By Paolo von Schirach
March 3, 2014
WASHINGTON – The official Russian description of what is happening in the Ukraine is both interesting and frightening. It shows how, even in this hyper-connected world of instant communication and real-time, eye-witness news from the field, old-fashioned manipulation and propaganda still work quite well, at least for a while.
Russian media accounts
According to Russian media, the Ukraine has been illegally taken over by violent ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists. After staging a bloody coup, they have forced President Viktor Yanukovych, the constitutionally elected leader, to flee the country. The same rabid nationalists and neo-fascists now pose a real threat against the sizable Russian and Russian speaking community within the Ukraine.
It is therefore Moscow’s supreme duty to prevent violent actions against its brethren by intervening militarily in order to avoid violence (and possibly genocide?) against fellow Russians. Hence the decision to support local forces in the take over of the Crimea, leaving open the possibility of Russian actions in Eastern Ukraine, the region where most ethnic Russians live.
The premise is untrue
All this would make some sense if the premise –Russian minority about to be crushed, Bosnia style– were even remotely true. The fact is that the Russian sizable minority in the Ukraine was not and is not under any real threat.
True enough, among those who fought against Yanukovych in Kiev and elsewhere there are Ukrainian ultra-nationalists, and these groups are now in some fashion part of the provisional government in Kiev. But to say that neo-fascist and assorted anti-Russian nationalists are now in control in Kiev is a complete fabrication. And yet it is on the basis of this incredible fabrication that Putin has justified Moscow’s (humanitarian?) intervention.
Spontaneous anti-Kiev resistance?
The Russian media would also like you to believe that the Kiev coup and the accompanying threat to the welfare of the Russians in Eastern and Southern Ukraine triggered a popular anti-Kiev resistance movement that sees Moscow as its natural ally. Russian media show massive pro-Russia demonstrations in Eastern Ukraine and Ukrainian military commanders in the Crimea pronouncing oaths of allegiance to the newly created autonomous regional government. The truth is that the Russians transported by bus the “demonstrators” from Russia into Eastern Ukraine, while the swearing-in ceremonies in the Crimea are taking place after Russian troops, (without insignia on their uniforms), have taken over the peninsula.
What the Russian media would like you to believe is that Moscow is simply supporting a spontaneous, popular anti-Kiev movement, all the more justified by the fact that the provisional Kiev government is illegal, as it came into power via a coup.
Why did Putin did all this?
This being the after the fact justification offered for public consumption, why on earth did Putin do all this? In a reasonable world, this military action that creates a major crisis in Europe is incomprehensible because it is totally unnecessary. Does Putin really believe that the new (weak and poor) government in Kiev is about to launch violent anti-Russian, ethnic cleansing actions? This is preposterous.
Of course there can be cases of clashes between Ukrainians and ethnic Russians. But the notion that this is already happening in a systematic fashion, on a massive scale, and that this repression is part of a major plot ordered by the new Kiev government to crush the Russian minority is ridiculous. There is nothing to support this contention.
And so why did Putin get himself into this mess?
I believe that the main reason is a rather frivolous one: hurt pride. Putin has been taken by surprise by the anti-Yanukovych insurrection in Kiev. He really thought that he had brilliantly re-established Russian hegemony over the Ukraine with promises of cheap loans to Viktor Yanukovych, so that he would abandon any plans for a closer association with the European Union.
But the strategy backfired –completely. The Ukrainians correctly saw what was behind Moscow’s offer of financial help, and they staged riots that morphed into a real insurrection against a pro-Moscow regime run by a gangster.
As a result, Putin lost the whole thing.
Worse yet, he has been publicly humiliated.
And for a bully this is intolerable. Therefore he had to do “something”. And so he went for the easy, soft target: the Crimea; at the same time declaring the intention to take action against the entire Ukraine.
Putin counted on Western passivity
And what about international reactions? As any seasoned bully, Putin made his calculations. NATO is now essentially unarmed. The Europeans cannot even think of any military actions against Russia, let alone stage one. the US under Obama is in full retreat. America has only few troops left in Europe and no military assets close to the region.
Given all this, is America going to go to war with Russia over the Ukraine, even though the Ukraine is a much bigger deal than the pieces of Georgia Putin took back in 2008, (by the way paying no price whatsoever for that small yet flagrant aggression)? No way. And so Putin figured that he could get away with his “soft-aggression”.
End game: Putin gets to keep the Crimea
I suspect that Putin’s end game is to take de facto control over the Crimean peninsula.This will be his consolation prize. As things calm down, he will give up any claims against Eastern Ukraine in exchange for total “autonomy” of the Crimea, with an official Russian role as the guarantor of the new arrangement. The Crimea will formally remain part of the Ukraine; but the whole world will know that Russia is in control.
With this prize in hand Putin will get back at least some of his lost prestige.
The West is of course willing to agree on any face-saving solution that will bring this unpleasant crisis to a quick end. And any agreement that does not formally create a partition of the Ukraine is probably fine. I suspect that this is what is going to happen.
Tough on Russia?
Of course, there is another possible scenario. A tough and united West will impose really painful sanctions against Russia, causing real and lasting economic pain, especially to the Russian oligarchs with their super expensive mansions in Mayfair, villas in Italy and Spain and all their cash parked in London. They are Putin’s allies, and an easy target .
This course of action would be most desirable; but it is predicated on a degree of unity and toughness that does not exist in Europe. As for America, even assuming the will, (and this is a stretch), it is impossible to achieve anything really meaningful by acting alone against Russia. In any event, leaving aside a few hawks in the Republican Party, I do not read any popular sentiment in favor of a protracted, tough anti-Russian stand.
Sadly, Putin, the neighborhood bully, will get much of what he wants, even though his actions are motivated only by the desire to shore up his battered prestige at home. US Secretary of State John Kerry correctly stated that Putin’s actions and preposterous justifications belong to old-fashioned 19th Century politics. It is absurd –added Kerry– that he tries to get away with this. I agree.
Well, it is indeed strange that the head of state of a supposedly modern country would be willing to burn relationships and ties with his international partners simply because his pride has been hurt. But it is so. Putin lives in his own, rather primitive, world.
That said, it should be up to the more civilized, law-abiding states to punish his behavior and reaffirm the rules of good conduct.
But if the civilized, law-abiding countries do not have the stomach to fight the bully, the bully wins.