Since Boris Nemtsov’s assassination on February 27 and Vladimir Putin’s 11-day disappearing act shortly thereafter, Putin, and Russia’s ongoing military aggression in the eastern Ukraine, seem to have quieted down.
NATO Commander U.S. General Philip Breedlove reminded Congress and others in Washington this week, however, that the Russian military threat has not receded, and that indeed the Russian-led “separatist” forces seem to be preparing for further military action, which could come near Mariupol and the strategic land corridor that leads to the Crimea.
Julian E. Barnes and William Horobin (Washington and Paris, respectively), “Top NATO General Sees Threat from Rebels in Ukraine,” Wall Street Journal, April 30, 2015 (6:37 p.m. ET).
Two other factors are at play.
The first is that the EU sanctions against Russia must be renewed later this year, requiring the assent of all 28 EU members. There is considerable evidence to suggest Putin has been making progress toward securing one or more blocking votes. Greece is an obvious candidate.
Under this scenario, Putin would be wise to bide his time until after the renewal of EU sanctions has been blocked, before breaking out of the constraints imposed by the February 12 Minsk II agreement. Once the sanctions lapse, he can move on Mariupol at a time of his own choosing.
The second factor is the role being played by Chechnya leader Ramzan Kadyrov. At the time of Putin’s “disappearance” following the Nemtsov assassination, there was considerable commentary suggesting some kind of power struggle within the Kremlin was underway, perhaps pitting the leaders of the security services against Kadyrov.
An intiguing report came out recently that Kadyrov had forbidden Russian security forces from carrying out activities in Chechnya, by force if necessary. This would suggest the power struggle is unresolved.
See Paul Sonne, “Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov Gives Shoot-to-Kill Order on Outside Forces; Security services told to fire on authorities from elsewhere in Russia that try to carry out operations in Chechnya,” Wall Street Journal, April 23, 2015 (2:08 p.m. ET).
Whatever is going on with Putin, the West would be well-advised to prepare for his next sudden and bold move, putting together a very strong package of economic sanctions and NATO responses that will be imposed automatically by the U.S., and as soon as possible by the EU, if “separatist” forces and Russian troops move on Mariupol, or other regions outside the areas delimited in the Minsk II agreement.
We know Putin, and his modus operandi.
So long as Russian troops occupy the Crimea (absent legitimation under U.N. auspices, including U.N. interim administration of the Crimea and a true plebiscite after a period of years), he and Russia will remain enemies of the West.
So long as Russia maintains 12,000 troops in the Donbas, and does not return control of the border to the Ukraine, Europe and the West cannot let up on their “containment” of Russia, not even for a moment.
The Trenchant Observer