Inside Putin’s Brain—Part III: The Principle of “I make believe, you make believe”, the EU’s New Sanctions, and the Minsk Protocol — with Putin’s (imagined) annotations on full text (in English)

In warfare, as in diplomacy, it is important to try to put yourself in the shoes of your adversary, to try to understand what is going on inside his head (or her head).

Vladimir Putin, through his actions and rejection of the postwar legal and political order, has become the adversary of the West, just as Russia has become the enemy of all civilized countries which seek to uphold the United Nations Charter and its foundational principles prohibiting the threat or use of force across international frontiers.

Following are musings by the Observer on what may be going through Putin’s mind right now.


Article Series

Inside Putin’s Brain: Musings on the Ukraine and what is going on inside his head

See Part I here (September 2, 2014).

See Part II here (September 3, 2014).


Part III: The Principle of “I make believe, you make believe”, the EU’s New Sanctions, and the Minsk Protocol

I remember what we learned in dealing with the West on Syria, and think of how we are applying now what we learned then in the Ukraine.


I thought back in 2012 that (Foreign Minister) Sergey Lavrov was kidding when he explained to me how Kofi Annan’s Six-Point Peace Plan for Syria could be used to keep the West off balance indefinitely, dissuade them from offering any real military support to the “rebels”, and end up solidifying Bashar Al-Assad’s hold on power.

The principle is as brilliant as it is simple.

It’s the “I make believe, you make believe” principle.

Obama and the wimps in the European Union never wanted to provide any military support to the rebels in Syria, but they were coming under intense public pressure from NGO’s, that U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights woman from South Africa, Navi Pillay, human rights groups, newspapers, and political leaders to do something.

So Lavrov helped Kofi Annan come up with the Six Point Peace Plan, an important part of which was that there should be no foreign intervention. This suited us well, since we were invited guests of al-Assad, not foreign intervenors. If the U.S. or others furnished weapons to the rebels, they would be violating the agreement.

Anyway, I get distracted. Kofi Annan enjoyed the spotlight as he conducted endless rounds of discussions among different groups, and even the Syrians, about his peace plan. He enjoyed being in the limelight, and the perks.

The formula that worked was, we pretended it would somehow work, and the wimps in Europe and the United States went along because it took the pressure off of them to do anything, and they didn’t have to supply arms to the rebels.

By the time “I make believe, you make believe” came to its ultimate end, at the Geneva II peace conference in January 2014, al-Assad had pretty much turned the tide in the war and consolidated his position. To be sure, with our help and Iran’s and Hezbollah on the ground in Syria.

Then, when Bashar got a little carried away with his chemical experiments (What a great New Yorker magazine cover!), we had a problem with Obama because of that “red line” quip he had tossed off earlier about using chemical weapons.

Obama got all huffed up and puffed up and was under great pressure to launch a military strike against Syria. But he didn’t really want to. He didn’t have the “cojones”, as Madeleine Allbright would put it, to do so.

Lavrov came to the rescue with his “elimination of chemical weapons” plan. Obama jumped at it because it took the pressure off him to act militarily, while also giving the Israelis a kind of an unexpected bonus. They benefitted directly from the chemical weapons removal deal, as did al-Assad who got to retain his hold on power without worrying about any direct or indirect military interference from the U.S. and its friends, like Saudi Arabia.

But the really brilliant part of the deal was that we were able to apply the “I make believe, you make believe” principle to great effect. We pretended that the internal Syria opposition didn’t exist (which we kind of showed at Geneva II), and Obama pretended that they didn’t exist either. So the whole deal was a brilliant success–for me and al-Assad!

The Ukraine and the Minsk Protocol

Ah! Today my thoughts turn to the Minsk Protocol ceasefire and peace processs agreement. It was reached by President Petro Poroshenko, Donetsk People’s Republic President Vitaly Zakharshenko (who we gave the job to barely in time when we pulled “Igor Strelkov” from that position–a Russian citizen would not have done for this role in Minsk!), former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, and the representative of the OSCE.

Originally I had a pretty good plan that I wrote on the plane on the way back from Mongolia, which achieved all of our objectives. (Actually, it amounted to a capitulation by Kiev on all essential points!)

But the EU summit in Brussels and the NATO summit in Wales complicated matters. We didn’t expect the unanimity on really harsh EU sanctions to be forthcoming on September 5, at the same time NATO announced the formation of a 5,000-man quick reaction force to be used in the Baltics.

As if I would ever think of protecting the Russian minorities there!

So we had to regroup, and I ended up agreeing to authorize Zakharshenko to agree to the 12 points in the Minsk Protocol.

