Ukraine is Putin’s great test
To lose Ukraine — as the Russians and the President of Russia Vladimir Putin would see it — would be a huge blow. For Russians, it is part of them; of their history, of their economy and of their kin. If Putin were to “lose” Ukraine it would hurt him with the large part of the Russian population who have supported him and even more with the circle of military and security people who are his closest and most critical colleagues. The specter of being deposed like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, or, even worse, Libya’s late dictator Muammar Gaddafi, hangs over him.
More than anything else in his 14 years in power, four of these behind the scenes as prime minister, Putin is faced with a test of his own rhetoric. After his return to the presidency in May 2012, his speech has been composed of increasingly bellicose warnings to the West.
“Nobody should have any illusion about the possibility of gaining military superiority over Russia,” Putin said in his annual state-of-the-nation speech last December. “We will never allow this to happen. Russia will respond to all these challenges, political and military.” In the same address, and on other occasions, Putin has portrayed the West as degenerate. “Euro-Atlantic countries which have moved away from their roots, including Christian values…on the same level (are placed) a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership…this is the path to degradation.”
When large-scale protests broke out in Moscow in 2011, he said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had “given a signal” to the demonstrators, “and with support of the U.S. state department, they began active work.”
Again, according to Putin and his supporters, the hand of the West is behind the revolt. In his account, the West must be faced down and shown who, in former Soviet terms, is the vozhd, the boss
Ukraine has become, with slow inevitability, the cockpit of what the Economist writer Edward Lucas has called “the new Cold War.” The European Union’s offer of an association agreement raised the hopes of millions of Ukrainians that they would be embraced by rich and democratic Western Europe. Yanukovich seemed to agree with this, only to turn on a kopeck and promise fidelity to Russia in return for aid to its teetering economy.
Protests were met with dozens of killings. Yanukovich, deserted by allies and most of the billionaire oligarchs who had helped keep him in power, fled to Russia.
In the southern city of Rostov-on-Don on Thursday, Yanukovich joined Putin in blaming “the irresponsible policies of the West” for the protests that chased him out of his office and his luxurious country mansion. He said an “illegitimate” government was governing under pressure from “nationalist, pro Fascist” elements that now control the new government. His rhetoric is now fully aligned with Putin (who is said to dislike him).
Blaming fascism is a harking back to the Second World War (or the Great Patriotic War, as it was known in the Soviet Union). Soviet forces beat back German armies and took a grip on much of East and central Europe, which was only loosened 25 years ago. To cite fascism is an appeal to a past era and a slogan for what might come — a real intervention, not from the U.S. state department, but ordered by a Russian president whose position depends on a show of force.
Will he or won’t he? Like Hamlet, Putin is tossed between the passivity of suffering “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” which could lose him Ukraine – or an action “to take arms against a sea of troubles” – which could lose him Ukraine.
It seems plain that the armed men who have taken over airports and the parliament in Ukraine are multi-clad marines from the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The new Interior Minister in Kiev, Arsen Avakov, has described the moves as “an armed invasion.”
There is a possible way out: it is for the West and Russia to work together to guarantee Ukrainian independence, free and fair elections and assist it financially with trade and modernization. The UN Security Council meets on the issue on next week. It may have the authority to bring the sides together before escalation becomes dangerous. Yet the likelihood of this is tiny. The only hope is for Putin to realize that if he invades, he will lose more than he gains.
This is not 1956 in Hungary or 1968 in Czechoslovakia. Russian tanks will have a limited effect for the future of Ukraine beyond spilling blood and losing any possibility of its continued adherence to Russia. Putin’s opponents in Ukraine are already many.
Now is the time to cease rhetoric or warnings on either side. Now is the time to avoid a war, which has people talking about “digging a deeper shelter in the garden,” as the former UK Ambassador to Russia, Tony Brenton, put it on the BBC. It has come nearer to this. The time is now to try to force a truce. Otherwise, the unthinkable becomes thinkable and feared.