Putin strikes again

Putin strikes again

Russia is effectively calling the shots in Ukraine’s east, even if it doesn’t formally rule it

Maxim Shipenkov/Reuters

Maxim Shipenkov/Reuters

It is a sign of just how thoroughly Russian President Vladimir Putin has run roughshod over Ukraine and all its allies—including the European Union, the United States and Canada—that among the better outcomes envisioned in Western capitals is that Russia’s assault on the country stops with only Crimea lost and power in the rest of the country decentralized to the point that Russia effectively calls the shots in Ukraine’s east, even if it doesn’t formally rule it.

Worst-case scenarios are quite a bit bleaker, and include the prospects of a large-scale Russian invasion, civil war, the further dismemberment of Ukraine and unending unrest in the east that destabilizes the entire country.

Russia’s unofficial invasion of Ukraine began in late February, only days after a pro-European protest movement centred in Kyiv succeeded in toppling the pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. Russian soldiers based in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula—where Russia has bases and was permitted to dock its Black Sea naval fleet—took over key political and transportation infrastructure in co-operation with local pro-Russian militias. Soon they had control over the entire peninsula and, following a lightning-quick referendum that was boycotted by anyone who didn’t want Crimea to join Russia, annexed the place.

The Russian soldiers wore no identifying insignia and, for weeks, everyone in the Russian government, from the defence and foreign ministers to Putin himself, swore there were no Russian troops involved in the assault. “Complete nonsense,” Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu scoffed, despite copious evidence to the contrary—including military vehicles with Russian plates, and video footage of Russian soldiers identifying themselves as Russian soldiers.

Then, in a televised question-and-answer session last week, Putin effectively admitted that he was lying all along, and that Russian troops had in fact been in Crimea to ensure that the referendum could take place in an “open, honest and honourable way.”

Now a similar situation is unfolding elsewhere in Ukraine. Armed men have taken over buildings and erected roadblocks in cities and towns across the southeastern part of the country, which borders Russia and includes many residents who are ethnic Russians. The militants fly Russian flags and demand a referendum that would allow their region to join with Russia. Some have already declared it an independent “people’s republic.”

As was the case during Russia’s annexation of Crimea, among local pro-Russian activists are armed men wearing identical uniforms without identifying marks who move with skill and co-operation and carry top-grade weapons and gear. The Kremlin strenuously denies they are Russian soldiers. “It’s all nonsense. There are no Russian units, special forces or instructors in the east of Ukraine,” Putin said during that same question-and-answer session.

Many in the West disagree. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has blamed “Russian provocateurs” for the unrest. Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, described the attacks as a military operation directed by Russia. Now Ukrainian diplomats have produced photos that appear to show men who posed in a Russian reconnaissance unit group photo operating in different cities in eastern Ukraine. Other photos appear to show a Russian special forces soldier in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine this year. Another set of shots captures what looks like the same armed man in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine.

America, Canada and the European Union have already imposed targeted sanctions against some Russian and Crimean officials and banks. And America has repeatedly warned Russia of additional costs if it doesn’t pull troops back from the Ukrainian border, or if it moves forces into eastern Ukraine. Last week, America, Russia, Ukraine and the EU signed an accord in Geneva meant to dampen the crisis in eastern Ukraine, in part by calling on illegal armed groups to stand down.

And yet, as evidence accumulates that Russia has already sent at least some troops across the border, and that members of those illegal armed groups include its own soldiers, those threatened costs seem ones that Russia is almost nonchalant about facing. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told parliamentarians that Russia could handle any new sanctions imposed on it.

The West, in contrast, is scrambling to appear resolute and strategically competent, even as Russia continues to intensify the crisis. “After long years of responding to Western policies, Putin is now creating facts on the ground,” says Maria Lipman, an analyst at the Moscow Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He is in the acting gear and, suddenly, Europe and the United States are in the responsive gear, which is something we’ve never had before.”

The most immediate and severe consequences of Russia’s new confident aggression will be felt in Ukraine—though exactly what those consequences will be is still unclear. With the exception of Crimea, Russia’s ultimate goals in Ukraine may not be territory, but control.

Moscow felt threatened by the new government in Ukraine that emerged following the anti-Yanukovych revolution. It is a firmly pro-European administration that Putin and his Kremlin colleagues feared would integrate the country into the West’s political orbit, perhaps one day joining NATO or the European Union. Russia considers Ukraine a cultural cousin and a vital component of the sphere of influence it wants to maintain in Eastern Europe. The possibility of Ukraine reorientating its politics westward was “unacceptable” to Putin, says Lipman, and he was prepared to prevent such an outcome “at any cost.”

