by now.

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