Putin responded to Ukraine’s promise to sign an Association Agreement with the EU by threatening to raise customs duties on imports from Ukraine. Putin’s justification for this was classic gobbledygook:
“We agreed on the start of consultations at the level of experts,” he recalled, voicing the hope that they would be held at the level of department chiefs and would raise to a ministerial level somewhat later.
“I hope these contacts will begin and we’ll be able to show in detail what the subject of our concerns is,” Putin said as he addressed a conference on agriculture.
He repeated once again what kind of a threat the AA between the EU and Ukraine was posing for Russia. “If specific economic problems arise we won’t be able to keep the zero rate for import customs fees,” Putin said.
Then he gave away the game:
“This doesn’t have anything to do with politics or with the options one or another state selects because each sovereign state has the right to choose its original pathway.”
Meaning, in fact, that it is all about politics and constraining the right of a sovereign state to choose its own pathway.
Putin is willing to accept a negative outcome in Ukraine. That is, his main goal is to prevent Ukraine from moving closer to the west. If it is isolated from the west, he can control it, more or less, without having to actually take over the place. Creating a new frozen conflict serves this purpose. This threat is intended to achieve the same objective.
However, whereas Yanukovych was vulnerable to economic pressure on issues like duties, I don’t think the current government is. That Rubicon has been crossed. So Putin will inflict pain on Ukraine, but it will be unlikely to keep it from moving west, if only because it now understands that it faces a choice between integrating with the west or utter subjugation to Putin and Russia.
In other news, Russian forces are again building up on the Ukrainian border. This is consistent with what I wrote in May. That the drawdown was not a concession by Putin, but was driven by the expiration of the terms of one set of conscripts and the need to muster them out and replace them with the 2014 cohort. That process completed, the units that have been withdrawn are moving back to the border.
Unfortunately, the political “leadership” in the west sees what it wants to see. It desperately wants to believe that Putin is willing to de-escalate.
Hardly. He wants to maintain the pressure, but with respect to regular military units operates subject to the severe constraints of a decrepit manpower system.