Tim Ash:  Putin & Ukraine  101

I spent the week trying to take a few days off but also unable to resist following the Russia/Ukraine crisis. It’s been painful as I have been reading thru various bank sell side research on the subject. From what I can make out few of these analysts really get the story. Now either it’s because they are Russian and or work for Russian state owned entities, and see things thru a very different prism, or they are relatively young and did not live thru the whole Soviet period. And therein when it comes to understanding Putin and his game plan on Ukraine the latter is the right prism to view all this thru as essentially Putin is a Cold War warrior. He has not changed – he has added a few nuances for sure like an understanding how to manipulate and corrupt our democracies and markets from within – and using Russian SOEs active global market activity therein. But the bottom line is that Putin is still in a great power battle for supremacy with the US. Full stop.


So to help others better understand the story of the current invasion threat to Ukraine I thought it maybe useful to go back to basics in terms of trying to explain what Putin actually wants and his game plan for delivering on this.


Q? So what does Putin actually want from the current crisis in Ukraine?


Answer – Putin wants Ukraine. It’s the centre piece of his whole foreign policy agenda. Interventions in Syria and dallying with Turkey are tactical plays but for Putin the strategic play is bringing Ukraine back as part of mother Russia. Read his 10,000 word essay from earlier this year. For Putin there is no Great Power Russia unless Ukraine is brought home. To Putin Ukraine is like Taiwan for Xi, or Kent for England, or the Kurdish issue for the Turkish military. That’s the way he sees it – and 1000-odd years of common history means that for Putin, a history buff, it’s impossible to see Ukraine outside the Russian fold.


Now he accepts that Ukraine is currently independent but for him that was the result of a catastrophe, the collapse of the USSR, engineered by the West. And Western action since has all been about further weakening Russia from within but also pulling the near abroad, including Ukraine, further from its natural position by the side of Russia. And Ukrainian independence from Putin’s perspective is a short term blip and not sustainable.


And if Ukraine is the centrepiece of Putin’s foreign policy, everything we are seeing at present is about getting Ukraine back.


It’s simple as that. There is no compromise.


It’s important also to realise that this is about Putin’s place in Russian history. Sure he would love to go down in history as the great Russian leader who brought Ukraine back into the fold – but also in terms of why now, I think he would hate to be viewed as the Russian leader who had the opportunity to bring Ukraine back into the fold but dithered and lacked the balls to do that.


Sure Putin is cautious, conservative but he probes –  looks for weaknesses and opportunities and that is what we are seeing now and it feels that Putin is probing the West with his bayonet and not feeling anything much more than the straw of one of those exercise dummies.


Q? What’s actually happening on the ground?


Answer: Well it seems as per US intelligence reports that Russia is preparing a major military force on Ukraine’s borders.


Q? But surely this is just bluff as we have seen before from Putin and as recently as April and September this past year. Military build ups meant to menace but then pulled at the last minute?


Answer: According to US military sources this build up is different to those seen in April and September. Those latter two were part of regular exercises, while the current build up seems not related to any particular scheduled exercise. It also seems different in size and scope and troop and equipment build up look more offensive in nature given logistical movements.


It could be argued that the April and September build ups were “boy that cried wolf exercises” making people think the current build up is similarly nothing unusual and that troops will stand down quickly. It’s all about Putin keeping everyone guessing.


Question:  But where is the threat?


Answer: Those defending Putin’s right to deploy troops on his borders surely have to ask themselves what realistic threat justifies putting 100-200k troops on Russia’s Western border. Ukraine may have undertaken a drone strike against Russian forces/proxies in Ukraine, but it is not aiming to attack Russia. Similarly NATO is in no fit state to attack Russia – it would do well defending Europe from a preemptive Russian strike.


So why deploy 100-200k troops unless you actually mean to use them on offensive actions?


Q: So what is Putin up to?


Answer: I think Putin sees an opportunity to deploy military power against Ukraine to force them to sign a new peace deal/strategic deal with Moscow.


Putin thinks that a very focused but decisive military strike by Russia into Ukraine would see the Zelensky administration quickly suing for peace terms. Ukrainian troops will fight but deployment of overwhelming Russian air power and artillery across its borders would see massively disproportionate Ukrainian casualties. Faced by the prospect of thousands of Ukrainian casualties Zelensky would quickly seek peace terms. Note here that the Russian strategy is not even to take large swathes of Ukrainian territory but to concentrate attacks to maximise Ukrainian military casualties. Putin is not thinking of a scenario where like Budapest 56’ or Prague 68’ when Russian troops are engaged in bitter street fights in Ukrainian cities.


Q: Why now?


Answer: Because the opportunity is there, and Putin wants Ukraine.

First, the assumption is the West would do nothing.

