Post-election Ukraine: Staying focused on Kyiv

Monday, May 26, 2014

Now that the presidential election has been held in Ukraine and the so-called 'Chocolate King' has apparently won in a cakewalk, the news regarding Ukraine seems--at first glance--to be getting somewhat better. After all, it appears that Russian President Vladimir Putin has pulled back forces from the Ukrainian border. Has Russia indeed 'lost' in eastern Ukraine?

That seems to be the conclusion of some observers. In a recent article in Forbes, one Paul Roderick Gregory writes glowingly on this topic, and even seems to be encouraging the Ukrainian government to try to re-take Crimea. Gregory writes that 'there is growing consensus that Vladimir Putin has abandoned his campaign to take control of east Ukraine." 
All not sweet for the 'Chocolate King'

Maybe, but my sense is that taking eastern Ukraine was never Putin's goal. As I've been writing since the beginning of April, attempting to take eastern Ukraine would be both idiotic and dangerous for Putin and Russia. Rather, my sense has always been that the sabre-rattling on the border of eastern Ukraine was connected to two things: a) making the world forget about Crimea (and if you haven't noticed yet, it worked); and b) creating turmoil throughout Ukraine more generally.

Putin's real objective in Ukraine, as I've mentioned elsewhere, is Kyiv, not Donetsk. Sure, it might be nice to pick up a few Clevelands and a Pittsburgh, but why risk war on your own southern border for such small gains? The real aspiration from Moscow is to push Kyiv into submission. The goal is to create a satellite state in Ukraine overall, or at least one that will be friendly to Russian interests. Territorial conquest and a Crimean-style annexation to Russia has always struck me as a very unlikely gamble.

The real risk--as I've also been saying for months (since the beginning of March, in fact) is of events in eastern Ukraine spinning out of Putin's control. This is precisely what has happened, in fact, as a devastating report from the New Yorker's Joshua Yaffa from this past weekend indicates. After describing a series of events taking place in the struggles of pro-Kyiv and pro-Moscow fighters in eastern Ukraine, Yaffa makes the following conclusions (emphasis mine):

As the fight was underway, Semenchenko—or someone writing on his behalf—posted increasingly desperate messages to his Facebook page, declaring that his fighters had run out of ammunition, and pleading with the Ukrainian Army to send a personnel carrier to rescue a group of his men who had been pinned down by sniper fire inside a building. At one point, he proposed a prisoner exchange with a rebel battalion, and then threatened that, if any harm was done to his fighters who had been captured by the insurgents, he would bring “terror” to the residents of Korlovka. It was a disastrous and bloody day for the Donbass Battalion in their first showing in real combat; several rebel fighters were also killed. The clash, and the bullet-riddled bodies it left behind on the side of the highway, only added to the deepening sense that eastern Ukraine is slipping away—not even to Russia, or to some separatist republic, but to something darker, more corrosive, and impossible to reverse.
We'll see what happens next. Putin might think that he can co-opt Poroshenko, or perhaps the Kremlin has new surprises in store for the Ukrainian government. Loyal Borderland readers know that eastern Ukraine is worth far more to Putin as a cudgel for attacking Kyiv than as a territorial conquest in its own right. But to what lengths will Putin go to bring Kyiv under control if an accommodation can't be hammered out with Poroshenko. More destabilizing thunderblasts from Moscow? Or maybe a summertime coup, perhaps?

If moves along these lines take place over the ensuing months, the Obama administration would be wise to remember that the very nationalist card that Putin is playing also happens to be Russia's Achilles' heel. Don't forget that you've been reading about this eventuality in the Borderlands since the crisis began.

Borderland readers, of course, have been ahead of the pack with respect to a number of issues: the much more complicated nature of developing conflicts in eastern Ukraine; the unlikelihood of Putin willingly going into the region in a full-scale attack; and the very real possibility of Putin losing control of his so-called stooges. Obviously, the situation on the ground could still change, but all of these points were eventually borne out in the intermediate term--as did my predication, back in 2008, that Russia's involvement in Georgia could end up being a 'preview' of things to come in Crimea.

Now, we'll see what happens. For my part, however, I think there are three things to look out for.

1. I'm expecting a good-cop/bad-cop Putin in the intermediate term. He's certainly making somewhat conciliatory-sounding noises. We'll see how long that works.

2. Putin has started something he will have, at the very least, significant trouble ending in eastern Ukraine. I don't expect conflict in eastern Ukraine to end soon, no matter what happens with Moscow-Kyiv relations.

3. While it might seem like the Kremlin is 'winning' on this point by destabilizing its southern neighbor, an eastern Ukrainian nightmare could eventually turn into a Russian one. Don't forget about all of those ethnically-based mini-republics inside the Russian Federation. This could end up rebounding pretty seriously back in Putin's face if it continues.

And if it does, just remember where you read about it first.

Also see:

Referenda Day
Next Stop, Kyiv?

The Great Game: The US and Russia in Post-Soviet Space

Bad Idea Jeans: Ukraine Edition

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

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?

Like the Borderlands? You'll love the book! Order your copy now at the OUP website

Like the Borderlands? You'll love the book! Order your copy now at the OUP website

No comments:

Post a Comment