West can’t win Ukraine waiting game

Russian President Vladimir Putin toasts at a ceremony of presentation of credentials by foreign ambassadors in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, May 28, 2015. (Sergei Karpukhin/Pool Photo via AP)

Who said the West lost its Russian expertise after the Cold War?

Chatham House, Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, has published a 58-page report on “The Russian Challenge” that’s full of excellent insights about the ideological roots, methods and economic peculiarities of President Vladimir Putin’s regime. I have found nothing to fault in the facts and analysis provided by the report’s experienced authors, including two former U.K. ambassadors to Moscow.

Even so, the paucity of constructive suggestions in the report shows how Putin has succeeded in locking both Russia and the West into an unproductive tug of war that resolves nothing. The report’s narrative on how the parties have arrived at this point is eminently realistic. After pumping for closer integration with Europe and the West in general in the first three years of his rule, Putin veered toward building a stronger state, encouraged by his country’s improving economic circumstances, bringing his values and goals into conflict with those of Europe.

Scuffles over European Union and NATO expansion followed, culminating in the Ukraine crisis. Meanwhile, systemic corruption, statism and worsening terms of trade created structural problems for the Russian economy, sending it into decline. Putin has managed to sell this situation to Russians as part of a Western plot against their country, however, so he’s probably not getting overthrown tomorrow. And the Russian political system is so centered on Putin that it’s impossible to predict what kind of ruler would succeed him.

The authors lay out the facts in a systematic, clinical fashion — and arrive, from different angles, at the description of a stalemate. Roderic Lyne, a former British ambassador to Russia, describes Putin’s quandary in this way:

“He cannot afford to be seen to step back. He has to deliver what he can portray as a victory. But the confrontation has been and will continue to be very costly. The longer it lasts, the harder it will be to show that it is beneficial to Russia. Putin has to keep convincing his people that this is a fight for survival.”

The West cannot back down, either, writes James Sherr, who until recently ran Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia program:

“Betraying Ukraine — what else would it be? — and, soon enough, Moldova and Georgia will add to the stock of Vichyite states in Europe with no love for what remains of the West, and even less respect. It will then be entirely rational for Latvians or Poles to ask why, if the West is unwilling to uphold the Paris Charter by means short of war, it should be willing to uphold the Washington Treaty by means of war when ‘hybrid’ threats arise.”

There are few ways to resolve a conflict in which neither side is willing to back down. Economic sanctions, the West’s immediate response to Putin’s aggression, have failed to achieve any practical goal. They have even been counterproductive. According to Philip Hanson, who wrote the economic part of the report:

The sanctions in place at the time of writing are unlikely to provoke such economic distress as to generate pressure for radical change. On the contrary, they provide the Russian leadership with a handy scapegoat for stagflation: the West. It has been argued that they also strengthen the forces of nationalism and statism arrayed in Russia against thoroughgoing market reforms. Even if, as seems probable, nationalism and statism were gaining ground in Russian policy-making before 2014, this is a serious unintended consequence of Western sanctions.

Yet the West is now locked into the sanctions policy: It cannot be seen to back down on them as on anything else. “Reducing sanctions while the situation in Ukraine remains unchanged,” Hanson writes, “would send its own message: the West is giving up; you will get away with more adventures.”

All-out war with Russia would be another option, but I have never seen a serious expert suggest it, and the authors of the Chatham House report don’t either. So their advice is, essentially, to wait it out. The West should, they say, build up Ukraine as a strong, self-sustaining sovereign state, prop up the European ambitions of other Soviet states, and improve NATO’s credibility.

The problem with these recommendations is that they spell out an essentially passive policy that depends on Putin’s passivity.

In chess terms, Putin is not in a stalemate, he’s in a zugzwang: He is forced to make further moves even if they worsen his position, precisely because he must keep selling his “war of civilizations” concept to Russians. He cannot afford a prolonged lull in events, because he must keep his audience focused. If Western leaders don’t signal their willingness to normalize relations — for example, to cancel sanctions while freezing the conflict in eastern Ukraine, or to pressure Ukraine into a softer approach to reintegrating separatist-held territories — Putin can only make the conflict more acute.

In recent days, fighting has flared up again with the pro-Russian rebels attacking, but so far failing to take, the town of Marinka near Donetsk. If previous experience is any indication, when the rebels suffer military setbacks, regular Russian troops come in and wreak havoc on the Ukrainian military.

If the current shaky truce breaks down and this happens again, the West will not be able to keep playing its waiting game. It may lean toward arming Ukraine and, instead of building up its economy, drag it into a destructive, full-scale war. In other words, for the West, too, the stalemate may turn into a zugzwang.

While they understand the root causes and the current shape of the “Russian challenge” perfectly well, the best Western experts — and therefore the Western leaders — lack the courage to take a stand. Just like after the Crimea annexation, the choice before them is simple:

Fight to win or do a deal. There’s no waiting it out.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor based in Berlin.