Watch What Putin Does, Not What He Says

Nothing in the Russian president’s UN speech suggested he was about to bomb Syria or withdraw from Ukraine. But that’s what he did.

The thing about Vladimir Putin is, it really doesn’t matter what he says.

When the Russian president took to the tribune at the UN General Assembly earlier this week, he did so amid rampant expectations that he would say something extraordinary—something capable of either ending his standoff with the West, or else sending it to new heights. In the end, he did neither. He said what he’s said countless times before: that the West is full of itself and hypocritical, that the world needs no policeman, and that Russia will do what it pleases.

Nothing in what he said on that UN podium suggested that he was about to bomb Syria, or that he was about to pull his guns back from the frontlines in eastern Ukraine. But that’s what he did. Two days later. Both on the same day. For good measure, he confiscated another year of his citizens’ pension savings, too, but we’ll get to that later.

Experts will debate what Putin is really after in Syria, pointing, perhaps, to the fact that in his battle against ISIS he’s bombing territory that ISIS doesn’t hold. Once they figure out what he’s up to, Western leaders can decide whether they can, or should, try to stop him.

But while we don’t yet understand Putin’s plan in Syria, we do know what he’s after in Ukraine: a permanently frozen conflict that leaves the Ukrainian government in Kiev eternally less than sovereign, depriving a country of 45 million people of any real purchase on its own political or economic future. If European leaders think they’ve got a problem with refugees and economic migrants now, they might want to imagine how that Ukrainian scenario plays out a few years into the future.

War in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, then, was the price Putin—together with the people of Ukraine and, to a lesser extent, Russia—would have to pay for a new source of leverage. War would open unbridgeable chasms, making conflict-resolution difficult, and would push Kiev to capitulate and cede de facto, if not de jure, control of its territory. It would be a harder fought thing than in Moldova or Georgia, of course, because the Ukrainians would know—unlike their neighbors in the early 1990s—that the conflict could be frozen for decades. But Russia would win.

By all accounts, Russia has, indeed, won. The same day that Russian jets flew their first bombing runs in Syria, news came that forces were being pulled back from the frontlines in the Donbas, and that resupplies would not be coming, replaced only by humanitarian convoys. Pro-Russian separatist leaders began declaring that the war was, for all intents and purposes, over. Because the Ukrainian military is unlikely to fire unless fired upon, the territory currently outside Ukraine’s control will remain that way until a political settlement is reached. This puts Russia in line with the Minsk ceasefire agreements and gives it grounds to appeal for an end to international sanctions against the country, because that’s what the Minsk agreements were designed to do: to end the fighting, not to solve the conflict.

Full article: Watch What Putin Does, Not What He Says (Defense One)

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