Is Putin going all the way in Ukraine?

Ukraine stands on the precipice of war as pressure mounts on Putin, seen as ‘saviour’ of the Eastern Slavic world.

Policemen stand guard outside the burned trade union building in the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa [AFP]

On May 4, in New York, a panel was held at the PEN International Literature Festival, devoted to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Central European revolutions of 1989. Although originally the panel – which consisted of prominent intellectuals from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic – intended to take stock of the lofty lessons of the democratic “velvet” revolutions, the agenda quickly devolved into an angst-ridden colloquium about the tinderbox that is Ukraine these days.

If there was any consensus reached during the discussion, it proceeded along the following lines: 1) The master in the Kremlin may go all the way in his Ukrainian adventure and there is little stopping him; and 2) Ukraine is a crucial battleground for Vladimir Putin’s emerging new doctrine and a decisive test of the western resolve. To the last point, I would add that Putin’s emerging “New Russia” doctrine serves one paramount goal: his own and his regime’s survival.

As the date of Ukraine’s presidential election, scheduled for May 25, approaches, cities and towns in eastern Ukraine and now Odessa continue to fall victim to the secessionist hysteria, with armed balaclava-wearing men in turn vandalising and occupying office buildings and setting upon anyone who dares disagree. Their demands range from a referendum on the independent status for the region to an outright annexation by Russia, based on the Crimea model.

It is thus becoming clear that Putin is growing anxious that his operation in Ukraine may be losing steam as the government in Kiev steps up its anti-terrorist operations in the east, with some success. As the May 25 election approaches, the window of opportunity for Putin to justify an invasion of Eastern Ukraine is closing.

The rabble-rousers’ identities are apparently mixed – for example, many of them are local veteransof the Soviet war in Afghanistan while others, though mostly citizens of Ukraine, have an enduring nostalgia for the Soviet Union and may see in Putin the saviour of the Eastern Slavic, Eastern Orthodox world against the “onslaught of the decadent, fascist” West.

Daring tactics

Despite this demography and thanks to the capture of many rebels bearing Russian passports in Odessa and elsewhere, it has become undeniable that their actions are inspired and coordinated from Moscow – whether directly from the Kremlin, or through its now captive acolytes – former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich and his son Aleksandr. The rebels and their masters are resorting to increasingly daring tactics, with the reported downing of a Ukrainian army helicopter in Slovyansk and the apparent collusion of the police with the pro-Russian thugs in Odessa on Friday, which led to dozens of deaths after an administrative building was set on fire.

TV stations are being stormed to take Ukrainian channels off the air in favour of Russian state propaganda. The latter then dutifully files its “reports from Ukraine’s battlefields”, turning every single instance of blood spilled into a crime against humanity committed by Kiev’s “junta”. This is done in order to question its ability to hold a legitimate presidential election on May 25 and to continue the drumbeat of the threatened military intervention.

How ironic and indicative of the Kremlin’s crude machinations is this spin, considering that it stayed completely silent when former President Yanukovich’s storm troops and snipers were killing protesters on the Maidan by the dozen.

It is thus becoming clear that Putin is growing anxious that his operation in Ukraine may be losing steam as the government in Kiev steps up its anti-terrorist operations in the east. As the May 25 election approaches, the window of opportunity for Putin to justify an invasion of Eastern Ukraine is closing: It will carry too high a political cost to justify invading a country with an elected president as opposed to the current “junta” in Kiev.

And if a few weeks ago a sober analysis of Putin’s motives may have precluded an invasion of eastern Ukraine as being too politically and economically costly for Putin, now that cold-headed calculus may have to be revised. Having woken up the beast of Russian nationalism and jingoism, for Putin the Tsar and Liberator of Historically Russian Lands to back down now, seemingly in the face of limited Western sanctions, would be seen as ultimate weakness. One only has to look at the readers’ comments under a random Ukraine-related article in state-sponsored press, such as the Soviet-era Izvestiya or Pravda, to see the kind of popular pressure Putin has placed himself under:

“Putin is a coward. Where is the army? Donetsk is up in flames and we are still idling by the border? What is this lice-ridden russophobe waiting for?” 

“Were Putin to give up on Ukraine he would be the ultimate traitor to all Russians. Ukraine will be folded into NATO and will be used as a bulwark against Russia.”

“All of the blood spilled in Ukraine is Putin’s responsibility, for as long as he refuses to act and to teach those ornery Ukrainian fascists a lesson.”

This sort of rhetoric is common currency today in Russia.  

Containing henchmen and sympathisers

A major trial for the government in Kiev is looming on May 9, the day which celebrates the Soviet victory against Nazi Germany, when the Kremlin is expected to be planning spectacular pro-Russian “fireworks” throughout Ukraine’s Russian-speaking areas.

If the government is able to prevent a major conflagration and if in the days that follow Kremlin henchmen and sympathisers in Donetsk, Luhansk or Odessa are contained as a result of Kiev’s stepped-up anti-terrorist action, Putin may feel it a matter of his own survival to intervene. For then there will not be anyone left to push for the referendum leading to Ukraine’s federalisation, as according to all reputable polls, 70 percent of respondents in eastern Ukraine are against the country’s division. Ukraine will have chosen its president; its army and security services will have honed their skills in dealing with the separatists; IMF funds will have started flowing to shore up the economy, and the Ukrainian state will have become much more viable, free to revisit the trade agreement with the EU.

Ukraine will then reemerge on the path towards the West through adoption of EU’s economic and political norms, which is what it sought to achieve when its citizens gathered in the hundreds of thousands on the Maidan square: a model antithetical to Putin’s “sovereign democracy” and a potential threat to his survival. Were that allowed to happen, “the train will have left the station”, as an old Russian saying goes.

Putin might then consider the cost of this scenario to himself and his coterie to be greater than the cost of the broken economy he would inherit in eastern Ukraine and even the inevitably harsh subsequent sanctions from the West.

And so, we continue to stand on the precipice of war in Ukraine and may be inching closer. But does an internal conflict in Ukraine, with or without Russia’s military incursion, portend a World War III, as even cool heads are now asking? As Adam Michnik, the great Polish intellectual and leader of the 1980 Solidarity movement, asked rhetorically at the aforementioned panel: “Will a European or an American want to go to war to defend Estonia or Latvia, both of them members of NATO and the EU, if Putin invades them ‘to protect the large ethnic Russian minorities’ there?”

The audience responded with a resounding silence.

“Much less would it be willing to engage in any military action over the non-NATO, non-EU Ukraine,” concluded the speaker. And that’s why Putin is acting so recklessly in Ukraine: Because he can and because he thinks that he cannot afford not to.

Peter Zalmayev is director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative (EDI), an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of democracy and rule of law in post-Communist transitional societies of Eastern and Central Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.