President Putin is acting with tactical slickness but strategic folly in Ukraine, where one person died and several were injured yesterday as tensions in the east of the country rose sharply.
There is no doubt that his irredentist aggression, masked in a way that deceives no one, is playing well in the Russian heartland. But what about the larger international impact of his actions? Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov poo-pooed the importance of Russia’s exclusion from the G8, but for a country with a wilting economy and a chronic problem with low self-esteem it was a heavy blow to the nation’s prestige. The crude bullying of Ukraine via Gazprom merely reinforces the long-established opinion outside Russia that this is a crude, tyrannical state whose declared adherence to democracy and free trade is a sham.
In the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, Mr Putin pulled out all the stops to present an image of sweet reasonableness to the world. How long ago that seems. Thanks to his interference in Crimea, all that diplomatic slog has been undone. If that is the move of a champion chess player, we would like to see how a novice performs.
Mr Putin may be on the brink of restoring the Russian empire, but at the cost of driving his country into a diplomatic corner. Germany, long lulled into a state of quasi-pacifism by Russia’s post-Soviet peacebleness, has been rudely awakened. The US is being forced to have second thoughts about retiring as the world’s cop. Even Russia’s most dependable ally, China, always nervous when questions of territorial integrity arise, looks askance at Mr Putin’s rough handling of Ukraine, as was reflected in its abstention in a UN Security Council vote last month.
There is no doubt that, in both military and political terms, Mr Putin holds most of the cards in the contest for eastern Ukraine. He is correct to say that the Kiev government lacks democratic legitimacy, though that is to ignore the corrupt character of his close ally, the former President Yanukovych, and the fully justified desire of Ukrainians to be rid of him.
Having flooded the Russian-speaking part of the country with agents and thugs, he has so far had no difficulty in intimidating the Kiev government into impotence. If that were to change and Ukrainian forces took robust action against Moscow’s placemen, then he could ignore the West’s stentorian warnings and simply invade, dividing the country in two. The West would thump the table and ratchet-up sanctions but would be neither willing nor able to reverse that invasion. To do so would risk provoking a wider war that nobody in Europe or the US is prepared to contemplate.
Throughout the Ukraine crisis Mr Putin has been acting not from strength but weakness. In this he resembles Slobodan Milosevic, whose reckless attempt to turn collapsing socialist Yugoslavia into a Serbian super-state was prompted by the fact that the basis of his power – the monopolistic position of the Communist Party – had crumbled. This was his desperate bid to secure a new foundation for his power. And Europe stood by and watched it happen.
Mr Putin’s power is not under threat in the same way, but Russia is a nation in steep decline, as was Yugoslavia. The lesson for the West from the Yugoslav tragedy is that we should not go easy on Russian aggression in Ukraine. A warlike response to a possible invasion is out of the question. But at the four-way talks in Geneva next week – if they go ahead – the West’s words must reflect a recognition that what Mr Putin is attempting has no justification and must be resisted by every other means available.
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