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Thoughts from Kyiv – The Putin Problem

[infobox title=’Thoughts from Kyiv’]Thoughts from Kyiv is brought to you by Mychailo WynnyckyjAssociate Professor of the Department of Sociology and Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, Director of the Doctoral School, National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”. Below are his thoughts and writings on the situation in Ukraine. [/infobox]

The Russian invasion of Crimea has put the entire global security system at risk: states can no longer count on the validity of guarantees endorsed through international agreements (e.g. the Budapest Memorandum); the principle of inviolability of territorial borders is no longer valid; the notion of being able to expect diplomatic honesty (i.e. not necessarily telling the whole truth, but avoiding outright lies) from public pronouncement voiced by heads of state or government has been finally shelved. After several days of shock at the staggering outlandishness of Russia’s President, western leaders are now actively seeking a way out of this massive dead end. No one wants war (particularly given Russia’s nuclear arsenal), but in order to negotiate some semblance of a solution, one needs to understand the interests and motives of one’s interlocutor. It would seem therefore, that trying to get inside Putin’s head has become a priority endeavor. Here’s my two cents worth on the issue:

Less than two weeks after the start of Vladimir Putin’s armed intrusion into Crimea, a mere superficial accounting shows the unbelievable cost of the Russian leader’s exploits: the Moscow stock market has lost over 70 billion dollars in value (the total cost of the Sochi Olympics was 50 billion dollars), the G-8 summit scheduled for June 2014 in Sochi has been cancelled, Russia has been threatened with economic and political sanctions that are likely to isolate it from the rest of the world, the Russian Central Bank has spent over 10 billion dollars in reserves in less than a week trying desperately to fend off collapse of the tumbling ruble. And in the face of all of this Putin continues to amass troops in the Crimean peninsula – many of whom now openly display Russian insignia while participating in aggression against Ukrainian military personnel well outside of Sevastopol (i.e. nowhere near the Russian military base claimed to be in need of “defense”). This fact seems to have finally refuted the Russian President’s outright lie (voiced during his press conference on March 4) according to which the soldiers bearing automatic weapons in Crimea are supposedly not the Russian army. According to Ukrainian intelligence estimates, the Kremlin has amassed over 30 thousand military personnel in Crimea, and given Russia’s total control over the Kerch straits, and the round-the-clock movement of ferries in the area, this number seems believable.

Why is Vladimir Putin doing this?

Crimea is not an economically attractive region. On the contrary, the state budget of the Autonomous Republic has relied heavily on subsidies from Kyiv for the past two decades. The region is wholly dependent on Ukraine for water, electricity and gas, and although energy provision from Ukraine could be substituted with supplies from Russia relatively quickly through the Kerch straits (though at considerable cost), the question of fresh water supply is much more difficult. Without the 400 km long North Crimean Canal through which water is pumped from the Dnipro river at a rate of 380 cubic meters per second, Crimea will turn into a desert. If accepted into the Russian Federation after the March 16 “referendum” (a plebiscite whose result will not be recognized by any country other than Russia), Crimea will require a massive infusion of money from Russia in order to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. Income from tourism is unlikely to be restored anytime soon, so the status of net recipient of Russian state funds is likely to be a long term condition.

Clearly Putin’s motive for annexing Crimea to the Russian Federation is not economic.

Crimea is a key military outpost for Russia. Sevastopol is the traditional home base for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and one of the few warm sea ports available to Russia. However, it is not the only port available to the Russian Navy in the area: an alternative (though poorly equipped) port exists in Novorosiysk near Sochi, and could easily be developed at much less economic and political cost to Russia than the current military operation in Crimea. Furthermore, the parliaments of Russia and Ukraine have ratified a long term lease agreement according to which up to 12 thousand Russian troops and the full complement of ships from the Black Sea Fleet may station in the port of Sevastopol until 2042. The post-Yanukovych government of Ukraine voiced no plans to cancel or withdraw from this agreement: the stationing of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea was never under threat. So why did Putin decide to invade?

The official story that the Kremlin has taken great pains to proliferate as justification for its intervention focusses on supposed threats to ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine. Putin sympathizers have directed attention to the fact that one of the first acts of the post-Yanukovych revolutionaries in Kyiv was to repeal the 2012 Law on Regional Languages (originally passed in defiance of significant protests and even hunger strikes in Kyiv), and although the Parliamentary vote to repeal the 2012 legislation may have been a political error, it is important to note that the acting President has refused to sign this bill into law. Therefore, the Yanukovych-era legal status quo remains in effect: namely, if over 10% of the population in a given region expresses such a wish, all government services must be provided in the requested minority language, in addition to Ukrainian. The fact that such linguistic liberalism is completely unfathomable in the Russian Federation (where huge areas are inhabited by ethnic groups for whom Russian is not a native language) does not seem to change the Kremlin’s appraisal of the current Kyiv government as “fascist” and representing a clear and present danger to Ukraine’s Russian-speakers. Incidentally, few countries in the world have adopted the kind of liberal language policies currently in force in Ukraine.

