Does Putin Have to Escalate to Survive?
Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Joerg Forbrig - Transatlantic fellow for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Systemically, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime is now fully based on external conflict. Previously, the Kremlin bought Russians’ political acquiescence by handing out material benefits fueled by rising revenues from energy exports. Absent similar riches now, the regime is closing ranks at home by fomenting aggression abroad, by stirring nationalist frenzy, and by declaring it Russia’s historical mission to challenge a dominant West. Only by regularly seeking (and winning) conflict with the West—head-on or by proxy, politically or militarily—can Putin regenerate loyalty among both the elites and society.
Ukraine, currently the key theater in this conflict, seems to be in for a Russian escalation, for various reasons. In Russia, the “success” of Putin’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea is receding into history, the country’s economy and finances are ever shakier, and the elites and society are starting to feel the pinch.
Ukraine, meanwhile, has not collapsed and has even made some modest progress with reforms. And in the country’s eastern Donbass region, the upcoming summer lends itself to efforts by Russian-backed separatists to tear away further territories and assets from central government control. It seems the Kremlin will hardly miss this triple opportunity to demonstrate Russian military might, to throw Ukraine back into instability, and to solidify the so-called people’s republics in eastern Ukraine—before possibly freezing the conflict at the next round of peace talks.