This seems a fair assumption as the West did little in response to the annexation of Crimea and Russian intervention in Donbas. It has baulked at extending Ukraine with a NATO Membership Action Plan for fear of annoying Russia. And let’s face it; Western sanctions against Russia have been limited.


Putin has, meanwhile, engineered an energy crisis in Europe over NS2, and a migrant crisis on the border between Belarus and the EU. A crisis is meanwhile looming in the Balkans, and fanned by Moscow, over the secession of RS from BIH. Europe will be focused on gas, migrants and the Balkans and will have zero appetite to stick its neck out and annoy Moscow in defence of Ukraine when it thinks it needs Russia’s help to solve the migrant crisis, energy and Balkans crises.


The tactics herein have been to weaken the West to prevent it from being in a position to intervene to help Ukraine fend off attacks


The Biden administration is meanwhile weak and focused elsewhere three Cs, Climate, China and Covid.


The likes of Blinken and Sullivan have shown they have no appetite for a confrontation with Russia. They want to park Russia and would push Ukraine to sue for peace quickly if Russia attacked. Biden and team have shown their foreign policy focus is China – to the cost of everything else, Afghanistan, France and AUKUS and I am afraid Ukraine.


Sad but true.


Putin knows all this because he had engineered most of it – energy, migrants and the Balkans.


Biden has given Putin a green light to go into Ukraine by his inaction and focus on China.


Q: Timing? How will this all pan out?


Answer – seems like a winter 21/22 event. Expect the situation in Belarus to deteriorate and watch BIH. If we see the situation on the border between Belarus and Poland/Lithuania deteriorates Putin might use this as the cover to put troops into Belarus, then it’s just a four hour tank drive to Kyiv. It’s not difficult to see Putin creating some further crisis around Ukraine to justify an actual military assault on Ukraine.


Remember also the 30 year anniversary of the collapse of the USSR on Dec 8, 1991. And Putin loves history.


Q: But what deal will Putin accept?


Answer – look his ideal scenario would be a return to something akin to the USSR. A Union or Federation with Moscow at the centre but the likes of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus bowing to leadership from the centre, Moscow, in key areas like foreign affairs, defence and the economy, energy policy. Look at the plans for the Eurasian Union that Ukrainians rejected with the Euromaydan in 2013-14.


But I think he would accept a current Kazakhstan style scenario where Astana has some considerable freedom in domestic affairs and the economy but accepts its comes under the Russian strategic umbrella. It will not cross Moscow on areas that Russia deems to be red lines.


Q: What are Zelensky’s options?


Answer: Ukraine will fight – Ukrainians have proven they are willing to fight and die in defence of their sovereignty.


But it’s right for Ukraine to ask what will the West do if Putin goes in full force? If the West does nothing why should Zelensky risk thousands of young Ukrainian lives when the end game is unlikely to be any different unless the West is really serious about supporting a country that actually seems willing to stand up and fight for Western interests.


The end game here would be a new peace or strategic deal between Ukraine and Russia which massively erodes Ukrainian sovereignty – similar to what is on-going with Belarus. The problem here is I think it will be very difficult for Zelensky to sell at home. Zelensky will likely face an uprising from nationalists and patriots. But that’s fine for Putin, who will then likely use that to eventually move against Zelensky. Putin likely sees someone like Medvedchuk or Boiko eventually replacing Zelensky as Ukraine moves to a Russia style managed democracy.


The outlook for Ukraine is not great.


Q: Can the West do anything?


Answer – I guess it’s pretty clear that the West is unwilling to go to war with Russia over Ukraine.

It should now be massively arming Ukraine to give it the best tools to fend off a Russian attack – to increase the military cost and calculation for Putin.


It should also openly declare what sanctions will be rolled out should Russia attack – being public makes it harder for the West to wiggle out and let’s Putin know the sanctions risk is serious.


Think here of extensive oligarch designations, SOE designations, Sovereign debt primary and secondary designations, and SWIFT. Putting has said SWIFT sanctions would be a declaration of war, well make it clear that in crossing Ukraine’s border with Russian tanks Putin is making that choice himself.


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Published By: Atilla Yeşilada

GlobalSource Partners’ Turkey Country Analyst Atilla Yesilada is the country’s leading political analyst and commentator. He is known throughout the finance and political science world for his thorough and outspoken coverage of Turkey’s political and financial developments. In addition to his extensive writing schedule, he is often called upon to provide his political expertise on major radio and television channels. Based in Istanbul, Atilla is co-founder of the information platform Istanbul Analytics and is one of GlobalSource’s local partners in Turkey. In addition to his consulting work and speaking engagements throughout the US, Europe and the Middle East, he writes regular columns for Turkey’s leading financial websites VATAN and www.paraanaliz.com and has contributed to the financial daily Referans and the liberal daily Radikal.