Is Putin on the move again, planning to take additional slices off of Ukraine?
The news seems to think so. The take-over of government buildings in three cities in Eastern Ukraine has commentators all a-flutter about Putin’s plans and continuing the “Crimean gambit” in other regions.
I hope that is wrong, and I think there are reasons to believe the fears are exaggerated. First, the threat of even stronger sanctions is real. Russia’s economy is not strong, and further capital flight and uncertainty could do it real harm. The Russian stock market dropped another three percent on the news of the pro-Russian urban rebel actions. I do not think Putin would risk damaging the entire Russian economy to gain a few more chunks of Ukraine — that is a very bad trade.
Again, I think it is important to understand why Crimea was different. If Ukraine goes its own way, it is likely to eventually join NATO, as did the Baltic countries. And NATO rules prevent any foreign military bases or installations in NATO member countries. So Russia was looking at the risk of losing its entire military presence in Crimea, including the critical Sevastopol naval base and other bases with tens of thousands of troops. It had to act to protect that capacity, almost regardless of the political costs. There is no such urgency to recover other parts of Ukraine.
Second, the situation in Eastern Ukraine is very different from Crimea on the ground. In Crimea, except for the Tartar minority, most people felt part of Russia and supported a re-unification. In eastern Ukraine, much of the urban population may be pro-Russian, but not all of it, and even less of the rural population longs to be part of Russia. Most critically, Ukraine’s oligarchs, whose wealth is concentrated in the East, do not want to be under Putin’s sway. In the Ukraine, the oligarchs have a strong hand and are relatively secure. In Russia, the oligarchs keep their positions and money at Putin’s pleasure. Those who oppose him politically are driven into exile or jail; only supporters and friends are allowed to keep their exalted status and wealth. That is not a situation that the Ukrainian oligarchs envy. They are therefore using their influence to try to prevent dismemberment of Ukraine.
Third, the Ukrainian government in Kiev is likely to fight to retain its eastern regions. If Russian troops enter Ukraine from outside — something they did not have to do in Crimea — they will have to fight against Ukrainian forces. They may win, but the damage an armed battle to take over foreign territory will do to Russia’s image and economy will be far greater than the cost of its ‘stealth’ take-over of Crimea.
So who is behind the urban uprisings of pro-Russian armed groups in eastern Ukraine? How could this happen unless Putin was orchestrating it?
In fact, it is a mistake to think that everything that happens on every day in every area is a direct result of orders from Putin. Like any good absolute ruler, Putin has packed his government and military with people who are enthusiastic loyalists, anxious to demonstrate how far they will go to please and serve their master. Often these subordinates carry on, doing what they think their master desires, but often going further than he might wish.
When I was in Russia last year, I often saw sudden and surprising actions and reversals in local government decisions, in the courts, and in national policies. Sometimes these made international news, as with the Moscow mayoral race in which the main opposition candidate, Alexei Navalny, was first arrested, then released, then hauled back and convicted and sentenced, and then again released and allowed to run for office, but then again arrested. But there were many other similar cases that only surfaced in local news.
What apparently happened in many of these cases is that local officials wanted to show their zeal in supporting what they believed was Putin’s policy, but went too far; then their actions had to be reigned back.
What I think happened this week in Ukraine was something similar. Local pro-Russian groups in Ukraine probably reached out to Russian officials or military officers they knew and told them they wanted to follow the path of Crimea. Some of these Russian officials or officers, thinking that Putin would be pleased with their following the path that he laid out just a few weeks ago, gave their tacit support and perhaps even sent arms or men to help. The result is that small armed groups were able to take over a few government buildings in eastern cities.
But it is vital to note that these actions were not followed my massive outpourings of popular support for Russification, as happened in Crimea. No crowds of tens or hundreds of thousands came out to support and protect them. Rather, these seem to be small bands of provocateurs, with a few thousand supporters, hoping to draw Ukrainian forces into using force against them to then justify requests for Russia to intervene to protect them.
At this point, Russia is maintaining it does not want to intervene or invade, but is begging Ukraine NOT to use force, saying that might precipitate civil war and lead to Russian action to protect Russian-speakers.
Is that all disingenuous and hypocritical? I actually do not think so. Rather, I think Putin really wants to avoid being drawn into an armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. Of course, if Ukraine did use force to clear the protestors and ending up killing significant numbers of pro-Russian activists, Putin would likely feel compelled to act. After the rhetoric of the last few weeks, he would look weak and not credible if he stood idly by while Ukrainian forces killed dozens of Russian-speaking protestors or activists in eastern Ukraine.
So if Putin does not want to risk the costs of an invasion of eastern Ukraine, then he would not want to be forced into such a move by clashes between Ukrainian authorities and pro-Russia rebels. In that case, his warnings about the need to avoid use of force and civil war would be genuine.
We will find out for sure what is in Putin’s mind fairly shortly. If over the next week, the pro-Russian protestors are reinforced, hold the government buildings, and have Russia back their demands for rapid referendums for independence, then I am wrong, and Putin will be seen to be actively seeking to break up the Ukraine. However, if what we see is the government buildings being isolated and surrounded by Ukrainian forces, with Russia continuing to insist on no civil war and simply insisting on a federal constitution (its current demands), then we are not likely to see an invasion, as Putin will have calculated that this is too costly and urged his supporters to back away from further aggression.