Yet again the West has misread Putin’s strategy

 

Share

Vladimir Putin was back in commander-in-chief role to mark Victory Day, one of the few holidays that Russia has incorporated from the Soviet Union. And he followed up his speech at the military parade in Moscow with a triumphal appearance in Crimea, two months after the territory’s annexation. This was the Russian President as his many Western adversaries like to see him, seeming to confirm his expansionist intent. 

From the Kremlin’s point of view, however, it would have sent an unaccustomed signal of weakness if Mr Putin had not used the occasion to preen in Crimea. The surprise for Russian audiences might have been rather that he made no mention of Ukraine in either of the day’s speeches and offered no succour to those fighting groups described in Western reports as “pro-Russian”. Sometimes what is not said is as significant as what is said, yet omissions have a habit of passing unnoticed.

Consider, though, what Mr Putin had said just two days before, at a meeting with the Swiss President, Didier Burkhalter, who currently chairs the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, when he expressed qualified support for Ukraine’s presidential election, which is due to be held in two weeks’ time. He also called on local authorities in eastern Ukraine to postpone referendums on federalism planned for this weekend.

So out of character were Mr Putin’s words judged to be, that they were described as a “U-turn”, or at very least a “shift” by Moscow. Either, it was hazarded, Russia was being influenced by the threat of tougher Western sanctions or the deaths in Odessa last weekend had brought home to Mr Putin the imminent risk of civil war. Neither need be so.  

Support for Ukraine’s election only looks like backtracking if you accept the premise of Mr Putin’s expansionist intent, which has so far been almost entirely in the eye of hostile Western beholders. Back in February, Russia supported the agreement drawn up by EU intermediaries, which included an early presidential election. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, accepted this in his ill-fated agreement with the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, in Geneva.

Throughout the Ukraine crisis, Russia’s apparent and stated priorities have been quite consistent. First, to ensure Russia’s national security – which includes the security of its Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol; second, to retain influence in its own backyard; and third, to protect the interests of Russian-speaking Ukrainians who do not want their country incorporated into the West.

Mr Putin’s support for the election, so long as the rights of “all citizens” are protected, and his call for the referendums to be delayed are of a piece with these objectives. Yet those objectives have repeatedly been misread or obscured in the West. 

Three weeks ago, Nato circulated satellite images supporting the readiness of Russia to invade which were misleading and/or outdated. Last week, Nato’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Philip Breedlove, said he no longer believed Russia would invade eastern Ukraine, yet his view was hardly reported. 

Recent statements – by Mr Lavrov and Mr Putin – that some or all of Russia’s troops at the border were being, or had been, stood down have been ridiculed, though the West could have used its satellites to verify them. Earlier, the US had circulated false pictures (courtesy of Kiev intelligence), purporting to show Russian troops on the ground in eastern Ukraine. All right, so this version continued with utter confidence, maybe there are not actual troops on the ground, but Russia controls what is going on.

The evidence for this was always shaky. It is now even shakier, given that local authorities say they will defy Moscow to hold tomorrow’s referendums on federalism regardless. The forces fighting in the east are pro-Russian only in so far as they oppose (and fear) the pro-Western government in Kiev. It is high time that Western reports spelled out that both sides are first and foremost Ukrainian. It is they, not Washington or Moscow, who will have the last word.

React Now

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

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Technical Software Consultant (Excel, VBA, SQL, JAVA, Oracle)

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: You will not be expected to hav...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The leak of Jennifer Lawrence's nude photos isn't her fault. But try telling that to the internet's idiots

Grace Dent
US first lady Michelle Obama (2nd L) and her mother Marian Robinson (L) share a light moment with Chinese President Xi Jinping (2nd R) and his wife Peng Liyuan  

Europe now lags behind the US and China on climate change. It should take the lead once more

Joss Garman
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor