Vladimir Putin sailed to victory in Russia’s presidential election on Sunday. He secured a fourth term in office with 77% of the vote. The result was hardly a surprise. Putin’s grip on power in Russia is ironclad and he faced no serious challengers in the campaign. The election was hardly fair, by Western standards, and has been described by some people as a sham. Even Edward Snowden was critical of the election results in his adopted homeland. It will be interesting to see how the Kremlin reacts to his criticism.
As tradition dictates, many world leaders have sent formal congratulations, and spoke of desires to work together with Moscow on common issues. Behind the polite façade of diplospeak, there is less of a consensus about Putin and future relations with Russia. In Europe, many leaders and political parties are wary of Russia’s ambitions, and view Putin as a growing threat. Nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, or under the thumb of Moscow during the Cold War make up the bulk of this group. Other European nations, mainly EU member-states in Central and Western Europe, are less critical. From Brussels to Berlin the priority has been to repair relations between Russia and the West. Germany has led the repair effort in recent years, though Angela Merkel has little to show for it. EU sanctions against Russia remain in place but they have not persuaded Putin to cooperate on the Ukrainian issue or any of the other matters simmering between Russia and the West.
The current diplomatic crisis between Russia and the United Kingdom over the use of a nerve agent against a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil will affect relations between Europe and Russia in one form or another. The EU is standing beside Britain in calls for Russia to disclose its development of Novichok, the agent used. The United States joined the leaders of France, Great Britain, and Germany in condemning the use of a nerve agent on British soil, and agreeing Russia was the party responsible for the attack. London expelled 23 Russian diplomats and Moscow mirrored the move a short time afterward, expelling 23 British diplomats from Russia. Tensions remain high, with Russia denying it had anything to do with the attack.
With the election behind him now, Putin might be looking to use the crisis with England to his advantage. Russia could use a victory of some type. In Syria, and Russia it appears to be mired in military and diplomatic stalemate, with no change in sight. It’s unclear exactly how Putin can turn the current issue to his advantage, but if anyone can bring it about, it’s him.
With the large scale Russian military exercise Zapad 17 scheduled to begin this September in Belarus, the level of tension associated with this year’s maneuvers is significantly higher than it was during the previous Zapad exercise. To be frank, Russian exercises of this magnitude have always caused a certain degree of concern in NATO, largely because of the close similarities between preparations for a large exercise, and preparations for war. This year, the concerns of NATO members transcend the possibility that Zapad could be a cover for the start of hostilities and focus on whether or not Zapad 17 will mark the beginning of a permanent Russian military presence in Belarus.
The joint Russian-Belarus exercise will include over 100,000 troops, hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles, air defense assets, elements of the Russian Navy, and a large number of combat aircraft. Plans for the use of 4,000 railway cars and carriages to move Russian troops and equipment into Belarus has raised eyebrows among many Western observers. The scenario for Zapad 17, according to sources in the Defense Ministry of Belarus, will center on a situation that will mirror NATO’s eastward expansion into the traditional Russian sphere of influence.
Thus far, Russia has revealed no specific details about September’s exercise. Moscow’s preference appears to be publicly regarding Zapad 17 as a limited exercise. The same was done when the last Zapad was held in 2013 although the number of troops involved was far greater than what Moscow initially announced. Also, expect lessons learned by Russian forces fighting in Syria to be incorporated into the new tactics that will be evaluated. This refers in large part to air defenses. There has been considerable suspicion in Western military circles that the Russian SAM sites in Syria had difficulty detecting the US Tomahawk cruise missiles that were launched during the April strike on a Syrian airfield. High level sources in the Pentagon have pointed to credible post-strike intelligence obtained by a friendly nation in the region (Israel most likely) as the basis for this notion.
As preparations for Zapad ramp up in the east, the United States is weighing whether or not to deploy Patriot missiles to the Baltics as part of an air defense exercise set for July, 2017. The Patriots would be gone by the scheduled start of the Russian-Belarussian war game, but their appearance will undoubtedly serve as a message to Moscow that the US and NATO will be monitoring Zapad-17, and subsequent Russian military moves in the region carefully.
*Short Update This Evening. More Coming Tomorrow.*
It did not take the Pro-Russian separatist leaders very long to make clear their intentions following Sunday’s referendum. A large majority of voters in the eastern Ukraine region of Donetsk allegedly voted in favor of secession, and breaking away from Kiev. Now, less than 24 hours later, the self-declared leader of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic,’ Denis Pushilin made clear his intention to request that Russia absorb the newly minted ‘people’s republic.’ A similar vote was put to residents in Luhansk. The results are not yet known.
Kiev and the EU have dismissed Sunday’s vote, and with cause. Legally, the referendum does not have a leg to stand on. Donetsk is a part of the Ukraine, which is, in turn, a sovereign nation-state. True, the same can be said about the Crimea, but this stage of the crisis is not about legality; it is about politics. And on that front, Putin continues to hold the initiative.
Pushilin’s request will be nearly impossible for Putin to deny right now. He’s built a soap box from declaring that Russia will defend the rights of it’s citizens at home and abroad. Turning away from that position now would weaken his domestic support considerably. But let’s be realistic here.
Putin is not going to deny Pushilin’s request. In the next few days the pieces will continue falling into place as the other regions in eastern Ukraine post similar referendum results and place identical requests through to Moscow. Shortly after that, don’t be surprised to see Russian forces cross the former border and secure it’s newly annexed territory.
The End Game has finally arrived and it is becoming increasingly apparent that a partition of the Ukraine is coming in the not too distant future.