As US Secretary of State John Kerry has stated, there exists absolutely no evidence of threats to ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers in Ukraine, and indeed none has been presented to the international community by the Russian government. And even if such evidence did exist, according to accepted norms of international relations, such threats would not justify invasion. The last time such a justification was used for military action, it resulted first in an attempt to appease the aggressor in Munich, and then to a catastrophic World War.

Recently much has been made of the obvious resemblance between the nationalisms of Putin and Hitler. Timothy Snyder and others have pointed out the patent similarity between Putin’s justification of the Russian invasion of Crimea, and the arguments used by Hitler in support of his annexation of Sudetenland. Apparently for both, the “protection of compatriots” (i.e. not citizens, but rather those of a common ethnicity, or linguistic group) was sufficient reason for invasion – regardless of whether these “compatriots” actually sought protection, and regardless of their actual numbers or proportion to the rest of the population in a particular region.

My purpose here is not to expand on the very obvious similarity between the actions of Putin and Hitler. Instead, I think it is important to understand that Putin’s motivations (like Hitler’s) are ideological – not exclusively economic or geostrategic. The ideology that guides the decisions of the Russian President is expansionist nationalism. Specifically, Putin and his immediate entourage seem to believe that Russia, as the embodiment of “Eurasian” values, has a civilizational role to play in the world – as a counterweight to the “materialist decadence of US-sponsored globalism”.

Ideologues such as Alexander Dugin are quite open about this program. For them (and such views seem to have gained currency in the Kremlin), expansion of Russian military control into Crimea is just the start: “Yesterday, reunification of Crimea was a victory. Today this is definitively insufficient… The fight for Ukraine is the fight for unification. Galicia and large parts of Kyiv do not want to be in Unity. We understand this, but we need to fight for everything, and in battle, create a new political and historical reality.” (Alexander Dugin: “The horizons of our revolution (theses on March 7, 2014)” referenced on FB by Andreas Umland)

During recent months, much has been made of apparently “right-wing fascist” elements in Ukraine’s revolutionary movement. Criticism has been aimed particularly at Svoboda – a political party that was first established as the “Socialist Nationalist Party of Ukraine”, and more recently signed cooperation agreements with Jean-Marie LePens’ “Front National”. Svoboda reveres the memory of the WWII era Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, and this fact (regardless of it’s actual rootedness in historical reality) has resulted in the denunciation of the party worldwide as apparently anti-Semitic and xenophobic.

Faultfinders, ever-vigilant of apparent fascist tendencies in Ukraine, have extended their condemnation of the most radical elements of Ukraine’s revolutionary movement to also include Dmytro Yarosh’s Right Sector – a militant pro-Ukrainian group that has repeatedly condemned xenophobia and anti-Semitism, but has nevertheless adopted certain symbols that the world community associates with Nazism.

No doubt the actual ideological programs of both Svoboda and Right Sector deserve careful analysis, and indeed it is likely that their choice of symbolism is suspect. I have no doubt that in coming months, in the context of post-revolutionary elections, both of these groups will be held up to very close scrutiny both in Ukraine and abroad. However, regardless of how objectionable the symbols and ideologies adopted by these parties may be, there is little doubt that their programs are inward looking – they seek to further a sense of patriotism within Ukraine; an ethnic conception of national community, but not one that is expansionist. None of the nationalist parties in Ukraine calls for the annexation of territory from any neighbor.

This is a major contrast to the expansionist nationalism of Vladimir Putin. Although his version seems not to be exclusively ethnic, it is in fact even more dangerous because it proposes a “manifest destiny” of Russian “reunification”. In this respect, Russian nationalist ideologues (both in Russia and in Ukraine) are quite explicit about their intentions: an independent Ukraine, in their view, is a “historical misunderstanding” – an artificial conglomerate that has brought together a “foreign” western region with “Little Russia” (the name historically given to eastern and southern Ukrainian regions that were annexed to the Russian empire during the 18th century) in a single nation-state. Because the east is primarily Orthodox and Russian-speaking, its population should (in their view) be desirous of a “return” to their historical motherland. If they show no such desire, this is due to their having been brainwashed by “Ukrainian nationalists” who have advanced their notion of a multi-ethnic “political nation” through the media and educational systems of Ukraine.

