Gwynne Dyer: Has Vladimir Putin backed down over Ukraine?

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      Did he just blink? I think he did.

      Only one week ago, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said that in the present circumstances he regarded the presidential election scheduled by the Ukrainian government in Kyev for May 25 as “absurd”.

      Last Wednesday (May 7), however, Putin conceded that the election could be “a move in the right direction”.

      Putin also said that he was going to pull back the 40,000 Russian troops who have been doing “military exercises” close to Ukraine’s eastern border.

      He even asked the heavily armed pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, who have seized government buildings in a dozen eastern cities, to postpone the referendum on independence or unification with Russia that they had scheduled for this Sunday (May 11).

      So a lot of people hope that he has decided to call off the confrontation. Maybe he has, but you have to read the fine print.

      What Putin actually said about the presidential elections that the government in Kyev has called for the 25th was less than enthusiastic: “I would like to stress that... while they are a move in the right direction, [they] will not decide anything if all the citizens of Ukraine fail to understand how their rights are protected after the elections are held.”

      Moreover, a “senior source” close to President Putin subsequently said that he would support the Ukrainian presidential elections on May 25 if talks started between the government in Kyev and the armed separatists in the east, and if Kyev stopped trying to take the towns they control back by force. That leaves him room to welsh on his promise.

      As for Putin’s request that the separatists call off their referendum on independence, they rejected it the next day.

      Russian agents have been heavily involved in orchestrating the seizure of government buildings in eastern Ukraine from the start, so it’s hard to believe that he couldn’t get the separatists to cancel the referendum if he really tried.

      And though he has promised to pull his troops back from Ukraine’s border, they have not actually begun to move yet.

      So you have to wonder whether he is really going to call off the confrontation. Maybe he is just trying to stave off further Western sanctions while his plans to destabilize the government in Kyev, disrupt the presidential elections, and maybe even take over eastern Ukraine continue to unfold.

      Nobody can read Putin’s mind, but there is reason to suppose that his change of tone might be genuine, because he is saying he will do exactly what level-headed strategic advisers in his entourage would be urging him to do.

      If this confrontation continues down the road it has been travelling recently, it will hurt Russian interests, and even his own political interests, a lot.

      Putin has little to gain from a local victory in Ukraine. Seizing the country’s eastern provinces would simply land Moscow with the permanent job of spending a great deal of money to support an industrial museum.

      And taking control of all of Ukraine might lead to a long counter-insurgency war against Ukrainian nationalists.

      The external costs of “victory” would be even higher. Already NATO is moving troops into the Eastern European members of the alliance to reassure the local populations, who live in permanent fear of another Russian take-over. (Previously it did not station foreign troops in those countries, in order not to frighten the Russians.)

      Even the Swedes and the Finns, who are neutrals, are discussing closer cooperation in defence matters.

      The next round of Western sanctions will really hurt the Russian economy, and that would undermine Putin’s political popularity at home.

      And if it really turns into a new Cold War, Russia would lose far faster than it did last time. The Russian Federation has only half the population of the old Soviet Union, and considerably less than half the industrial resources and technological prowess of that former superpower.

      It would make sense for Putin to end this confrontation: he has already taken Crimea, and that is victory enough. Russian-speakers are not at risk in Ukraine, and never have been.

      Ukraine is not going to join NATO or the European Union no matter who wins the elections on May 25. Neither organisation would let them in.

      But he can’t just throw his cards on the table and walk away: he has to save face.

      That may be enough to explain why his statements and actions this week have been shrouded in a good deal of ambiguity.

      Alternatively, he may just not be listening to his advisers, or they may be too intimidated to tell him what they really think, in which case he hasn’t really changed course and all this talk is a ploy to gain time.

      But Putin has been running Russia for 14 years, and in all that time he has not made a major strategic error. He is not stupid, and he has shown no signs of being delusional. My guess is that he has decided to shut the confrontation down.

      Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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      May 9, 2014 at 3:04pm

      Time will tell but I don't think this is just a game which Russia can afford to lose. NATO [US and Europe] started this fight over the future alignment of Ukraine and Russia's troubles with the West will not stop by giving into Western opprobrium and sanctions. If Dyer thinks Putin can be bullied he has misjudged the man; the Russians will not simply acquiesce to Western hegemony, they will fight back as they always have in the past. For now, Putin is trying to be accommodative, to find a peaceful diplomatic solution for the Ukraine but the West is not interested because what they really want is to eviscerate Russia. Putin is making diplomatic gestures to defuse the situation, the West is only trying to aggravate it further. If Kiev rigs the upcoming elections in it's favor you will see Russia reacting vigorously and you will only have the West to blame for the consequences!

      I Chandler

      May 9, 2014 at 8:03pm

      Dyer:"DID HE JUST blink? I think he did."

      No Obama was squinting at Putin's "fine print". Step out of the echo chamber occasionally ... Stephen Cohen, an American scholar of Russian studies, doesn't think Putin blinked or the print fine.

      Dyer:" Russian-speakers are not at risk in Ukraine, and never have been."

