So, Putin and Poroshenko met in Milan today, under European auspices, and achieved, as best we can tell, nothing: no progress on a workable peace plan, no gas deal, no roadmap to stability.
The conventional wisdom is that stalemate – or, more accurately, the simple lack of progress – represents a loss for Poroshenko and a win for Putin. And the conventional wisdom is correct, but for the wrong reason.
The conventional story is that Putin is happy with the status quo, while Poroshenko is unhappy. And that’s probably true. But that’s not the reason why Putin ‘won’ in Milan, because it misses the point: any resolution, regardless of what it entailed, would have been a loss for Russia.
For Putin’s Russian foreign policy, a successful negotiation is one that never ends. Without strong conventional levers of global power – without the ability effectively to project force, to make credible threats on a global scale, or to trade in influence – Putin seeks to maximize the benefit that can be extracted from each and every negotiation. And the longer he can keep his interlocutors at the table, the more issue linkages he can establish and, thus, the more he can achieve.
For Putin, then, the purpose of an international negotiation is the process itself, and the opportunities it provides to pursue interests that have nothing to do with the problem at the heart of the negotiations. The problem for Putin’s global interlocutors, then, is not just that Putin may not be interested in resolving the question at hand. The problem is that Putin is, by and large, interested in not resolving the question at hand. Conflict is the source of Russia’s international power (limited as it is), and so conflict must be continually manufactured, manipulated and prolonged. As soon as a conflict is resolved, the negotiations end and Russia’s leverage evaporates. And where’s the fun in that?