After marathon negotiations in Minsk, Belarus the announcement came on Thursday, February 12, 2015 that a cease fire deal had been reached to end the military conflict in the eastern provinces of Ukraine. Such an announcement should have been met with relief and praise from global leaders. Instead, there is great trepidation about the future prospects of a durable settlement between Ukraine and the separatists who have enjoyed unlimited support from Moscow. The deadline for cessation of fighting is set for Friday, February 13, 2015 but far too many details remain murky; not the least of which is an absence of clear command & control over the separatists who may or may not take orders to stand down.
Stanching the civilian death toll and suffering is one objective for Western leaders, but the conflict in Ukraine is more representative of a play on a stage where Vladimir Putin is casting himself in the popular television series “Game of Thrones”. Putin is after the Iron Throne and will continue to play every hand through objectives that position him for future conflicts. Putin’s role in the Minsk negotiations had little to do with stopping the war and bloodshed in Ukraine. His participation in the negotiations had to do with “the game”.
Putin reveals his fear of the West and NATO while Russian support fuels the separatists who, in most part feel more loyalty towards “Mother Russia” than to a Ukraine that is looking westward in terms of economic stability. President Poroshenko is caught in a vice of economic realities while those who were raised on a cultural diet of suspicion toward democracy and capitalism wat to have more autonomy. But these conditions only serve Vladimir Putin’s obsessions with restoring the place and prestige he feels was taken from Russia. Therefore, all events will be used to extrapolate how best to realign the borders of Russia as well as the most advantageous means to peel power away from the United States.
Putin knows all too well the vulnerability of the EU in terms of energy security. He also knows how to light a flame of fear in the neighboring countries along Russian borders to use for leverage, a’ la “Lannister style”. And Putin knows how to exercise political and media capital for his own gains. When he became president after the disgraced President Yeltsin resigned, he used the Russian media expertly and demonstrated his proclivity for seeing all others as mere pawns in his game. His KGB background taught him to silo his strategic thinking. thus allowing him to be able to catch others unaware. Putin is after much more than pacifying the EU. He is surviving the sanctions with craftiness and intrigue. In conditions where President Obama is more of a “Ned Stark” character at times, Putin plays his hand closer to the vest and looks at the long game.
EU leaders Francois Holland and Angela Merkel represented the European interests that are directly tied to energy security. Looming in the air were also fears of a spreading conflict. As Western leaders, there was a subliminal message of democracy versus Russian Empire land grab. But another clear message was that they stand apart from the United States. Whether this was a deliberate decision to avoid the personality clash between Obama and Putin or whether it was a sign that the EU has to consider its own interests separate from the power of the U.S., the imaging was apparent. “Mr. Obama, we’ll handle this one.” And that was just fine with President Putin.
For the man who wants to sit on the Iron Throne, creating deals with China, enjoying a triumphal trip to Egypt where Putin posters lauded him as an important global leader, and finding ways to split the EU and the US, all part of his self image as a King or maybe more of a Czar.
Each step serves to create a position that he will use in the future as regional conflicts will put pressure on Western leaders. Putin as Czar of the entire eastern hemisphere? That might satisfy him. But then it might not. Vladimir Putin is after power, not peace.