(Nina Khrushcheva is professor of international affairs at the
New School University in New York. She is author of "The Lost
Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind." The
opinions expressed here are her own.)
By Nina Khrushcheva
Feb 3 Confusion, confusion, confusion! This is
how Russian President Vladimir Putin, increasingly isolated from
Western conversations, keeps the world on its toes. Because only
he has any answers.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine is ever more fierce.
Russian-supported rebels in the occupied cities of Donetsk and
Luhansk now use sophisticated weapons to capture more land and
ports. Yet Putin continues to insist that Moscow has nothing to
do with it, despite abundant proof from intelligence reports and
satellite imagery. He has no influence, Putin declares, over the
rebel bands battling for independence from a Kiev government
that the CIA installed.
Putin needs the bombastic oratory of war. With economic
disaster looming in Russia, because of the West's sanctions and
plunging oil prices, his thinking may be that a threat of war
can help justify his autocratic regime. The growing recession is
forcing the Russian public to pay a high price for the
annexation of Crimea.
Putin seems to be counting on the sanctions to make it the
patriotic duty of all Russians to stand by him. As they are
doing now - his approval rating is more than 80 percent.
Though some of his aides might occasionally slip up and
suggest the rebel troops in eastern Ukraine are Russian
surrogates, Putin always stays on point. It looks as if he
He has built his image on strength, resolve and total
control over his country's actions. Putin's militancy might
subside, but only if the West accepts Russia's March annexation
Western approval is highly unlikely, however. Moscow's
seizure of Crimea betrayed all international norms. But being
the victim of the West serves Putin's interests just as well.
Last week, he was conspicuously absent from the 70th
anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp,
one of the Red Army's triumphs in 1945. Snubbed by world
leaders, Putin held his own celebration in Moscow, to the loud
cheering of the public - united in denunciation of the European
lack of gratitude for Russia's sacrifices.
Putin also skipped last month's World Economic Forum in
Davos, Switzerland. He sent his cabinet officials instead, whose
job seemed to have been to stir up yet more confusion. One
appeared to be granting concessions, while others defended the
mighty Russian president.
Arkady Dvorkovich, a deputy prime minister, talked about a
positive "turning point" in West-Russia relations because of
Moscow's interest "in stabilizing the situation globally and in
Ukraine in particular."
At the same meeting, however, another deputy prime minister,
Igor Shuvalov, accused the West of imposing sanctions on Russia
to topple Putin. Shuvalov insisted Russians are ready for
sacrifices - economic and military - to support their president.
There is yet more confusion. The Kremlin is talking about
international negotiations to de-escalate the conflict and make
both Ukrainians and the rebel separatists pull back up to 9,000
troops and 500 tanks. But the round of talks that began last
week in the Belarussian capital Minsk was quickly derailed by
the rebels. Their leaders have withdrawn from any peace
negotiations and have begun a massive offensive in Debaltseve,
an important railroad hub, and in and around Mariupol, a
strategic port city whose capture could give Moscow overland
access to the Crimean Peninsula.
Despite Putin's denials, it is highly unlikely that the
rebels would have initiated this major geopolitical reshuffling
on their own.
Some political analysts assert that Putin is all about
asymmetrical retaliation: Every time he feels his power is
disrespected, he lashes out. Troop deployment, hyped-up
anti-Western rhetoric and attacks on Mariupol were Putin's
response to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's accusation that
Russia has undermined Ukraine's sovereignty.
According to this theory, Putin wants Europe and the United
States to feel threatened by a possibility of a larger war with
Russia - in order to push them into continuing talks with him.
If the talks fail, Putin might want the West to believe, Russia
will have no choice but to expand militarily.
Other analysts suggest that what Putin really cares about is
the negotiations, not the war. By pushing the rebels to take
more territory in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin is trying to
create new facts on the ground that Putin can use as leverage in
the impending talks.
In this case, both the Kremlin's denial and the rebels'
offensive serve to strengthen Russia's diplomatic hand. To avoid
further rebel expansion, Kiev might also have to agree to
federalization of the nation. It has already called for a
ceasefire with the rebels. It may have to ultimately cease its
efforts to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Short of accepting Crimea's annexation, the West, regardless
of what it thinks about Putin, must continue to meet him at the
negotiating table. It is possible that he could follow through
on his decision to play a positive role in global affairs, as
Dvorkovich, the deputy prime minister who is talking peace,
Not only because it will help Putin avoid additional
sanctions, but also because the Russian economy might not
survive additional shocks. There have already been mass layoffs,
and the public's growing unhappiness could threaten the
existence of Putin's rule.
The so-called Donetsk People's Republic in eastern Ukraine
may have served the Kremlin's purpose of destabilizing that
country. But the level of dismay these insurgents have brought
with their actions - from the downing of Malaysian Airlines
Flight MH17 that killed 298 people in July, to the dozens of
civilians killed around Mariupol in recent weeks - is creating
unease across Russia.
So having Russian officials speaking from the different
sides of their leader's mouth is a tactic to keep everyone
confused. It only further enhances Putin's image as a leader who
holds all the answers.