Will he or won't he? Putin and eastern Ukraine

Saturday, April 12, 2014
That's the big question this weekend, isn't it? Will Russia attack eastern Ukraine, splitting off still more territory from that country?

For the Putin of ten years ago, I'd say no way. That Putin was much too smart to do something like this. For Putin 2014, however, I can't say I'm sure. As Angela Merkel seemed to imply in her account of her telephone discussion with Putin the weekend of the Crimea takeover, the Russian president may well be living in an alternate reality. Bill Simmons, meanwhile, would probably say that Putin is just having his "I'm Keith Hernandez" moment.

"I'm Keith Hernandez, I can invade any country I want"


So, maybe Putin has completely gone off the rails, because I think that is what it would take for him to actually think that invading eastern Ukraine would be a good idea. There are, however, some other possibilities. The most likely, in my opinion, is that Putin is getting dragged into something that he may not have initially wanted.

People in the United States and elsewhere often speak about Putin as if he were some kind of omnipotent being, capable of almost anything. But Putin is hardly a one-man show. He has his backers, power magnates that he has to appease. We can see what happens, in the case of Turkey, when the folks in government don't sufficiently share the pie with their behind-the-scenes supporters. So rather than completely personalize the issue around Putin, we also need to think about the people around him. Presumably, war in eastern Ukraine would suit somebody's interests, if not ultimately those of either Putin or Russia.

Something else to consider is that the massing of Russian troops on the border may have begun as a means of pressuring Ukraine into quickly giving up Crimea. I mention this because, in addition to the fact that invading eastern Ukraine would be a terrible idea for everybody concerned, this week's developments strike me as rather different from those which occurred in Crimea in late February. Back then, the takeover of public buildings and hoisting of Russian flags in Crimea was followed almost immediately by professional, insignia-free troops. Everything had seemed very coordinated and organized, and people had moved quickly.

The events taking place this week, by contrast, have seemed much more ad hoc. There may well be Russian agents among the building occupiers, but there also seem to be many locals. The smooth operation characterizing the Crimea takeover has simply not been replicated in Kharkiv, Donetsk and other cities in eastern Ukraine, where the stand-offs between occupiers and the Ukrainian police seem much less...professional than had been the case in Crimea. 

For what it's worth, my sense is that, if Russia does go into eastern Ukraine, it will be because Putin's been dragged into it by a) the actions of locals in eastern Ukraine and b) financial and political partners and supporters in Russia who stand to benefit from taking over these regions.

As I've written before, going into Ukraine would be a real mess. In Crimea, there was one reported fatality. But Crimea is different from eastern Ukraine in that Crimea was already a 'mini-republic' that had been previously transferred between Russia and Ukraine. In eastern Ukraine, by contrast, people would need to carve out a new border.

How do you do that? According to population. So, if you push people out of territory, you get to place that land within the country of your choice. That's ethnic cleansing, and if the question of re-drawing Ukraine's border becomes a real one in eastern Ukraine, conditions would be ripe for conflict on a level that I think no one would have imagined a short time ago.

The sort of bloody, extended conflict that could result from a Russian military invasion of eastern Ukraine, and the potential consequences of this destabilization upon the literally dozens of republics, regions and other districts (many of which are ethnically-based) making up the Russian Federation, are not, I think, what Putin had in mind when the annexation of Crimea began in late February.

There's no such thing as a simple annexation, is there? 
Russia's many nationalities

So what's going to happen? I have no idea. My guess, however, is that: Putin wanted only Crimea; that the massing of troops was meant to foment problems in the rest of Ukraine and change the world's conversation away from Russia's occupation of Crimea; and that if Russia does get involved in eastern Ukraine, the move will constitute a deviation from the original plan. It would hardly be the first time that a 'mission accomplished' celebration was held a little too early.
Rah-rah-rah: was this a 'Mission Accomplished' moment? 
Lots of people in the United States have been asking what the US and other countries should do in response to these developments. Part of the problem with looking at the Ukrainian crisis in these terms, however, is that there is an assumption within them that this crisis began over the last couple of months. In fact, the situation in Ukraine is just the latest chapter in a battle for influence that the US and Russia have been waging since the end of the Cold War. Almost all of these conflicts, moreover, have taken place on the territory of friends, neighbors, former allies, and client-states of Russia.

NATO in 1989 (in green).


Today's NATO and Partnership for Peace 


Think about it: since the end of the Cold War, all of the USSR's former Warsaw Pact allies in central and eastern Europe have become members of a US-based military alliance. Then, former members of the USSR (the three Baltic states)  began joining NATO as well. The 'color revolutions' of the 2000s overthrew, or threatened to overthrow, a series of rulers that were close to Moscow, while former Soviet client states in Iraq and Syria became targets for American attack. When the G. W. Bush administration proposed a defense shield in the Czech Republic, ostensibly to protect Europe from Iran, Putin argued that the US and Russia build it together and base it in Azerbaijan, on Iran's northern border. Nobody took him seriously.
Well, I guess people take Putin more seriously now. But other than wondering about the wisdom of having blown off Russian security concerns for the past twenty years, it's also worth thinking about the consequences for the people living in these countries. Georgia and Ukraine have been literally torn apart by this competition. Things could get a lot worse before they get better.
The best thing the United States could do in response to this week's developments would be to keep a strong eye on American interests. Rather than fall into knee-jerk competition with Russia, we need to consider what this is all worth to the United States. This doesn't mean that the US should ignore Putin's behavior or appease it, but I think Obama has been right to keep his cool. As the US discovered in Iraq, stuff like this has a tendency to come back around and bite people in the ass. In the long run, I think that direct Russian involvement in a conflict in eastern Ukraine could end up turning into a real quagmire for Putin.
And while that might be fine for Putin, it won't be for the people in Ukraine. Regardless of their political sympathies right now, people in the region would likely suffer as a result of any move to change borders by force. First in Georgia, now in Ukraine, local populations are the big losers in US-Russian competition for influence in former Soviet space. More than anything, I think that's what we ought to be thinking about right now.
Also see:  
Crimea and Eastern Ukraine: Things Can Always Get Worse

Tough Options

Russia and the Politics of Citizenship

The Crimea: More Than Just a War

More Thoughts on the Crimea

Crimea on the Brink: What's Going On?

South Ossetia and the Fate of the Mini-Republics

More thoughts on South Ossetia

Obama, Russia and the Middle East

Trouble in Ukraine
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