Next stop, Kyiv?

Friday, May 2, 2014

I listened to an interesting interview on NPR today with Alexander Vershbow, the deputy secretary-general of NATO. Vesrhbow mentioned that Russia is now an 'adversary' of the United States, and delivered a measured discussion of current events, I thought. One point that Vershbow seemed to be implying was that the Kremlin's goal is Ukraine, not just eastern Ukraine.

If that's what he was saying, I agree. My guess is that, if Putin could have any result he wanted at this point, it would be to bring to power a pro-Russian government in Kyiv.

What Putin desires even more than the factories of eastern Ukraine are friendly satellites. He’d like to install a stooge government in Kyiv, and make sure as many of the non-NATO countries are as friendly as possible. I don’t think the goal is necessarily to conquer and incorporate, but rather to develop a coterie of like-minded authoritarian allies. Belarus has, for the most part, had that relationship with Russia for all of Putin’s time in politics. As Vershbow points out, Central Asia is also a possibility. This expanded influence in the available (ie, non-NATO) territories of the former USSR, I think, is more valuable to Russia than eastern Ukraine.

My guess is that Putin would probably prefer to just install a friendly face in Kyiv who would govern over a united (sans Crimea) but deeply federalized Ukraine. A fragile and weak Ukraine is probably worth more to Putin than Russian participation in an ethnic conflict on its southern border. Conflict has a tendency to spread, and Kyiv is only about 525 miles from Moscow, roughly the between Detroit and Washington, DC, or Bozeman and Salt Lake City.
Better to use eastern Ukraine as a sword to dangle over Kyiv's head, than to actually have to worry about governing the region. If I were Putin I'd be fine letting Kyiv deal with that.

If the Russian Army does end up getting formally involved in eastern Ukraine, I think it will be a signal of upcoming defeat for Putin. Getting caught up in a hot war on your southern border that is tinged with ethnic drama seems foolhardy.

But after so much preliminary work--the massing of troops, the belligerent talk, perhaps even the planting of agents and arms--after all that, you eventually have to pull the trigger, so to speak. Sooner or later, he'll need to either act or shut up. And I don't think the Russian President is interested in shutting up just yet.

And now, 'dozens' are dead after street fighting in Odessa, far from eastern Ukraine. With violent provocations apparently spreading to new parts of the country, I wonder if the mayhem will soon be directed towards Kyiv. It would seem to me, after all, that the capital city would be Putin's real destination. The goal would be to create such a state of chaos in eastern Ukraine and elsewhere that it results in demonstrations and violence in the capital, maybe even a coup. If the government in Kyiv falls, Putin will be saved. His objectives will be met without having to get his fingers dirty. And he can say that he's just reversing the illegal ouster of Yanukovich in February.

If Russia’s government can help foment separatism out of virtual thin air in eastern Ukraine, why not contribute to a coup in Kyiv? There must be a good layer of discontent towards the government anyway, no matter how people feel towards Russia. Maybe a ‘national unity’ government that excludes the Ukrainian rightist parties but is headed by pro-Russian figures? They wouldn’t even have to be outwardly pro-Russian--at least at first.
A coup in Kyiv would give the Russian government what it wants without having to invade eastern Ukraine. But even if invading eastern Ukraine wasn't part of the original game plan (and that's just my speculation--I obviously have no real idea), that doesn't mean an invasion won't happen. As I've said many times in regard to this conflict, events in eastern Ukraine could end up outpacing even Putin's objectives. The clods in eastern Ukraine with the camping gear and the spatulas could end up forming the tail that wags the Kremlin.

So, these are some points that I hope people in the Obama administration keep in mind:

a) Putin isn't the only person making decisions, and events could eventually spin completely out of his hands.

b) If Moscow gets involved in a real war in eastern Ukraine, all of this could end up backfiring on both Putin and Russia.

c) Eastern Ukraine is more valuable to Putin as a cudgel than as conquered territory, and in this respect differs from Crimea.

d) Kyiv is bigger game than Slovyansk--keep an eye on what happens there.


Also see:

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?

South Ossetia and the Fate of the Mini-Republics

More thoughts on South Ossetia
More links, commentary and other stuff can be found at the Borderlands Lounge.

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