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What Putin Didn't Get In Hangzhou

Peace in our time? (Cartoon by Yevhenia Oliynik, RFE/RL)
Peace in our time? (Cartoon by Yevhenia Oliynik, RFE/RL)

One of the most significant things about the G20 summit was something that didn't happen.

Hangzhou didn't become Yalta. China didn't become Munich.

But Vladimir Putin sure wanted it to.

In fact, Russia's actions in and around Ukraine over the past month appear to have been, at least in part, a big psy-op in the run-up to the summit.

Moscow ginned up a fake crisis in Crimea in August, accusing Ukraine of sending a team of agent saboteurs to the annexed peninsula to carry out terrorist acts.

Feigning outrage, the Kremlin then abruptly pulled out of planned four-party talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Francois Hollande.

And all the while, Russia moved tens of thousands of troops to Ukraine's borders and conducted menacing military exercises, sparking fears that an all-out invasion was in the cards.

It was in this context that Putin pushed for a joint meeting on the sidelines of the G20 with Merkel and Hollande -- but without Poroshenko -- aimed at resolving the Ukraine conflict behind Kyiv's back.

"Putin appeared to be willing to offer certain compromises on Syria, expecting the West to reciprocate on Ukraine, decreasing their support to the Kyiv government," Aleksandr Kokcharov, Russia defense analyst at IHS Jane’s 360, told Newsweek recently.

It's a classic Kremlin tactic. Create a fake crisis and then offer to help resolve it on Moscow's terms.

But it didn't work.

Merkel and Hollande agreed only to meet Putin separately, where each pushed him to fulfill Moscow's obligations under the Minsk cease-fire.

Both refused to cut any deals about Ukraine without Poroshenko's involvement.

And to stress that point, the French and German leaders then met with U.S. President Barack Obama to discuss Ukraine -- without Putin.

Moreover, Hollande called for a resumption of four-party talks on Ukraine -- the so-called Normandy format -- and Putin acquiesced.

"Putin is still where he was two months ago, before the recent reescalation in east Ukraine and military buildup in Crimea," Kokcharov said.

So the elaborate psy-op the Kremlin launched last month, when it accused Ukraine of plotting terrorist attacks in Crimea, fell flat on its face.

But while Putin may have suffered a tactical diplomatic defeat in Hangzhou, he clearly hasn't given up on his strategic goal of dominating Ukraine, even as Kyiv makes impressive strides in reforming and modernizing its once-ramshackle armed forces.

"Ukraine’s military is now larger, tougher, and more ready than ever. If Putin did decide on some major military adventure now, he would get much more than he bargained for," Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague and a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote recently in Vox.

"The Russians know this, and their military moves are instead meant to ratchet up the political pressure on Kyiv -- and to prepare just in case some day Ukraine feels strong enough to try to take back the Donbas by force."

And with its military buildup, Moscow also appears to be gearing up for the long game -- a protracted, tense, and sometimes bloody standoff with Kyiv that Putin thinks he can win.

As military analyst Michael Kofman, a fellow at the Kennan Institute, wrote recently in Foreign Policy, the bases Russia is constructing along Ukraine's borders look like permanent garrisons, complete with soccer fields and long-term housing.

The militarization of Crimea, meanwhile, continues apace.

"Russia isn’t about to escalate the war in Ukraine’s east, but it is reorienting its forces to surround and contain Ukraine for years to come in a process that has been largely overlooked," Kofman wrote.

"Russia will retain escalation dominance over Ukraine for the foreseeable future. By the end of 2017, its forces will be better positioned to conduct an incursion or threaten regime change in Kyiv than they ever were in 2014."

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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