Putin’s Italian gambit: Reconfiguring the Ukrainian chessboard

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Why is Vladimir Putin so interested in the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Milan, and what results does he hope to achieve when he meets with Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko?

Putin and Poroshenko last met in late August in the Belarussian capital Minsk. Photo: AFP / East News

The threat of international isolation, which arose as a result of the Ukrainian crisis and ultimately led to the removal of Russian participation in the G8, has apparently encouraged Russian president Vladimir Putin to make use of all existing opportunities for direct contact with world leaders. Instead of brushing off invitations or sending either Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov or Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as his deputies, Putin now prefers to appear in person everywhere.
And now Putin’s intention to go to the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Milan has caused a big stir in European capitals. The invitation extended to Vladimir Putin has already cost Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini a chance at the post of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs. Also, some countries in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states have announced their intention to boycott the summit if the Russian president attends.
Currently, there is the perception that Putin’s final decision on making the trip to Milan did not simply come from his desire to annoy the Europeans once again. A much more significant factor is the desire of the Russian side to use the ASEM platform as a kind of profit taking in the Ukrainian conflict. A favorable background was created by the quieting of military activities on the Novorossiya front and by the West’s decision not to impose new sanctions after the start of the practical implementation of the Minsk Protocol of Sept. 5, 2014.
Of course, the territory controlled by the pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine is unlikely to be the end goal of Kremlin geopolitics. However, even an indirect confirmation of the reality of de facto borders from President Poroshenko during the Milan meeting (if held) would allow Putin to finally withdraw troops to their “winter quarters” and temporarily bump the question of the future of the Donbas from first place on the international political agenda.
It is this problem, namely, that is viewed today as most important in the tactical plan for Moscow, which is why just a few days before the summit, Vladimir Putin explicitly ordered troops back from the border of the Rostov region to areas of permanent deployment. Russian diplomacy is once again trying to prove that expansion for the sake of expansion has never defined Moscow’s foreign policy, and any coercive solutions, whether we are speaking about the “polite people” approach in Crimea or the military volunteers in Novorossiya, were always in response to external challenges. If these unfounded reactions would cease, Putin seems to be saying, there will be no new challenges for the Ukrainian state coming from the Russian side.
The freezing of the conflict, which Moscow is now working towards, is necessary for Putin and for the start of the lifting of Western sanctions. The Russian economy was going through difficult times even before the Ukrainian crisis. The sanctions (among which some experts tend to include the sudden tumultuous fall in oil prices) put the Russian economy today on the brink of severe recession, if not outright depression.
This fact, though not directly, and with great reluctance, is even admitted by some top government officials in Russia. The thesis popular among the masses and the one coming from the mouths of Kremlin propagandists about the reorientation of Russia’s Asian partners does not create a lot of enthusiasm among many practically oriented businessmen and financiers.
It is noteworthy that Putin is heading for the Asia-Europe Meeting, which was created 18 years ago primarily to promote economic cooperation among the member countries, mainly for political negotiations with European leaders. If meaningful conversation about joint projects between Russia and the countries of East Asia are conducted at all, then they will be in other formats (usually bilateral) and at other venues.
However, the fact cannot be discounted that Russia desires to expand its cooperation with ASEM, which until recently was of a rather symbolic nature. Within the framework of the general mood of Moscow to reduce confrontation and return to business as usual, the Milan meeting can even open up some prospects for progress in negotiations on the European gas issue.
Almost simultaneously with the news of the withdrawal of Russian troops, it was reported that Gazprom is prepared to receive installments of the debt owed to it by Ukraine. However, in this case, not everything depends on the position of the Russian side. The price of gas and the procedure for mutual settlements between Moscow and Kiev have long lost their status as an independent element in the negotiations. The solution of these problems is possible only within the framework of a broad political settlement. And the question of how keen the West is on a diplomatic break in the Ukrainian crisis, which apparently Putin will be campaigning for in Milan, remains open.
At first glance, based on the logic of the political and economic circumstances in which Russia finds itself, for the West it would be reasonable to keep increasing the pressure on the Kremlin to implement its punishment strategy regardless of Moscow’s demonstration of intentions to make peace.
It is just as obvious that the argument of the Russian diplomats that Russia “doesn’t come first” – that Russia cannot guarantee the integrity of the territory of Ukraine – and that, at any moment, new turmoil might break out both in Ukraine and in the Donbas, still constitutes a continuation of the “good cop/bad cop” approach used by Russia.
However, the successful implementation of an anti-Russian strategy in its most radical expression can lead Europe to a dead end from which there is no escape except full-scale war. The continuation of pressure put on Russia by the sanctions will provoke a further escalation of the anti-Western sentiments so dominant in Russian society. Moreover, it will completely destroy the economy, and in so doing, it would threaten political stability in such a way that Putin, just out of a self-preservation instinct, could resort to using all means of power at his disposal.
The intrigue of the Milan summit, apparently, will be to what extent Putin can convince his fellow participants that a de-escalation in the degree of confrontation is in everyone’s interest.
Based on the ideas expressed by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko in a televised address to the people of Ukraine on Oct. 12, he also called for a sustainable truce, in hopes of creating favorable conditions for a future political settlement.
Such unity between Putin and Poroshenko in their short-term expectations creates a positive basis for optimism about the outcome of their negotiations in Milan. European summit participants, with the exception of the above-mentioned radical “Russophobes,” do not seem to have any intention to act as spoilers.
The so-called “Norman format” of communication between the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany might offer opportunities for constructive dialogue, given the fact that the U.S. – traditionally accused by the Kremlin of being somehow responsible for the Ukrainian conflict – does not have a seat at ASEM.

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