If Russia were to attack with armed forces, it will condemn itself to insulation and economic disaster. As I know from Russian journalists, their inner sources report that a Security Council meeting took place in Moscow on 28 April, where Vladimir Putin was undecided on the use of military forces and Minister of Defence Sergey Shoygu, with reference to analysis of general staff, was flatly opposed to Ukraine's attack scenario, reiterating that such a war would be disastrous for Russia. Recall that in 1979 the USSR Armed Forces General Staff was also against the invasion of Afghanistan, however the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union decided otherwise and we know how that ended. This time, Putin has taken into consideration his military’s opinion.
At first, he asked the permission of the Federation Council to use the military forces in Ukraine, however, afterwards Putin has demonstrated his supposed peacefulness by asking to withdraw this permission. This may have been well received in world public opinion, but not with those who understand Russian relations.
After attacking Georgia in 2008 and having received no negative consequences, Russia felt empowered to satisfy its wishes by using force. In 2009 the Federation Council granted President Dmitry Medvedev the authority to use military forces abroad at will. Nobody asked to withdraw this authority, so it was valid during the annexation of Crimea and is still valid now. Putin reiterated himself as a decisive decision-maker.
People reacted to this 'historic justice' as expected. Putin's ratings increased almost by 30 percent. To maintain it, he needs light intoxicating victories, like in Crimea. The military says there will be no such victories.
A sad prospect to cut no ice
If Russia stops its brutal interference in eastern Ukraine, Putin will be threatened by troubles at home. Those favourable 30 percent, which is millions of inhabitants, will go from admirers to despisers. The public’s mood is determined by the balance of success and loss. If poverty is offset by the hope for success, there will be no riots. When promised success does not arrive, disappointment is deflected back at the promise giver. Minister of Finance Anton Siluanov has already announced to pensioners that the money, intended for pension funds, will go to the Crimean project.
I have heard stories from a well connected Muscovite that Putin was shocked by the mobile phone video footage where deposed leader of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, was abused and beaten to death by rebels. Therefore, Putin sees Ukraine's European path as a threat to his personal security, which can spread like a virus to Russia's territory.
It cannot be said he is wrong. A powerful brainwashing campaign, with the goal to convince that Ukrainians are fascists, is trying to reduce the impact of Ukraine's changes. This word in Russian encapsulates all possible evil. To fight against them is a patriotic Russian's Holy duty.
Typically, the foreign policy of a country is a follow-up of its domestic policy. In Russia, things are the opposite at the moment. Its domestic policy prohibits referendums, self-determination of nations can be taken by force, provides for penalties against those who incite secession, government power is concentrated in one hand. Meanwhile, in its foreign policy, dubious referendums and federalization are encouraged, territories are occupied. President Putin talks to Petro Poroshenko, meanwhile his adviser Sergey Glazyev calls Ukraine's president a fascist.
The position towards Ukraine contradicts Russian domestic provisions and eventually will affect the mood of people, because people like to think in terms of comparison. Here are several comparisons: do the Siberian inhabitants of Chinese origin, whose numbers are already in the hundreds of thousands, have the right to return to mother China's embrace along with all the lands, especially those that belonged to China until the middle of 19th century? After all, Crimea has been afforded this right. Do the northern Caucasus have the right of self-determination ? Does Tatarstan have the right to its petroleum resources?
Friends who have no place
Putin maintains peace in Chechnya via uncontrolled subsidies to Ramzan Kadyrov's regime and for indulgences of his clan, even for criminal rampages in Moscow. Putin follows the motto "we do not betray our own", which originated from prisons. This is not the code of a soldier, but solidarity amongst criminals. His whole pyramid is based on this principle. As long as you are an insider, you do not have to follow any laws. In responding to the invitation to stand against the “Kiev junta”, they became insiders and felt part of a protected zone.
What disappointment they must feel given that Russian army-liberators have not come! They stop acting under their intended role and withdraw from Sloviansk. A Kremlin messenger urgently arrives and lectures them that they had to die fighting for Sloviansk. One of the separatist leaders punches the messenger in the mouth.
Those people have been walking armed for a few months, fired shots and feel powerful. An awareness is brewing in their criminalized ranks that, as they say in their own slang, they were "spilled" (in Russian "slili"), which means they were betrayed, left alone. Putin's dissociation from them would mean he betrays his key principle – "we do not betray our own".
What does it mean to let them enter Russia though? There is enough space to rob the rich, punish bribe-takers, distribute the money from seized banks. In other words, the horde of robbers in Russia that smelled gunpowder is the embryo of Russian rebellion. Terrorists have already proven they can disobey orders from Moscow. So far their faith is maintained by the military equipment coming from Russia, however this proof of military assistance is seen by Western countries as evidence in support of sanctions against Russia. Zugzwang again.
There don’t appear to be any easy moves for Putin. Policy towards Ukraine collapsed, no goals have been achieved, except the Sevastopol base. Neighbours are intimidated, Eurasian project is collapsing before it starts, NATO has moved from partner to enemy, the circle of the closest friends were damaged by Western sanctions, capital in a declining economy is going out from Russia instead of coming in.
Most people have lived with Putin, and his measured dictatorship, because it was like a guarantee of stability after the years of upheaval. By attacking Ukraine, Putin has damaged this stability. He put the whole system that held him on top out of order. The new foundations cannot be build because the idea of a "Russian world" is bad fiction. It is so dangerous globally that nobody would allow it to develop. We can already see where the parallel idea of an "Islamic state" is leading to, when the war in Syria is expanding to Iraq.
When Putin won the presidential election in March 2000 as a conqueror of Chechnya and order's keeper, in August the atomic submarine "Kursk" sank along with its whole crew. Order's keeper withdrew and kept silent for three days. Only later he appeared in public with disjointed statements. He has not been able to ask for help, because for him as a winner, it seemed too low to ask for something from the West. The crew drowned.
Now, in zugzwang, he behaves the same way. Keeps silent. To fill in the pause, he goes to South America. Quite a strange tour when there is a conflict in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border. However, this is a very smart move if all the options of events are weighed. Putin does not want to face the destiny of Gaddafi or former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who was sentenced to prison.
White sand, blue lagoons
Not so many friends are left in the world. Who would want to tangle with the new Russia over the former one? Italians would also give way. Hugo Chavez would have shelter in Venezuela, but he died, and his former driver, who became the president, is facing serious opposition.
Cuba is something different. Brothers Castro, although of age, are ideologues. Principles are very well reinforced. Cuba is in poverty, its economy is not functioning and it is deeply indebted. As Putin came to Havana, he wiped off 31.7 billion dollars of debt. The remaining 3.5 billion, Cuba must pay over 10 years. An incredible generosity, when Russian economy is stalled and resources for development are taken from the welfare fund, which, according to Russia's financiers, should be used only for stabilization in the face of crisis. However, if for those 30 billion Putin can buy a backup and spend his retirement near the ocean, his hands probably weren't shaking. Furthermore, the money is not his, but the state's. He took care of the state in his own way.
In 2000 U.S. Congress denied the restructure of Russian debt until the Russian radio-electronic intelligence centre at Lourdes Cuba was closed. Russia closed the centre in 2001 and the debt was restructured. Now Putin has signed an agreement to re-open the centre. Yet another example of Russia’s commitments. However, in the KGB agent Putin's eyes, he has achieved a very important victory for Russia, which provides a great chance that if the worst version happens, Russia will not bother the Cuban refugee who helped to restore an ear under the windows of America.
So, in zugzwang there is still one last move – to escape by choosing the right door.