One of the most important tasks of the staffs of both the National Security Council and of the White House speechwriting apparatus is to think through the second- and third-order effects of presidential rhetoric, and to process the immediate, gut reactions of the Chief Executive to avoid creating policy problems for the United States. The system does not always work—the fateful "red line" statement on Syria was, according to some sources, an on-the-spot ad lib of President Barack Obama, rather than a thought-through and vetted policy pronouncement—but one always hopes that for important and major addresses such as the State of the Union, the staff is prepared to speak the proverbial truth to power.
It is an unfortunate pattern for this president that his statements and comments on Russian president Vladimir Putin always seem to generate a visceral negative reaction from the Kremlin, particularly when Obama suggests that Putin is weak, isolated or facing defeat. Without fail, Putin tends to initiate a response—whether signing major new trade deals with the Chinese after his isolation has been proclaimed or seizing an Estonian officer on the border in the immediate aftermath of a presidential visit that was meant to demonstrate confidence in Western security guarantees. Given what Obama said about Putin before both houses of Congress—and given that the president, who viewed the address primarily as a domestic political event, wanted to take a shot at his political opposition who in the past year unfavorably compared Obama's decision-making style with Putin's—the national-security establishment should have been prepared for an intensification of the Ukraine crisis. One can only imagine Putin watching the speech or reading a transcript, then bellowing to his aides, "I have not been defeated!"
The flare-up of fighting in southeastern Ukraine, of course, cannot solely be connected to presidential comments at the State of the Union, although there is a connection: the prevailing belief that sanctions coupled with lower energy prices will make Russia's Ukraine play unsustainable. Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich's presentation at Davos suggests that the state budget may be slashed by 15 percent and that Russian energy companies unable to finance new investments and improvements will be forced to cut back on production. But those impacts still lie in the future; Putin still retains considerable freedom of action now. The complete breakdown of what was always a very shaky Minsk truce agreement seems designed to establish a new set of "facts on the ground" that American and European rhetoric (especially if unbacked by concrete action) will not be able to change.
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Ever since last summer, the Russian goal has been to force the Ukrainian authorities in Kyiv (and by extension, the European Union) to accept the reality of two "secessionist" entities (the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples' Republics) and thus to start a political dialogue with them over the future makeup of Ukraine. However, to the extent that these two entities appeared to be shaky—after all, neither of these self-proclaimed republics even control the entirety of the two provinces they claim to represent—there was always going to be significant resistance to recognizing them as actors with any sort of staying power. Indeed, when Ukrainian government forces appeared to be on the verge, by late summer, of retaking control of southeast Ukraine, Moscow was forced to intervene more openly to stave off complete collapse. The truce lines of separation that resulted from the Minsk agreement left Ukrainian government forces in close proximity to secessionist strongholds. Now, it appears that the separatists want to push those lines back and make it that much harder for the Ukrainian government to be able to launch any sort of lightning strike (assuming that Western promises of training and equipping Ukrainian forces come to pass) and quickly overrunning them.
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The elimination of government resistance at the Donetsk airport was also designed to send a signal that despite bellicose rhetoric and expansive promises, the government in Kyiv has not, as of yet, figured out how to reform its dysfunctional defense establishment. To the extent that the volunteer militias that served as a significant backbone of government forces now feel they were abandoned, it could also help to fuel ongoing discontent with the course of politics in Ukraine since the Maidan uprising. Beyond that point, it also helps to expose a continuing gap between Western promises of support and what has actually been delivered, making it less likely that the latest round of hand-wringing from Western leaders about how all options (short of actual war) are now on the table for how to stop the separatist advance will be believed.
The struggle for control of the strategic port of Mariupol will be critical. This is the last major city of the Donetsk Oblast' which remains outside the control of the separatists—and as such has been designated by the Ukrainian government as the temporary administrative center for the province. Moreover, it is part of the "missing link" that would connect Russia proper, the separatist-controlled territory in southeastern Ukraine, and Russia-annexed Crimea. Should the Ukrainian government lose control of Mariupol, it becomes much harder to ignore the "facts on the ground" that is the Donetsk People's Republic and momentum towards a de facto "Novorossiya" as a distinct political entity in Ukraine would gather strength.
We have precedents from what happened in Georgia during the last decade. The separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia never fully controlled their territories and the Georgian government was able to maintain its "flag" and thus its claim in those parts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that remained under Tbilisi's control. After the 2008 war, the Russian military drove the Georgians completely out of both provinces and effectively ended the Georgian presence altogether. What appears to be the strategy now is to deprive the central government of any pretense of control over all of Donetsk, not just the portions controlled by the separatists. In addition, loss of the entire province—which produces some 20 percent of the country's GDP and 25 percent of its exports—would come at a time when Ukraine is in desperate need of a new financial rescue package for its economy.
Consolidating the separatist entities now also makes strategic sense if the goal is to take the short-term criticism from European leaders, but set the stage for a longer-term settlement. Just as the European Union accepted the de facto reality of an Abkhazia and South Ossetia separate from Georgia as part of its reset of relations with Russia following the Georgian war, it seems the effort to establish the realities of the two Ukrainian separatist entities—which cannot be ignored, wished away or speedily folded up—is occurring now so that when the question of Ukraine policy and continuation of Russia sanctions comes up later this spring for consideration by European leaders, the necessity of having to accept a Ukrainian "peace process," which would be comprised of formal negotiations between the separatist entities and the central Ukrainian government, can be argued by those countries that want to end the sanctions regime and resume some degree of normal trading relations between Russia and Europe.
Even if Mariupol does not slip from government control and a new truce is arranged, the damage may already have been done. Putin believes that he still has the room to maneuver and that he may yet achieve his geopolitical objectives before the full weight of sanctions can cause sufficient and irreparable damage. So far, his calculus does not appear to have changed.
Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies and a contributing editor at The National Interest, is co-author of Russian Foreign Policy: Vectors, Sectors and Interests (CQ Press, 2013). The views expressed here are his own.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin/CC by-sa 3.0