It is also important to realize that the Putin version of Eurasianism does not stop at the Dnipro river – the traditional dividing line between “Little Russia” and the western and central regions of the country that had been ruled by Poland until the mid-17th century. Eurasianism is an anti-globalist ideology that rejects secularization, consumerism, and liberal democracy. Indeed Dugin calls for a “revolution” that encompasses the spread of Eurasian values from Crimea to Lisbon…

Lately, Putin has been very open in his condemnation of what he sees as the pillars of western modernity, and of the country that he sees as their embodiment: the United States. In the past the orientalist pronouncements of the Russian President have been dismissed as being aimed at a traditionalist domestic audience that craved a return to the “glory-days” of the USSR, and therefore to a time when the US was a clear enemy. However, Putin’s anti-American rhetoric is not simply the reflex of a cold warrior. Although he shelters the deposed Ukrainian President, during last week’s press conference, Putin publicly displayed disgust with Yanukovych’s outlandish and decadent lifestyle, implying that yielding to materialist temptation (i.e. association with western values) had been the cause of his political demise.

A Putin that is driven by ideology represents a much graver threat to the western world than a Russian President motivated by economics and/or geopolitics. Ideologues are not subdued with economic sanctions, and they are not satisfied with being guaranteed a sphere of geopolitical influence. According to Putin’s expansionist ideology, the historic mission of Russia is to undermine and destroy the foundations of liberal democracy. In this respect, the Russian President seeks to achieve the same goals (although for different reasons) as do radical Islamists: to change the course of Eurasian civilizational development from a path of decent into decadence brought on by post-Enlightenment liberalism, to a more righteous course of traditionalist family (authoritarian, pan-Slavic, orthodox etc.) values. Expansion westward is therefore just a matter of time: it is the manifest destiny of the righteous Putin who presides over the “third Rome” to bring order and orthodoxy (in the broadest sense of the term) to a world led astray by liberalism.

If one accepts the above description of Putin’s motives for suddenly invading Crimea after Ukraine’s successful ouster of its corrupt President, finding a means for the international community to deal with the Russian President becomes very difficult indeed. Sanctions will be ignored. Political isolation will be discounted. Given the extreme improbability of a NATO deployment in Ukraine, the West is left with only a few (very distasteful) options for dealing with the Putin problem:

  1. Containment – i.e. using exactly the same methods as were used throughout the Cold War, including effectively bankrupting one’s opponent through an arms race (an expensive option)
  2. Assassination – i.e. responding to Putin’s contravention of the global security order with an equivalent indiscretion: hunting down and murdering a head of state (as many argue should have been done with Hitler prior to the start of World War II)
  3. Destabilization – i.e. actively abetting domestic unrest in Moscow and St. Petersburg, so as to precipitate the domino effect of a Kyiv-style popular revolution in Russia; simultaneously encouraging the People’s Republic of China to act upon its claims to Russian territory (using analogous arguments to those used by Putin to justify invading Crimea) in the Eurasian far east.

Containment is expensive. Assassination is illegal. Destabilization takes time. None of these options are attractive.

This week, western commentators (most notably former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates) have started to admit that Crimea is “lost” – i.e. that the West has no desire to fight for it, and Ukraine has insufficient capability to retake it. Sadly, I agree with them.

However, at this point I see no reason to recant my previous prediction: immediately after the March 16 referendum in Crimea, Putin will continue expanding his Eurasian dominion to eastern and southern Ukraine. Indeed, the predicted destabilization of these regions with mass demonstrations (often attended by citizens of the Russian Federation bused in from regions across the border) has been ongoing and will continue this week. The next phase of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to commence in the vicinity of March 18-20. It will be short and massive, and the extent of military advance will depend on the effectiveness of Ukraine’s resistance (which, unlike in Crimea, will not be restrained, nor peaceful). It is possible that air raids on Kyiv will be launched in order to destroy the “heart of hell” of Ukraine’s revolution (the name given to Maidan by Russian Orthodox clergy), and some command and control centers.

At this point, unless the West begins to understand the true ideological motives of Putin, I am not optimistic about Ukraine maintaining the integrity of even its mainland territorial borders until the end of this month. On the other hand, by Easter this conflict will be over. Modern wars do not last long. Unless NATO gets directly involved in the defense of Ukraine (e.g. by instituting a “no-fly” zone), by the end of April, the map of Europe will have been redrawn and irreparable damage done to the international security system. Furthermore, Putin will not have been stopped – merely temporarily impeded from spreading Eurasianism beyond the Dnipro river. But his determination will grow, and eventually he will strike westward again. And each time, his expansion will cost lives…

God help us!

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