We didn’t specifically say that Russian troops would be withdrawn because “I make believe, You make believe!” Russia doesn’t have any troops in the Ukraine. Nor has it been furnishing weapons and fighters, except for a few guys who got lost and others who went there on their vacations!

I’m a lawyer, and a very good one, after all. So let’s do a little analysis of what the Protocol says. On the key point, Russian troops, it says only:

10. Withdraw the illegal armed groups, military equipment, as well as fighters and mercenaries from Ukraine.

This was good enough for Poroshenko. “I make believe, you make believe!” . He’s a shrewd guy, and he knew he was getting a good deal with the 12 points in the Protocol.

But of course I am a shrewder guy, and I know I can tangle up the guys at the EU when I say the Minsk Protocol’s provisions have been carried out, as follows:

1. Ensure the immediate bilateral ceasefire.

This is the only point the EU ambassadors are focusing on, and we will make sure it holds until after the momentum for further harsh sanctions has dissipated, and we’re protected from that risk.

2. Ensure the monitoring and verification by the OSCE of the ceasefire.

They’ll be monitoring the ceasefire, not who sent Russian troops into the Donbass and near Mariupol.

3. A decentralization of power, including through the adoption of the law of Ukraine “about local government provisional arrangements in some areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts” (law on the special status).

This is the key point we can use to scuttle the Minsk Protocol after it has served its purpose of diverting the EU from adopting stronger sanctions, once attention has shifted away from what is going on.

Or, I can always use this point to pressure Poroshenko, and threaten renewed military action if Zakharshenko’s demands for independence or functional independence are not satisfied. He was getting a little bit out ahead of the train when he or one of his spokesmen said today that if the DPR’s demands were not met, the whole agreement including the ceasefire would be scuttled. I need to get his handlers to give him clearer and tighter instructions.

4. Ensure the permanent monitoring of the Ukrainian-Russian border and verification by the OSCE with the creation of security zones in the border regions of Ukraine and the Russian Federation.

This is OK for now. At least it will keep the Ukrainians away from the border, and how many tanks can an OSCE inspector stop when they are crossing fields in the middle of the night? Anyway, I have enough Russian troops inside the Ukraine now for present purposes. If we need more later, we can change the circumstances. Zakharshenko can quit the agreement if he doesn’t get his independence, for example!

5. To immediately release all hostages and illegally detained persons.

No problem. Zakharshenko is keen to get his men back, anyway.

6. A law on preventing the prosecution and punishment of persons in connection with the events that have taken place in some areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.

The locals want this, as of course do our local commanders in case their guys get caught. Wonderful choice of words. “Persons” is suitably broad enough to include Russian citizens and military persons.

7. Continue the inclusive national dialogue.

No problem. Goes with point 3.

8. To take measures to improve the humanitarian situation in Donbass.

This is great! It will give us a formal ground to insist on sending in some more “humanitarian aid” convoys in white trucks, which can also bring back industrial equipment made in the Ukraine we need for our weapons systems and industry, as well as any more bodies of soldiers, if necessary.

9. Ensure early local elections in accordance with the law of Ukraine “about local government provisional arrangements in some areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts” (law on the special status).

This goes with points 3 and 7. Our “separatists” already have valuable election experience!

10. Withdraw the illegal armed groups, military equipment, as well as fighters and mercenaries from Ukraine.

I make believe, You make believe! There is no mention of Russian soldiers here! See comments above.

11. To adopt the program of economic recovery and reconstruction of Donbas region.

Of course. We welcome EU money, and money from the World Bank or anywhere else, to help our local leaders rebuild the new autonomous or independent areas.

12. To provide personal security for the participants in the consultations.

This is Zakharshenko’s point. I guess it make sense.

Well, it’s good to have the 12 points here, with my annotations. I’m happy to use the legal skills. At least becoming a lawyer in St. Petersburg wasn’t a total waste.

It looks like we almost got the EU to back down from the September 5 decision to implement the new sanctions. But it was a really close call. Had it not been for our friends in Finland and a couple of other countries–AND THE FACT THAT THE EUROPEANS ARE UTTER WIMPS!–the new sanctions might have actually come into effect on Tuesday, September 9.

But now, as the ceasefire holds, and we make it look like the other points are being implemented, we should be able to derail this latest sanctions action. We will give the EU ambassadors and presidents plenty of arguments to quibble over.

The key is that many of them don’t want to impose the new sanctions, because our latest threats have scared them, they are worried about the economic impact in their countries, and they have very parochial perspectives to begin with.

“I make believe, You make believe!”

Meanwhile, I am restoring Russia to its greatness! My tears when they played the national anthem today were genuine, as genuine as they ever get with an old KGB man!

End of musings by the Observer on what is going on in Putin’s head.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

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