By Paul Goble
Both Vladimir Putin’s plans for Ukraine – his initial one of absorbing much of Ukraine and his “Plan B” of having the West force Ukraine into agreeing to make concessions– have failed, Andrey Piontkovsky says; and “the interests of Putin and his closest entourage” now “seriously diverge, with the latter searching for his replacement.
In a comment for Apostrophe.com.ua, the Russian analyst says that the only things Putin can try is to step up his aggression or stage a provocation to prompt the West to desert Ukraine. If he does the former and tries to seize Mariupol or a land corridor to Crimea, the West has said it will increase sanctions and sell lethal arms to Ukraine (apostrophe.com.ua/article/world/ex-ussr/2015-08-13/v-rossii-nashli-zamenu-putinu-vse-reshitsya-v-blijayshie-nedeli/2095).
“But this is not all the West’s response could be,” Piontkovsky continues. Other options include: “the seizure of the accounts of Russian officials and oligarchs in Western banks, stepping up the pressure against Moscow regarding the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, the Litvinenko murder and a mass of other things.”
But not increasing his acts of aggression also constitutes a threat to Putin “as a man responsible for a serious foreign policy defeat.” He thus doesn’t want to back down, but for his entourage, “military escalation is absolutely unacceptable for Putin’s entourage and for the majority of the Russian political establishment.”
Those people “understand perfectly well that this will lead to their loss of billions of dollars and to the rapid overthrow of the regime,” Piontkovsky says. But if Putin were to suddenly change course, he would in the eyes of those around him be “guilty of a defeat,” and they would desert him.
It is worth remembering what happened to Nikita Khrushchev after the Cuban missile crisis, the analyst continues. “He was forced to pull back after which his days in power were numbered … for the establishment, the lesser evil is to withdraw, part ways with Putin, and establish some kind of peaceful coexistence with the West.”
Members of the Russian elite have been sending signals to the West in this regard for several months, Piontkovsky says. Now, the situation has become more serious; and he suggested that “everything will be resolved already in the coming weeks.”
If Putin is going to expand his aggressive actions in Ukraine, he will have to do so in August or September. “October is not the season for a military advance.” But what may be even more likely, the Kremlin leader may try to stage “an enormous provocation” designed to shift the blame on Kyiv and thus cost Ukraine the support it has in the West.
Ukrainian leaders have to be very aware of this danger and act with restraint and care on the battlefield lest they fall into a trap, he says. But at the same time, they need to launch “an aggressive diplomatic offensive.” They must tell the UN Security Council that Moscow is escalating its aggression.
What Moscow will do next is “difficult to predict now because the Kremlin ‘top’ is in a panic,” Piontkovsky argues, as shown by Naryshkin’s article on the burning of foodstuffs at the border and Lavrov’s behavior at a press conference after meeting with Saudi officials.
The Russian analyst suggests that “Moscow understands” that it has no really good options in Ukraine and consequently many there are considering what to do in the Russian capital. If his entourage can force Putin out, Piontkovsky says, “the most probable figure” to replace him is Sergey Ivanov.
“Formally, [Ivanov] occupies a non-political post as head of the Presidential Administration. Nevertheless, he unceasingly gives interviews to foreign media” in which he portrays himself as someone who could be “a constructive partner for the West.”
“Will Putin’s departure change Moscow’s policy?” Piontkovsky asks rhetorically, answering that “undoubtedly” it will even though those who will replace him will come out of the same part of the elite he did. And in support of that argument he cites what happened after Stalin died.
Stalin’s successors “essentially changed the foreign policy of the USSR,” he writes. “The same thing will happen in our case. A 20th congress of the United Russia Party will take place at which the serious errors of Comrade Putin in the Ukrainian question will be condemned.”