Thursday, June 04, 2015

More Maryinka-type attacks likely soon

Pavel Felgenhauer in 'Novoye Vremya' explains why Russian and separatist fighters attacked Maryinka yesterday and why it is likely these kind of attacks will increase in the weeks to come, until any remnants of any peace process disintegrate.

The next attacks may occur in Lysychansk or Schastya in a few weeks time after a large mass demobilization of conscripts in the Russian army takes place.

Freezing the conflict in the Donbas or its termination brings no benefit to the Kremlin. Putin faces a possible sharp drop in his ratings next year and mass protests cannot be ruled out.

Currently Russian society is mobilized against a perceived external threat and has rallied around the Kremlin. But if this threat diminishes and the conflict in Ukraine is frozen, economic [and social] issues will come to the fore in the public consciousness. A decline in real wages and household incomes is predicted so for the Kremlin it would be dangerous to freeze military conflict.

The appointment of Mikheil Saakashvili, a man Putin loathes, to the post of governor of the Odesa region has worsened relations between Putin and Poroshenko to even greater depths, to a point where informal contacts between the presidents of Russia and Ukraine have all but disappeared.

However, the freezing of the conflict in the Donbas would increase the likelihood of preservation and stabilization of power in Kyiv, which is unacceptable for the Kremlin. [Putin's overarching aim is to trash Ukraine's economy and turn the country into an unmanageable wreck. A successful, western orientated Ukraine is his greatest nightmare.]

If the front lines remain stable during July and August, Russia and the separatists will have to wait until the next year to mount further serious offensive attacks. In the meantime the regime in Kyiv will only get stronger.

For Russia and the separatists it is now only a matter of when, on what pretext, and to what degree, to renew the conflict.

Leonid Bershidsky, in a BloombergView article in which he quotes from a recent Chatham House publication that predicts dire consequences if NATO and EU do not challenge Russian aggression, agrees with this analysis.

"[Putin] cannot afford a prolonged lull in events, because he must keep his audience focused.

If Western leaders don't signal their willingness to normalize relations -- for example, to cancel sanctions while freezing the conflict in eastern Ukraine, or to pressure Ukraine into a softer approach to reintegrating separatist-held territories -- Putin can only make the conflict more acute.

In recent days, fighting has flared up again with the pro-Russian rebels attacking, but so far failing to take, the town of Marinka near Donetsk. If previous experience is any indication, when the rebels suffer military setbacks, regular Russian troops come in and wreak havoc on the Ukrainian military. If the current shaky truce breaks down and this happens again, the West will not be able to keep playing its waiting game. It may lean toward arming Ukraine and, instead of building up its economy, drag it into a destructive, full-scale war. In other words, for the West, too, the stalemate may turn into a zugzwang.

While they understand the root causes and the current shape of the "Russian challenge" perfectly well, the best Western experts -- and therefore the Western leaders -- lack the courage to take a stand. Just like after the Crimea annexation, the choice before them is simple: Fight to win or do a deal. There's no waiting it out."

I hope G7 leaders meeting in Schloss Elmau, Germany this weekend will rise to the new challenge, decide on a firm response,  and not allow themselves to be bullied by upstart Putin.

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