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

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

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'Our media are suffering a new experience: not fear of being called anti-Semitic'  

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk
David Cameron (pictured) can't steal back my party's vote that easily, says Nigel Farage  

Cameron’s benefits pledge is designed to lure back Ukip voters. He’ll have to try harder

Nigel Farage
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices