Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

Over the past several months, I’ve been trying to figure out what the Kremlin’s policy toward Ukraine is. Does Moscow have a long term objective or is it, in reality, winging it?

Is the Putin regime foremost playing to nationalist grievances at home while causing as much chaos in the neighborhood along the way?  What does Vladimir Putin think he’s accomplishing by parking 40,000 troops near the Ukrainian border for months, threatening to invade Ukraine, then promising to remove his forces multiple times but failing to do so.  What does he think – that the US and Europeans don’t use satellite imagery to verify his pronouncements – remember Reagan’s “trust but verify” mantra that has become a cornerstone of US foreign policy since the 1980s?

Is the fourth time the charm?

Will Putin’s promise to withdraw the troops for the fourth time turn out to be the charm?  Will he turn his back on those very separatists his henchmen turned loose to terrorize the local populations in what seemed like an organized plot to make the region vulnerable to an easy Russian takeover as happened in Georgia’s Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2006? But Ukraine is much bigger than and a different story from Georgia.  It is among other things, also next door to Poland which has experienced an economic miracle since joining the EU.  Ukraine’s west at the very least would like a chance at closer economic ties to Brussels.

Are we just supposed to forget about the Kremlin’s takeover of Crimea which started this year’s illegal Russian land grab and where the Kremlin used the very same tactics and operatives it subsequently shifted to Eastern Ukraine – a region the Russians have effectively managed to destabilize through the combination of Genghis Khan style terror and information warfare – but much of the region has not succumbed as readily as Moscow likely hoped.

Has the Kremlin not read the polls indicating that 70% of the population in the East does not want to separate from Ukraine let alone become part of Russia?  Or does the Kremlin not understand that as a new Gallup poll indicates, “the majority (of Ukrainians) in all regions agree that no government outside of Ukraine has a right to be involved in decisions about Ukraine’s future.”

Without Eastern Ukraine, is Crimea to become another of Putin’s Russian atolls like Kaliningrad –between Lithuania and Poland? A small piece of formerly militarily strategic land annexed to make the home-crowd ultra-nationalists not feel the pain at the start of another economic downturn now being accelerated by US and European economic sanctions?  If the Baltic and Black Seas rise as a result of global warming – what will happen to these islands or peninsulas?  Dikes are expensive to build and maintain.  Of course, in the meantime, so are the care and feeding of the people and troops who make such atolls home.  

Attempting to read the confused signals eminating from today’s Kremlin is about as successful an endeavor as crystal ball gazing in an attempt to divine the future – or reading between the lines of Pravda, Izvestia or other Communist era publications to intuit what secretive Soviet leaders really had in mind. 

Russia’s Asian Pivot

Last week in the midst of the largely Russian induced chaos in Ukraine and just prior to the election, Putin made a well-publicized trip to Beijing to sign a 30 year gas deal with the energy hungry Chinese.  This deal had been in the works for a long time.  But let’s not be too hasty. The reports I’ve seen thus far indicate that it is no instantaneous fix for a long term European fall-off in Russian gas consumption – a dependency the Europeans need to overcome if they intend to meet a more belligerent and assertive Russia on their own terms.

 In reality, Russia’s Asian gas pivot will take years to implement.  Furthermore, the price-tag does not come without costs including potential challenges to Russian sovereignty over its Far East including territory China once claimed its own – lots can happen between now and then. As one for instance, the Chinese population continues to grow, Russia’s is in decline.  Think about it.  The Kremlin needs to and maybe it is.  

I’m reading Lawrence Freedman’s lengthy book entitled Strategy which I intend to review (after I’ve finished its more than 600 pages) and which offers certain reference points for examining Russia’s intentions in Ukraine – in part Putin’s pronouncements versus his government’s actions. 

I’ve also been thinking about the Kremlin’s ability to manipulate public opinion at home and among the Russian-speaking population of Eastern Ukraine through television.  Television has been the most influential medium for years among many Russians. It should have come as no surprise that Putin’s Kremlin began its consolidation over information in the Russian Federation several years ago by taking over formerly independent television and radio channels.  Since last fall, several Ukrainian television stations in the country’s troubled east have been blocked and replaced by Russian broadcasts – presumably under the direction of the Kremlin itself.    

In contrast, the US, Ukrainian and European governments have come across as flat-footed at best in countering the Kremlin’s anti-Western propaganda and disinformation barrage. If Putin took his shrill television broadcasts off the air or the West had instituted an effective way of countering them – not via reliance on the social media which does not reach the Kremlin’s intended audience – but through competing Russian language television broadcasts even transmitted via the Internet – that expose the Kremlin’s lies and distortions, it could help deflate the insurrectionists balloon.         

Who’s in Charge?

But taking a different tack, I wonder why no one seems to be asking the question as to who’s in charge in the Kremlin.  Yes, I know Putin’s popularity ratings among Russians based on his playing the “uber-nationalist” card in Ukraine are at an all-time high. But why has he promised to remove the Russian troops from the border multiple times – yet those troops remain in place?  This reminds me of the story of the boy who cried wolf one too many times.

Is this promise a ploy to throw the West off-guard and keep it from enacting another round of sanctions – or are there instead competing policy differences inside the Kremlin walls to which we are not privy?  Are, perchance, the security services marching to one drum beat and the army to another – like two bands crossing on parade in a Charles Ives’ kind of dissonance?  Where does the buck stop? 

The good news is the Ukrainian presidential election took place over the weekend and a clear winner declared in the presence of over 1,000 international OSCE election observers despite low turnout in the East due to the continued disruptive antics of insurrectionists.   Putin said he would respect the election results – whatever that means.  Is this for real, another ploy or will it be yet another empty promise.  Who is in charge and what do they want?