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Putin’s power eroding in face of sanctions

President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin cannot catch a break. What does a Russian President need to do in order to recreate the Georgian Invasion of 2008 in Ukraine today? With the Georgian offensive, NATO and the EU expressed scorn but remained largely frozen in response. No sanctions, or foreign aid, AND Russia largely mediated the ceasefire agreements. But like they say, good things never end; and it seems that Putin’s resurgent territorialism is withering.

Sanctions are starting to create unrest in the Kremlin. As I’ve written extensively in the past, sanctions on energy and wealthy members of Russian business are bad news for an economy built on energy and oligarchy. Especially in the context of Putin’s election platform; promising prosperity and boosting international standing for the fallen superpower, the current and projected economic woes are corroding Putin’s legitimacy. Putin was insulated from most criticism with surging economic growth and high poll rankings. Sanctions take away prosperity from the general public which will inevitably spiral out into general economic prosperity, but more important, if the public (and voters) are uneasy, this will ripple through Russian politics. Worried voters means worried politicians and policy makers, which means general concern about the country and the ability of its leaders. You can see where this is going.

Of course the situation does not stay the same for long. Three recent trends are shifting the conflict’s dynamics. First, Ukrainian President Poroshenko declared a day of peace/ceasefire on Dec. 9th. For the moment, tensions seem to be mulling over and ceasefire talks or temporary cessation of violence appear likely. Whether or not these will last remains to be seen, and considering that both separatist and Ukrainian forces violated the previous ceasefire there is little hope that another ceasefire will last. On the other hand, one cannot dismiss the probability of peace talks leading to political agreements. Unlikely, but not beyond possibility.

The second recent event is the attack in Chechnya. The attack itself killed an estimated 24 people, but the larger concern is on the nature of the people perpetrating the attack. Some are worried, based on the videos released after the attack, that the people who carried out the attack have associations with the Islamic State. Moreover, the greater fear arises from domestic concerns that separatist and extremist groups are gaining saliency in diminishing economic conditions. In the grand scheme of things, this is not anywhere close to a top priority, but rather one more source of insecurity and worry for the Kremlin.

More importantly, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has started to move in to the situation. Of course NATO spearheaded efforts to lay sanctions on Russia for its actions against Ukraine; but recent meetings in Brussels set NATO in motion to provide key logistical support to the government in Kiev.  Specific aid includes trust funds that support command, control, communications, computers, logistics and standardisation, cyber defence, military career transitions, and medical operations.  Some of the talks included whether or not to provide lethal as well as non-lethal aid; meaning that the West should provide weapons to the Kiev government. After the Brussels meeting, NATO determined not to provide lethal aid, but naturally leaders said publicly that ‘all options are on the table’. This shift in stance prompted Russian Ambassador to NATO Alexander Grushko to say that “This statement [meaning providing aid] is a flagrant manifestation of double standards.” The move also led to Putin devoting large portions of the state of the union to the Ukrainian crises, describing the event as Western aggression. Not that this should surprise anyone – Russian stances on Ukraine can be best described as two-faced.

But to the benefit of the West and Kiev (even with the pending economic collapse of Ukraine), seemingly every factor is outright against or reversing in the favor of Putin.  The economy is nosediving; fear of terrorism is rising; there are domestic concerns with shifting stances on Ukraine; and most importantly, Putin is becoming less promising on the homefront. If anything would block another presidential term for Putin (yes, he can be president again), it could be Ukraine. In the beginning, Putin could justify the action by protecting ethnic Russians against the Kiev fascists with the hopes of Western inaction. And since then, Russia and the West have been responding tit for tat; with Putin hoping the West folds against higher stakes. Now we’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole; and few choices remain.  Either Putin concedes or backs down which would cost most, if not all his political capital;  or he can keep playing the odds. Perhaps the West won’t follow through with corresponding actions. Perhaps NATO will shy away from lethal aid; perhaps things could end in Russia’s favor.

But I doubt it. Too many things are going wrong for Russia, and especially the people that elected Putin to power. The house is collapsing inward, and I doubt Putin can maneuver out of this one. The other choice is for NATO to assert themselves with non-lethal action, and prepare for alternatives. If the ceasefire or short term negotiations happen, the West can resupply the democratically elected government. If Russia intervenes (more than they have already) NATO must act.

By challenging Putin, NATO can effectively restrain Russian aggression, restore order in Ukraine, and rebrand itself as a necessary – not irrelevant – organization. But only time will tell if NATO will conduct itself as it did in Kosovo, or Georgia.

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