Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t want to bite off any more of Ukraine — he can’t afford it.
That hasn’t stopped him from making the world think he does, as 40,000 Russian troops mass on the Ukrainian border after a “trumped-up” border incursion by Ukrainian special forces. Perhaps in his heart of hearts, Mr. Putin would love to annex the old breadbasket of the Soviet Union, but he knows that it would bring down the world against him and crash the ruble.
Mr. Putin’s real motivation in escalating events along the Crimean border with Ukraine is to gain leverage to have the sanctions removed against Russia. The economy is the one thing that Mr. Putin cannot control. He can control the media and can oppress the political opposition. But he can’t magically make living conditions better for the average Russian.
When asked why teachers earn such low salaries in Russia, Russian Prime Minister Medvedev recently remarked that teaching “is a calling. And if you want to earn money, there are lots of lovely ways to do this faster and more efficiently — like business, for example. But you didn’t go into business, now did you?”
Needless to say, this did not go over well.
The struggling economy is what keeps the Kremlin up at night. It is the one thing that could cause civil unrest, demonstrations and unhappiness with the government. Once this type of things starts, it is hard to control the outcome. Mr. Putin learned this after the demonstrations against him in 2011, and he won’t make the same mistake again.
(On a side note, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton actively intervened in the 2011 election against the Russian president, one reason why Russian cyber gangs have attacked the Democratic Party. The hacking is not meant to get Donald Trump elected, but to settle an old score. This is how Mr. Putin thinks, and the Kremlin has a long memory.)
Mr. Putin has made great progress in undermining support for the sanctions. Many top officials in Europe are making noises about removing the sanctions, even in Berlin, where the support has been the strongest to make Russia pay for the annexation of Crimea. For its part, the Obama administration has made it clear that the implementation of the Minsk accords is the linchpin for sanctions relief. Unfortunately for the Kremlin, the Minsk peace process is stalled and the conflict is getting hotter, not cooler. Soldiers and civilians are once again dying in numbers in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. By raising the threat of all-out war and invasion in Ukraine, Mr. Putin is simply vying for better negotiating terms with the West: Remove the sanctions, or else.
Although the Russian economy is slowly recovering and there are glimpses of success beyond the energy and farming sectors, it is not enough. If oil slumps once again, the economy may slide deeper into recession. Russian firms and banks are still starved for capital, in spite of the creative accounting of the Kremlin. The high interest rates designed to prop up the ruble have squeezed businesses. Private enterprise is not hiring. People are losing their jobs and those still in the workforce dare not risk their jobs by seeking higher pay.
So sanctions relief is a must. If Mr. Putin can’t get it through negotiations, he has decided he will get it through threat of war. I have always said the last year of the Obama presidency will be the most dangerous, as dictators across the globe realize that their time for appeasement from the United States is most likely over. January 2017 can’t come soon enough.
Originally posted at The Washington Times