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Putin’s Gambit and the Future of Ukraine

Throughout the Russia-Ukraine conflict, I’ve referred to the “Georgia precedent”: the idea that Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 showed Vladimir Putin how much he could get away with in terms of violating the sovereignty of neighboring countries. In truth, the Georgia precedent is about more than the invasion, which was, in Georgia’s case, the culmination of about a decade of Russia’s asymmetrical warfare and boosting separatist forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia essentially followed the same playbook in Ukraine, but took it one step further and actually annexed territory. Now Putin may be about to do the same in Georgia.

Over at Quartz, Steve LeVine points to news of Russia and South Ossetia signing an integration treaty. Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment explains at Carnegie’s website that much of this is formality: Russia was already effectively in control of South Ossetia. And as I’ve pointed out in the past, Russia had staffed key posts in the breakaway provinces and even distributed Russian passports. Nonetheless, this is clearly an escalation in the “frozen” conflict. Here’s de Waal:

The document goes much further than the treaty signed between Abkhazia and Russia in November. The Abkhaz re-drafted their treaty to keep several elements of their de facto sovereignty. The South Ossetian version, also written by Kremlin adviser and spin-doctor Vladislav Surkov, envisages the Ossetians conducting an “agreed-upon foreign policy” and hands over full control of their security and borders to Russia. South Ossetia is being swallowed up.

The treaty should come as no surprise. Moscow has been fully in control of South Ossetia since it recognized it as independent in 2008. Compared to Abkhazia, the population is tiny. South Ossetia had 100,000 citizens in 1989 but, after years of conflict and the flight of most of the Georgian population, just 21,000 people voted in the parliamentary election last June. The anomaly represented by South Ossetia’s supposed independent statehood, while North Ossetia, with a population of 700,000 is a mere autonomous region of Russia, has never been so glaring.

The obvious question is: Why is Putin doing this–or at least, why now? Only Putin knows for sure, but it does demonstrate how differently the conflict is viewed from Washington and from Moscow.

It further exposes the Obama administration’s “off-ramp” delusions. President Obama has operated under the impression that Putin is looking for a way out. In his estimation, Putin didn’t realize what he was getting himself into, acted rashly, and needed a way to save face that didn’t look like a retreat. That obviously failed. So the next idea was to essentially accept Putin’s land grabs and merely try to get him not to take any more.

As Josh Rogin reported last month, the Obama administration has been working on new “outreach” to Moscow. Believing that sanctions on Russia are having their desired effect, the administration has, apparently, been willing to offer Putin a pretty sweet deal: he gets to keep what he’s already taken. Here’s Rogin:

In several conversations with Lavrov, Kerry has floated an offer to Russia that would pave the way for a partial release of some of the most onerous economic sanctions. Kerry’s conditions included Russia adhering to September’s Minsk agreement and ceasing direct military support for the Ukrainian separatists. The issue of Crimea would be set aside for the time being, and some of the initial sanctions that were put in place after Crimea’s annexation would be kept in place.

It’s true that the West is not going to dislodge Russia from Crimea. But there is still reasonable opposition to any agreement that would seem to bestow the West’s acceptance of the Crimean occupation and annexation on the criminal Putin regime. This opposition mainly stems from moral outrage, but now the Russian integration treaty with South Ossetia gives the West strategic reason to oppose treating Crimea as officially a fait accompli.

What Putin is demonstrating is, first of all, patience. But also bad faith. If the West treats the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine–where Russian-armed and directed separatists shot down a passenger plane, remember–as the only aspect of the larger conflict in Ukraine that is open to negotiation and adjustment, Putin will pocket the concession of Crimea. Then he will simply wait out the president.

That will be the easiest part of all. As Max wrote earlier, Obama seems to want to drag out various foreign conflicts long enough to hand off to his successor. But just as in Georgia, Putin can be expected to escalate once again when he thinks the time is right. In other words, if the West agrees to merely pause the conflict in eastern Ukraine right now, they are still abandoning Ukraine to Russia. Putin will see it as a victory in eastern Ukraine too, not just in Crimea. And we’ll have given him no reason to think otherwise.