Putin, however, would prefer to keep those costs low. An outright invasion, says Lipman, would lead to war, and possibly a continuous guerrilla campaign by anti-Russian Ukrainians. Occupying eastern Ukraine would also be expensive, she adds, noting that it is economically depressed and its mining industry has not been modernized. Such a brazen act would also likely force the West to invoke broader and deeper sanctions.

But Russia has other options. “Why would you [go to war] when you feel you can win the battle by other means?” asks John Lough, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London. “So you destabilize those regions of Ukraine closest to Russia, ensure there are forces to press hard for political reforms and for representation and, amid this reformatting of Ukraine, those Russian proxies can take on increasing importance.”

Mark N. Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University, likens the outcome sought by Russia in Ukraine to that of Bosnia, a politically divided country with a component part—the Republika Srpska—that maintains close ties to Serbia.

A similarly decentralized Ukraine would preserve Russian influence in the eastern part of the country without Moscow assuming the burden of occupying it. Such a scenario would also prevent the division of Ukraine, which would likely result in the part of the country that isn’t absorbed by Russia wholeheartedly embracing the West.

This strategy is not without risks. “The danger is that this destabilization game that they’re playing will get out of hand,” says Lough. That line may already have been crossed. On Tuesday, Ukraine’s interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, announced the relaunch of military operations against pro-Russian militants after two men, one a local politician, were found tortured to death. Volodymyr Rybak had been kidnapped by unidentified men before his body was found near rebel-held Slavyansk.

Clashes had already led to a small number of deaths. But a sustained military operation would make the prospect of a much higher death toll more likely. Were that to happen, Russia might find itself trapped by its own rhetoric and forced to send large numbers of troops (likely dubbed “peacekeepers”) into eastern Ukraine. Putin has pledged to protect Russians outside the country, something he claims to have done in Crimea. “If you save one set of Russians in Crimea, why wouldn’t you in eastern Ukraine?” asks Katz.

Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has also changed its own domestic politics, and the way Russia interacts with the West. Barely two years ago, Russians opposed to Putin staged some of the biggest protests in the country since the 1990s. Putin easily won the 2012 presidential election, but, even so, Lipman says, a “Putin fatigue” was steadily growing among the Russian population.

“Now there is a very powerful upsurge in approval and popularity for Putin,” she says. “There is a sense of patriotic euphoria over Crimea, which Russian liberals are watching with alarm. This is a militant, patriotic—I would say jingoistic—euphoria that is shared by the vast majority of Russians. The nation has consolidated around Putin. His legitimacy is back.”

Lipman expects that Putin will take advantage of his popularity to renew a crackdown on dissent. Indeed, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been under house arrest since March, and on Tuesday was convicted of libel.

Russia’s relationship with Europe, the U.S. and Canada is now more openly antagonistic than it has been at any time since the Cold War. According to Lough, Western leaders have been slow to realize the gravity of this shift. “We’ve got used to this idea that Russia is a rather truculent partner,” he says, one that is embittered by the breakup of the Soviet Union, but not overtly hostile to the West and, in any case, not prepared to do much about it. “But now they’re acting on these impulses and grievances, and that creates an entirely new picture, and I just don’t think we’re very well-equipped at the moment to deal with it. This frostiness in relations with Russia—what does it mean for the broader international picture? What about Syria? What about Iran? What about other problems that we wanted to believe that Russian can be a partner on?”

There was still a veneer of co-operation over Ukraine last week, as evidenced by the negotiations in Geneva. That’s probably over now, and the deal that was signed had no effect on the ground anyway. It’s plausible that Russia simply went through the motions of negotiating to avoid further sanctions and to buy its proxies in eastern Ukraine time to consolidate control.

And yet, the non-diplomatic tactics that might be employed in an effort to end this standoff don’t offer much hope, either. Kyiv’s initial attempt to send its army against armed separatists earlier this month ended in failure when Ukrainian troops were disarmed and sent home by the pro-Russian militants they were dispatched to confront.

According to Angela Stent, a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University, Kyiv’s best course of action, and one with which its Western allies can help, is to build up the Ukrainian economy, to bring development and jobs to the east in order to bind residents there to the Ukrainian state.

But this is a long-term strategy. In the meantime, men with guns waving Russian flags are still barricaded inside buildings throughout eastern Ukraine. Vladimir Putin had a hand in installing them. Were he so inclined, he could likely get them to leave. But why would he, when things are going so well for him?