Putin's Zugzwang: The Russia-Ukraine Standoff

By Motyl, Alexander J. | World Affairs, July-August 2014 | Go to article overview

Putin's Zugzwang: The Russia-Ukraine Standoff


Motyl, Alexander J., World Affairs


The choice of outcome in the Russia-Ukraine standoff is largely Vladimir Putin's. Ukraine and the West are not powerless, but they can at most anticipate, prepare for, and deter what might be Putin's next move. This does not mean that they are victims of superior statecraft, however. His admirers may regard Putin as a master strategist, whose petulance and unpredictability give him the upper hand in relations with the West and Ukraine. In fact, the opposite is true. Putin has maneuvered himself, and Russia, into a position of Zugzwang--a chess term denoting a condition in which one's king has to move, but cannot, because any move would result in check.

Putin has twisted himself into policy as well as rhetorical knots as a result of his absurd insistence that Ukraine's post-Yanukovych government is unconstitutional. Thus, even though Ukraine's two unreservedly pro-Russian parties, the unreformed (formerly ruling) Party of Regions and the Communists, fielded candidates for the May 25th presidential ballot, Moscow declared the elections illegitimate well in advance and, with its sponsorship of terrorism in eastern Ukraine, indicated that it would do all it could to sabotage them. But wouldn't fair and free elections diminish the existential threat Putin claims Russians face in Ukraine? And wouldn't unfair and unfree elections just prove his point that the Kyiv government is illegitimate? Even more illogically, Moscow demands constitutional reform from Kyiv, while continuing to insist the government is unconstitutional. But how can an unconstitutional government implement constitutionally valid constitutional change?

Far from indicating a master strategist at work, Putin's twisted logic and contradictory rhetoric have created a web of preposterous claims that, together with his imperialist policies, have forced him and Russia into a dead end with no easy way out. A would-be strongman who rips off his shirt to the delight of adoring Russian crowds, he dares not look or sound weak, while being hard-pressed to pursue policies that benefit Russia. Worse, uncertainty about Putin's moves will force the West and Ukraine to pursue policies that oppose Russia's interests. Since Putin is both unpredictable and dangerous, the world must prepare for the worst in its dealings with Moscow, causing Russia and the Russian people to suffer.

If Russia continues to rattle sabers, threaten to invade, and foment unrest in Ukraine's southeast, there will be cold war. If, instead of promoting instability, Russia merely refuses to recognize Ukraine's democratic government and alter Crimea's status, while simultaneously promoting terrorism and bogus referenda in eastern Ukraine, there will be cold peace. If Russia acts on the bogus referenda and invades more of Ukraine, there could be a hot war. If Russia recognizes Kyiv and "de-annexes" Crimea, warily neighborly relations--or a hot peace--will be possible. Which of these outcomes is Putin's preference? No one, including quite possibly Putin himself, knows. Putin has become what Winston Churchill once called Russia under Joseph Stalin: "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Given Putin's unpredictability, the best we can do is prepare for any of these outcomes.

The least likely of the above four outcomes is a hot peace. Russia has made it amply clear that its annexation of Crimea is permanent. Since this Anschluss has become the basis of Putin's appeal to Russia's hypernationalists, he cannot easily embark on de-annexation, even if he wanted to. Whatever the Kremlin's justifications for the occupation--Crimea was always Russian (not true), the ethnic Russians were being persecuted (not true), Crimea is no different than Kosovo (not true), the referendum was a genuine exercise of the popular will (not true)--the brute fact is that Russia's imperialist landgrab violated every international norm in the book and threatens world peace. The United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe--along with the United States, the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Group of 7, and a slew of European and other countries (including, importantly, Turkey)--had no choice but to declare the annexation illegal. …

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