Speculation abounds as to whether Putin will plunge on from his Crimean putsch to raise Russian flags in Ukraine’s east. The stage is set if he so elects. The military forces are either in place or gathering.
Russian nationalists have deposed local leaders in key Eastern Ukrainian cities, where there are strong Russian minorities, some of their representatives apparently activists in long-standing Russian nationalist organisations and others bussed over the border from Russia or making their own way out of nationalist zeal.
The Russian Federation’s propaganda machine has been depicting the forces that deposed Yanukovitch as anti-Semites and fascists. Undoubtedly there have been some unsavory elements in the motley crew that led the struggle on Maidan Square. But everything suggests that such elements were in a minority. And this in no way justifies the hysteria being propagating by the pro-government Russian media about existential threats to the Russian-speaking population of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.
Putin has, moreover, several non-military pressure points he can apply. Ukraine is reliant on Russian gas supplies. Ukraine – and especially its eastern parts – is dependent on Russian markets to sell its industrial goods. Putin can also render difficult the lives of Ukrainian agricultural exporters as he has done on various occasions in the past by declaring their produce unsafe. In the same vein, there are tens of thousands of Ukrainians who go to work in the more prosperous Russian economy, whose work permits can at the stroke of a pen can be rescinded, ending life-supporting remittances to Ukrainian families.
Putin has also received a mandate from his Potemkin parliament to protect Russians not just in Crimea but in Ukraine at large.
And the West –to the extent that there is still one –is divided on how to proceed. The US and Canada seemingly want to play hard ball and negotiate; the EU apparently wants to just negotiate. This will not have been lost on President Putin.
Anyone who has ever spent any significant time in Ukraine knows that the tirades being emitted from Moscow and the self-appointed new leaders of Crimea in an effort to discredit the Maidan activists and the interim government in Kiev are nonsense.
Ukrainians are much more bilingual than Canadians and are just or more tolerant of those whose first language is not their own. Anecdotally, I can recount that I have been twice to Lugansk for conferences, a Russian-speaking city within a rock’s throw of the border of the Russian Federation. These events brought together academics from across Ukraine. Participants spoke their own language and those whose main language was another one listened respectfully. There was no need for interpretation. I should also recount a story recently featured in the Economist, which described how communities in the mainly-Ukrainian speaking West and those in the largely Russian speaking East have decided to speak their second-language every second day as an expression of their linguistic solidarity with their fellow Ukrainians.
That said, the situation does not look good for those who wish Ukraine well.
Putin is on a roll.
He outfoxed Obama on Syria.
He scored a coup in granting asylum to the American whistleblower Edward Snowdon.
In the lead-up to the Olympics, he had people talking about the clemency he had afforded Khodorkhovsky, Pussy Riot and the Greenpeace Thirty, not the systemic abuse of political and human rights that has occurred under his lengthy tenure.
Forbes magazine has named Putin their Man of the Year for 2013
And he has surely stopped Ukraine’s gravitation towards the European Union and the West, at least for now.
Where do we go from here? We should have no illusions about how Putin wants to deal with what he is on record as calling the twentieth century’s greatest catastrophe – the disintegration of the former Soviet Union. To be sure, Putin will manoeuvre carefully. But where he sees an opportunity, he will seize it. He wants to repair what he sees as a colossal geopolitical failure, but one which at the same time probably spared the world its third great war. I have no argument with a democratically-reconstituted state on former Soviet space, but this is a long stretch from what the Russian President has in mind.
We should not rely on the adverse reaction of Russia’s stock markets to fix this mess. It will take nothing less than leadership, unity and determination on the part of western democracies if Putin’s momentum is to be halted and reversed.