Ukraine crisis: A small switch, but has Vladimir Putin really blinked?

The West, now paying the price for making irresponsible offers of Nato membership, needs to learn some lessons

 

Share

Last week Vladimir Putin's triumphs in Ukraine lost some of their confident shine. After ruling it out, he now says that an early presidential election there could be helpful. He and his foreign minister have been saying different things in public. Whatever control he once exercised over the Russian rowdies in east Ukraine has been shaken. He, too, is subject to Murphy's law.

But before we conclude that the Russian president has done a U-turn, and start preening ourselves on yet another success for Western policy, we need to examine what he was after when he started his adventure, and whether he is now abandoning any of his original aims.

Putin has been interfering in Ukrainian affairs since 2004, when he failed to foist his man Viktor Yanukovych on the Ukrainian electorate. Yanukovych won a comparatively clean presidential election last autumn, but was ousted in February by a coalition of citizens who were sick of his incompetence, corruption and subservience to Russian interests, and rowdies from western Ukraine who were no better than their analogues in the east. Putin took all this as a personal insult: but he had solid objectives of policy as well. He believes, as do almost all Russians, that Russia has deep and legitimate interests in Ukraine, whose separation from Russia they find hard to understand or stomach. Like them he saw the offer of EU and Nato membership to Ukraine, and the West's meddling in Ukrainian internal affairs, as a provocative threat to Russian national interests and Russian security.

Putin may be a brutal and vengeful man, but he is also a cunning politician with two useful attributes: he has a sardonic sense of humour and he knows when to stop. Russia's overweening oligarchs learned a brutal lesson after he exiled two and incarcerated another. A slowburning crackdown on the people who protested on the streets of Moscow three years ago against his corrupt regime left most of them thinking there was no longer much point in speaking out. Ordinary Russians probably cared little either way, provided he went on giving them the rising living standards they have come to expect.

And most Russians have been delighted with Putin's patriotic rhetoric and his successes abroad. He kept Russia out of the failed adventure in Iraq, he scored heavily over Syria, in 2008 he pulled off a short victorious war against Georgia. And he knows the rest of us need him. The Europeans need Russian gas and Russian business, the Americans need his help to deal with Iranian nuclear ambitions and to get their troops and equipment out of Afghanistan, and we all need Russian cooperation to counter international terrorism. "Sanctions" can work both ways.

Putin provoked a crisis over Ukraine to achieve three strategic objectives: a neutral Ukraine subject to Russian influence; more formal guarantees for the rights of Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine; and the return of Crimea to Russia. The rest is tactics. Those he has used in Ukraine were similar to those he had used against Georgia: a bit of violence and bluff to get his way, and then a halt which left his opponents off-balance and himself in possession.

Ukraine is much larger and trickier than Georgia. Putin was never likely to send his army into the east, still less careering westwards through Odessa and into the Russian enclave in Transnistria as some excitable commentators have suggested. That would land him straight in a quagmire, something he is too canny to risk. The sorcerer's apprentices now on the loose in east Ukraine could complicate his neat plan. But there is as yet no sign that he is giving up his basic objectives. He would suffer a catastrophic loss of domestic prestige if he did.

As for what passes for Western policy, there is little evidence that it is responsible for Putin's shift of emphasis. He and his friends doubtless find our sanctions irritating, even damaging. But the crisis would have affected Russia's ailing economy in any case. That may eventually undermine Putin's domestic political position, but that time is not yet. Nato has belatedly sent troops to Poland and the Baltic States, something it should have done when the Russians first started bullying the Balts. The Europeans should have been reducing their dependence on Russian gas anyway: their feeble attempts are unlikely to affect Putin's present actions.

So the question remains: how are we going to negotiate about Putin's bottom line, with no strong levers to dislodge him?

The Ukrainians have managed their affairs badly, but they entirely deserve independence and a viable democracy of their own. Neither have been reinforced by the West's good intentions, its money, and its meddling. But the failure of Western policy goes deeper than that. The decision to enlarge Nato was taken in the mid-1990s on the basis of two assumptions: the Russians could not stop it; and Nato would never have to honour the military guarantee to which its new members would be entitled. We have an absolute obligation to the Balts, the Poles and the others who are now inside the fence. But we went on to dangle membership in front of Ukraine and Georgia without considering how to defend them if Russia chose to object by force. That was irresponsible, and a betrayal of two weak countries who thought they could rely on us.

It may well mark the end of the West's fantasy that, with the Cold War over, it could set the rules in what it chose to call a "postmodern" world and extend its idea of democracy almost at will by the superiority of its values and the overwhelming weight of its arms.

Sir Rodric Braithwaite was British ambassador to Moscow, 1988-92

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
Illegal African migrants arrive at the port in the Tunisian town of Zarzis, some 50 kilometres west of the Libyan border after Tunisian fishermen rescued 82 African migrants off the coast of the town aboard a makeshift boat bound for the Italian island of Lampedusa  

Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

Andrew Grice
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own