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The asymmetry of the Russia-West conflict, which recently has taken a drastic turn, is striking. Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, has had a frantic start to the week, bending truths, making implacable demands, and shifting gears from diplomacy to the use of force. The West has responded in a remarkably well-coordinated and methodical fashion while remaining unavoidably reactive in its actions.

The world has been holding its breath for months, awaiting Putin’s next move on Ukraine. Moscow has now taken action. On Monday and Tuesday respectively, Putin and Russia’s parliament recognized the self-proclaimed separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine as independent entities.

The critical question now is whether Putin’s latest action marks the end of the escalation or the start of something new. On Tuesday, Russia’s lawmakers unanimously approved a “peacekeeping” mission for the breakaway republics, formally empowering the Russian president to deploy troops on territories that are legally part of Ukraine.

The approval to send in the military did not mean Moscow would do so immediately, Putin said on Tuesday. Yet the fact that Moscow has continued to air its grievances and produce ultimatums, including a renewed appeal to the international community to recognize the annexed Black Sea peninsula of Crimea as part of Russia, indicates that more action is on the way.

The United States, Britain, Germany, Australia, Canada, and Japan have all levied sanctions on Russia as part of a concerted campaign, promising to impose more costs on Russia in case of a new dramatic turn. Russia’s access to global finance has been constrained by the West, as has some members of the country’s elite’s ability to move about and hold assets in the West. In an unexpectedly bold move, the long-hesitant Germany suspended the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline, meant to deliver natural gas from Russia to Germany. The new pipeline was recently completed but has yet to be fully certified.

Moscow has been backing the quasi-states of Donetsk and Luhansk for years now, but until Monday, it treated them as Ukrainian and engaged in lengthy negotiations, known as the Normandy Format, aimed at reuniting the regions with the mainland Ukraine. The four countries involved in the talks, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and France, gathered for the first time in Normandy during the 2014 D-Day commemorations. For all of those years, Moscow has accused Kyiv of refusing to carry out its part of the Normandy Process’s Minsk agreements. Many observers felt the accords favored Moscow, but Moscow is now the one who has effectively killed them.

Moving Aggressively Abroad
After awarding the two breakaway regions independent status, Putin has continued to pile pressure on the West and Ukraine. First, Putin demanded that the international community and Ukraine itself recognize Crimea as sovereign Russian territory. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, a few UN member states, including Bolivia, Syria, and Venezuela, have recognized the legitimacy of the annexation referendum. The majority of the world still considers Crimea to be part of Ukraine.

Second, Putin insisted on Ukraine declaring voluntarily that it would never join NATO. This, according to Putin, would be a “face-saving” move, allowing the West to avoid publicly abandoning NATO’s open-door policy. Putin had previously included a demand for this policy change in his draft treaties with the United States and NATO, but it had been rejected.

In a third major demand, Putin called on Ukraine to send back all the weaponry that the United States and other Western countries have supplied Kyiv with during the years of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The December draft treaties kept everyone in the West guessing as to whether those ultimatums were meant to be rejected. “The unacceptable provisions in the two draft agreements, their quick publication by the Russian government, and the peremptory terms used by Russian officials to describe Moscow’s demands raise concern that the Kremlin may want rejection,” Steven Pifer, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, wrote at the time.

After the December ultimatum (“draft treaties”) predictably failed to produce a peaceful resolution, Putin has moved on from diplomacy to action, sweeping the Minsk agreements off the table and recognizing the breakaway statelets. It is hard to believe that his February ultimatum, which contained an impossible list of demands, will serve any purpose other than to justify more Russian intervention.

Cementing the Coalition at Home
One important aspect of Putin’s game now is the way he has been cementing his support among his inner circle and broader elites. His recent escalation would give many of his billionaire partners and political allies pause. Members of Russia’s “one percent” like to travel abroad, send their children to the world’s best schools, and keep their savings in Western property and banks.

The EU package of sanctions agreed upon unanimously by the twenty-seven member countries targets the 351 members of the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, who appealed to Putin to recognize the two regions as independent. The sanctions will freeze assets and impose visa bans on the MPs, many of whom are wealthy and keep their families abroad.

The United Kingdom has listed Gennady Timchenko, Boris Rotenberg, and Igor Rotenberg, billionaires close to Putin, as those who will be denied entry. Dealings with them and the three banks specified in the measure will be prohibited for all UK individuals and companies. Other wealthy Russians may appear on the West’s sanctions’ list going forward.

Putin made a point of having most of his closest political allies speak publicly in favor of recognizing the separatist regions as independent states, thus implicating them all in the decision. That assorted group of the Russian Security Council who were made to repeat the new party line into the camera included Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the chief of the Foreign Intelligence Service Sergey Naryshkin, and Moscow’s point man on the defunct Minsk process, Dmitry Kozak.

Putin has long pushed for “nationalizing the elites,” that is, repatriating Russia’s wealthiest families and their assets. Western sanctions may now be doing the job for him.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more