      At risk? Can you spell Odessa? Last Friday, pro-Euro activists set on fire, a large building with Russian-speakers with inside. Police said at least 31 people choked to death on smoke or were killed when jumping out of windows. Cohen describes how it evokes memories of people burning during World War II, but the fact that the Nazis in those territories locked people in buildings and burned them to death:

      "Russian agents have been heavily involved in orchestrating the seizure of government buildings in eastern Ukraine from the start"

      Cohen, describes how there are not just Russian agents in Eastern Ukraine: "there are also American agents and Lithuanian and Polish and God knows what other agents there."

      Dyer: "Putin would support the Ukrainian elections on May 25 if talks started between the government in Kyev and the armed separatists in the east"

      He said she said...diplomacy not.. Cohen, describes how this was proposed, not by Putin, but by German Chancellor Merkel- The US is "silent, and seems to be dragging its feet" - or kicking and screaming:

      Cohen: "Putin said that in a phone call with German Chancellor Merkel, she had proposed a roundtable of all the aggrieved parties in Ukraine — that’s Kiev, that’s Western Ukraine, that’s Eastern Ukraine — to talk about the future of Ukraine, which means a new constitution."

      Fine print? Cohen, writes that there is scarcely a word of public debate, from the American Congress or media.

      "it’s hard to believe that Putin couldn’t get the separatists to cancel the referendum if he really tried."

      Cohen describes this as fantasy:
      But to say that the Russians created this unrest in Eastern Ukraine and that Putin can call it off tomorrow, that he can go on Russian or Ukrainian television and say, guys, vacate the buildings, go home, hand over your weapons, that is a fantasy."

      Cohen's busy:

      margot izard

      May 10, 2014 at 7:10am

      Dyer is awfully clever at licking his finger and holding it up to see which way the wind is blowing.

      I wish he had done this when the Yanukovich-free government in Kiev immediately showed a majority vote to trash the Minority Language Rights law, which set off a wave of concern in Europe and Russian speaking Ukraine and now this.

      This concern did not sweep Canada because there was a press blackout. Ditto US. Didn't Canada fly the flag? John Baird was there the Friday after, but what could he do to represent us after losing his public wrangle to have gold not French on his MP business cards? Johnny on the spot for the US/NATO agenda he was!

      Dyer's finger spittle got his piece backwards as usual.


      May 12, 2014 at 4:52pm

      The recent crisis in Ukraine has been in the pipeline for a long time, helped along by a 20-year $5-billion investment by the United States in destabilizing the country and overthrowing its democratically-elected government in a coup.

      You'd think the folks in charge of US foreign policy would eventually get good at overthrowing the governments of other nations, considering how much practice they've had since World War Two, but they badly miscalculated on this one, and the situation is going to get a lot uglier before it improves.

      How deeply and tightly are the roots of Western involvement entangled in the current Ukraine screw-up? William Blum gives a good synopsis here:

      Pepe Escobar also provides some interesting history and revelations here:

      Ilan Hersht

      May 13, 2014 at 3:13am

      I think Putin may have gotten a little too confident following his surprisingly easy Crimean swoop-in. Ukraine did not muster an once of resistance. NATO never came close to anything resembling military action. The European Union showed their cards, no ability to play hardball not even diplomatic hardball.

      That's the kind of thing that can go to one's head and create some unforced errors. History is full of these mistakes. Bush's 'mission accomplished' is a recent example.

      This whole saga was meant to establish and remind of Russia's continuing 'great power' status. Putin considered the anti-Russian sentiment of the anti-Medvedev parties, the encroachment of NATO in eastern europe & central asia, the depictment of Russia as a two bit bully in western media. All this while Russia was still subsidizing Ukraine's energy. It was time for a statement.

      That statement was made. Putin swept in and punitively annexed a chunk of Ukranian territory. Message sent, at virtually no cost. A second annexation will not win Russia any more clout and may come at a higher price.

      I think this incident might be over. Ukraine will send the next 50 years petitioning the UN. NATO will be more wary of extending itself, lest the alliance be tested. Russia get a little more respect by way of fear.

      Mission Accomplished.

      Hypie \

      May 14, 2014 at 7:40pm

      The results are in, and almost 90% of the voters in the Donetsk region want independence from Kiev!

      This is an amazing moment in history! When 90% of the voting public supports you to secede, you can safely go to war if the regime from which you want to secede tries to stop you.

      Hey Victoria Nuland! 90% of the voters HATE YOUR GUTS! They don’t want to be ruled by the lovely people who made Iraq and Libya and Syria into paradise on earth? They don’t want to join The Indebted and Depleted Uranium Poisoned Kingdom of Neoconistan, Greater Israel?

      Consider this — the trump card for the pro-Kiev vote was visas to Europe. That was a big one, coming from the Ukrainians themselves! That was the carrot that the neocons held out to the Ukrainians. Betray your country, you get to go live in England and undercut Polish construction workers.

      Instead, the Ukrainians voted for their beloved homeland not to be invaded by Monsanto and Muslim refugees, and gave up the dream of becoming Western Europe’s next batch of cheap white labor.

      Meanwhile, USA and EU try to tell 90% of people that what they want is illegal?

      And the invasion of Iraq on false pretenses, and torture and rendition are all legal, right? And everything Monsanto does is legal — because you say it is.

      There is hope yet, people.



      May 19, 2014 at 1:21am

      Putin will keep Ukraine one way or the other. He holds all the cards. He has probably already achieved everything he wants behind the scenes. And if not?

      "War is the continuation of politics by other means."