20 years under Putin: a timeline

In late August, the Ukrainian crisis entered a new phase. According to political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, the freezing of the conflict in eastern Ukraine might seem like a victory for the Kremlin, but in a broader perspective, it means that Moscow is in fact failing to achieve its geopolitical goal of restraining NATO.


By the end of July the Kremlin realized that even Germany would not show minimum support for its policy toward Ukraine. On the photo: German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko at the NATO summit in Wales on September 4, 2014. Photo by Guido Bergmann /Bundesregierung via Getty Images.


After annexing Crimea in March 2014, Vladimir Putin faced a wall of misunderstanding from the West that was quickly followed by the imposition of sanctions against Russia. Nevertheless, by the end of July, Putin seemed to have hopes that once the European nations determined that Russia had no intention of backing away from the pursuit of its strategic interests in Ukraine, they would return to the principles of realpolitik.

But the Russian president obviously underestimated the West’s ability and readiness to consolidate in opposition, especially in the face of Russia’s pretentions to possessing a special role on the world stage and its attempts to remake the borders of a European country all by itself, despite the principles of international law. Putin also didn’t expect that an action he considered a rectification of an injustice (i.e., the annexation of Crimea) would be taken by the West as a threat to the basic tenets of international order. By the end of July, having made sure that he couldn’t make a deal with the West and gain at least a minimum of understanding from Germany, the Kremlin gave up the façade of decorum and sent Russian troops into Ukrainian territory even though war hadn’t been formally declared. This was the first sign indicating the new dynamic of the Ukrainian crisis.

The second sign that the situation had changed was that despite its (political) support from its Western partners, Ukraine failed to oppose the separatists at home. Several victories by the Ukrainian army in the east were offset by the military support that Russia rapidly provided the separatists. The unopposed passage through Ukraine of a humanitarian convoy from Russia was a turning point. In the wake of this “trial balloon,” the Kremlin understood that it would have no trouble sending 280 eighteen-wheelers to the east of Ukraine and bringing them back with impunity.

Finally, the third sign of a shift was that Russia’s understanding of its capabilities regarding Ukraine changed. Its careful arms delivery strategy shifted focus from single arms to a stream of arms. It is possible that the Kremlin came to the conclusion that new Western sanctions would be imposed regardless of Moscow’s actions, so it might as well gain as much use from the current situation as possible. And that would mean providing the separatists with a military advantage that would turn the Ukrainian government’s antiterrorist operation in eastern Ukraine into a long military conflict with high social and political costs. In other words, Russia countered the Ukrainian army with the whole might of the Russian army. On August 28, at a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, President Petro Poroshenko claimed that “Russian troops have been actually brought into the territory of Ukraine.”

It is important to point out another principally new issue: by the end of August, the Kremlin admitted that negotiations between Russia, Ukraine, and the West had failed, with no prospects for success. The issue of the status of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions was removed off the agenda, while priority was given to setting the terms of a ceasefire that would let the pro-Russian forces in Ukraine regain their strength and begin to build a quasi-state structure there under Russia’s protection. The unrecognized Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, established in 1992, has become a model for such a scenario.

Moscow’s position releases the United States and its European partners from their obligations toward Russia in not expanding NATO’s military presence to the Baltic region.

On September 3, Putin suggested to Kiev a seven-item plan for peaceful settlement that in fact looks more like a suggestion of capitulation. This plan would require Ukrainian military forces to cease offensive operations in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Ukrainian armed units would be driven to a safe distance from populated areas. A safety zone overseen by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which would institute international control and monitor the terms of the ceasefire, would be created. Ukraine would be required to stop using airstrikes against civilians and populated areas in the conflict zone. The plan also includes provisions for prisoner exchange using an “all to all” formula and for the creation of a humanitarian corridor for refugees and humanitarian shipments to populated areas of Donbass that would also allow the passage of repair brigades charged with the reconstruction of infrastructure. Putin has, however, kept silent about what Russia would guarantee in exchange for all that.

On the next day, September 4, at the NATO summit in Wales, Poroshenko announced his terms for a ceasefire. His plan, called “Reconstruction of Ukraine,” includes the “Wall” project directed at the “building and development of a secure frontier between Ukraine and Russia.” It is estimated that strengthening structures should be finished within six months. Kiev also counts on receiving the status of special partner and key NATO associate by the end of 2014, and it anticipates receiving military and technical help from the members of the G7, European Union, and NATO.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that Russia intends to maintain control of the eastern part of Ukraine by all means, and that it will hardly refrain from taking even massive military actions against the Ukrainian army in order to continue its support of the separatists. But Moscow’s position releases the United States and its European partners from their obligations toward Russia in not expanding NATO’s military presence to the Baltic region. The last NATO summit certainly allowed members to begin reviewing the basic documents of the northern alliance, which could let it rebuild the European security structure in a new way.

With its provision of support to the separatists in eastern Ukraine, Russia set a strategic task—to prevent Ukraine from entering NATO by federalizing the state and providing its eastern regions with broad autonomy that would also give them a veto over Kiev’s foreign policies. At the same time, eastern Ukraine was supposed to remain a part of Ukraine. But in the face of the West’s rigid position, the Kremlin overstepped its policy and decided to take eastern Ukraine under control, as it did in 1992 in the Pridnestrovian situation. But this policy constituted a serious challenge to NATO, which, in its turn, was ready to alter its policy toward Moscow. Thus, having won the battle for Donbass, Russia has failed to achieve its geopolitical program of restraining NATO. Consequently, it has not only decreased its influence in the post-Soviet region, but also significantly devalued its position on the world stage. And this is the paradox of Russian foreign politics—that it is as yet unrealized by the Kremlin itself.