To Keep Ukraine Free, We Need to Keep the Sanctions on Putin

An election poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad and a photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin are seen on a car in al-Qardahah, a Syrian town near Latakia, on May 26, 2014. Syria may be Putin's rest stop—if not off-ramp—from the Ukraine crisis, the author writes. Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

Ever since Moscow's "little green men" appeared in Crimea, the West has been anxious to provide Russian President Vladimir Putin an "off-ramp" from his aggression in Ukraine. U.S., French, German and European Union diplomats have made numerous efforts to find a face-saving way for Putin to back off.

For the longest time, however, it seemed that Putin saw no need for an exit. After all, he took Crimea without paying any real price, and the sanctions imposed on Russia for "annexing" Crimea were small. Furthermore, his hybrid war has yet to achieve its minimal objective: to either remove the pro-Western government in Kiev or compel it to reverse Western-oriented domestic and foreign policies.

This does not mean Kremlin diplomacy has been unwilling to feint in the direction of a peaceful settlement. For instance, after sending the Russian Army into the Donbass in August 2014 to crush Ukraine's nearly successful counteroffensive against the Moscow-backed insurgency, Putin did sign the Minsk I cease-fire.

However, the Kremlin and its proxies in the Donbass violated that cease-fire so regularly that by February 2015 they had gained control of an additional 500 square kilometers of Ukrainian land. This led to the Minsk II cease-fire that month, but the same pattern persisted. Since then, regular small advances of the Moscow-backed forces have picked up an additional 200 square kilometers of Ukrainian territory.

Unlike in Crimea, Putin's gains in the Donbass have come at a real cost. First, in the wake of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in July 2014, Washington and Brussels imposed painful sanctions on Russia's financial sector. Much to Putin's surprise, the EU did not fall for Russia's pseudo-compliance with the cease-fire, renewing sanctions this year.

What's more, a revamped Ukrainian military is putting up stubborn resistance to the Kremlin-led military campaign, and the result has been slow, hard-fought advances for the "separatists" and hundreds of dead Russian soldiers. Despite Putin's massive propaganda campaign vilifying the Petro Poroshenko government in Kiev, the Russian people do not want their soldiers fighting in Ukraine, which is why Putin has resorted to hiding Russian casualties from his people.

Credible private reports from Moscow suggest that some in Putin's inner circle—including Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council of Russia—think their Ukraine-war policy has stalemated and are cautiously exploring other possibilities. To avoid further sanctions and casualties, Putin may be interested in a real cease-fire, at least for now.

At least three signs point in this direction:

  • Since September 9, the level of shelling in eastern Ukraine has dropped precipitously.
  • In a September 10 statement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the local elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics (the areas controlled by Moscow) should take place October 26—the same day as local elections in Ukraine—and in accordance with Ukrainian law (a requirement of the Minsk cease-fire).
  • Moscow has removed Andrei Purgin, a staunch proponent of further conquests in Ukraine, as head of the Donetsk People's Republic's parliament and replaced him with the more controllable Denis Pushilin, who is also registered to participate in Ukraine's local elections.

Syria may be Putin's rest stop—if not off-ramp—from the Ukraine crisis. Moscow has already acknowledged sending troops there to prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. In the past few weeks, the Kremlin has flown dozens of transport planes loaded with military hardware to Syria, set up an air base south of Latakia, deployed hundreds of troops to guard that base and begun bombing operations against rebel groups.

Russian media outlets call Moscow's Syria efforts the opening of a "second front" against the West—while cutting down on Ukraine coverage. What better way to disguise a retreat, or at least a pause, in the Ukraine war than to trumpet a new offensive elsewhere?

Putin has not given up his objectives of reversing Ukraine's westward course. Perhaps the lull will end after he returns from his trip to the United Nations, and after his expected October meeting with French President François Hollande, Ukrainian President Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

More likely, Putin will see if he can succeed in lifting or easing EU sanctions. Hollande's premature enthusiasm for sanctions relief for Russia—offered after the four leaders spoke September 9 by phone—certainly would encourage Putin to think this may be possible.

But it would be a mistake of historic proportions to indulge him. Sanctions relief should come only when the Kremlin fulfills its Minsk commitments: the withdrawal of all Russian military and heavy equipment and the re-establishment of Ukrainian control over its border with Russia.

Anything less offers Moscow the ability to resume hostilities at any time.

John E. Herbst is director of the Atlantic Council's Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. He served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006.

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