Gwynne Dyer: Vladimir Putin, Ukraine, and a premature history of the second Cold War
The first mistake of the Ukrainian revolutionaries was to abandon the agreement of February 23 to create a national-unity government, including some of the revolutionary leaders, that would administer the country until new elections in December.
It would have left President Viktor Yanukovych in office until then, but with severely diminished powers, as the constitution would have been changed to restore the authority of parliament.
Leaving a man who ordered the murder of dozens of protesters in power even temporarily was a bitter pill to swallow, but it had tacit Russian support because it saved President Vladimir Putin’s face. However, the crowds on Independence Square refused to accept the deal, and Yanukovych was forced to flee.
Parliament subsequently ratified his removal, but it was the mob, and especially the right-wing fighting groups like Praviy Sektor, who led, and the leadership who followed. Putin was humiliated, and he was given the pretext for claiming that Ukraine had fallen to a “fascist coup” as a justification, however flimsy, for rejecting the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government.
The second grave error–and this one was entirely unforced–was the new government’s decision to repeal the law giving Russian equal status as an official language in provinces with large Russian-speaking populations. It delighted Ukrainian-speaking ultra-nationalists in the west of the country, but it needlessly alienated the two-fifths of Ukraine’s population who speak Russian as their first language.
So now Putin is bringing pressure on the new Ukrainian government by backing a secessionist movement in Crimea (where three-fifths of the people speak Russian). The rubber-stamp Russian parliament has also granted him authority to use Russian troops elsewhere in Ukraine to “protect” Russians–by which it seems to mean Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine who speak Russian, although they are not actually under attack.
Putin has not yet sent Russian troops into the eastern parts of Ukraine. However, pro-Russian crowds have appeared in cities like Kharkov, Donetsk, and Lugansk demanding Russian “protection”–amid plausible reports that many people in those crowds are actually Russians imported from just across the border for the occasion, and not Russian-speaking Ukrainians at all. The promised Ukrainian election on May 25 may never happen.
The Ukrainian army has been mobilized, and actual fighting could be only days away if the Russians invade eastern Ukraine, or attack the encircled Ukrainian garrisons in Crimea. Maybe Putin is just bluffing; more likely, he doesn’t yet know himself how far he is willing to go. But one thing generally leads to another, and some bluffs are hard to walk away from. Are we on the brink of a new Cold War?
It wouldn’t be a hot war, except in Ukraine. Nobody will send troops to defend Ukraine, nor should they. Nobody is in position to stop Russia from conquering Ukraine if it chooses to, and turning it into a wider European war (or a world war) would not help matters.
In any case, Moscow would probably not try to conquer all of Ukraine. Kiev and the the west would fight very hard, and after they were defeated they would continue to resist a Russian occupation with guerrilla tactics, including terrorism. Putin doesn’t need that, so part of Ukraine would remain free, and call for outside help.
It would come in the form of financial and military aid, and maybe even what has hitherto been rigorously excluded from the discussion: NATO membership. And there Russia and everybody in NATO would sit for the next five or 10 or 20 years in a frozen confrontation that would include a trade embargo, an arms race, and a remote but real possibility of a nuclear war.
This is not at all what Putin intends or expects, of course. He is calculating that once he controls the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, he will be able to enforce a restructuring of the country as a federation in which the government of the eastern, Russian-speaking part will be permanently under Russia’s thumb, and will have a veto on the decisions of the central government.
That’s all Putin wants out of this: a Ukrainian government that always respects Russia’s wishes. It could even pursue a different policy on issues like human rights, if it wants (so long as it doesn’t give Russians ideas). He doesn’t want to micro-manage the place. He’s not out to conquer the world. He’s not even out to reconquer Eastern Europe.
But Putin’s calculations about Ukraine have been wrong every single time since the turn of the century. He backed Yanukovych before 2004, and the Orange Revolution proved him wrong. He backed Yanukovych even more enthusiastically after 2010; the policy blew up in his face again. And here he is yet again, backing Yanukovych as the president-in-exile of his Russia-friendly fantasy version of Ukraine.
His calculations are wrong. If he continues down this road, he will cause a quite needless political disaster.
Mar 2, 2014 at 10:29pm
That Viktor Yanukovich represented the pro-Russian forces shows really how hands-off Putin always has been. The Americans like to hand-pick their candidates (Victoria Nuyland's enthusiasm for "Yats" comes to mind), and Yushchenko was another example. Putin let the eastern forces come up with their own candidate and Yanukovich was it. As for wanting to bring back Yanukovich, the purpose is to re-establish the rule of law. He can claim the legal high ground this way. If Yanukovich was to resign then his last prime minister would have to take over according to the constitution. This did not happen. The Constitutional Court is supposed to preside over impeachment proceedings. These did not happen. The regime in Kiev is illegal and the head of the prosecutor office is a Nazi and so is the head of the Defence Council and his deputy. According to the Kiyiv Post, the Right Sector leader Yarosh vowed to bring some brownshirts down to Crimea! Vladimir Putin is doing the right thing and everyone can't help but see rank hypocrisy from Western leaders in their moral posturing; Kerry and his talk of invading countries on false pretences (WMDs in Iraq, Mr Kerry?)... all this talk of entering other countries with military forces are not what G-8 countries do? Seems that what you mean is that not taking orders from Washington is not what G-8 countries do! As far as I am concerned, I wish complete success for Putin and the eastern and southern Ukrainians who have always been thwarted by Western machinations for 20 years and finally can be free of the byproduct of 20 years of Cold War led by the West in the name of Pax Americana and "full spectrum domination"
Mar 3, 2014 at 2:11am
There are two baby elephants in this room on the other side of this "new cold war." The US & Europe.
The US has been playing superpower in the Middle East for a long time. They have neither authority there nor genuine wins of any kind. As the cynical constantly point out, there are almost certainly oil contracts, military building contracts and mercenary contracts making some people very rich. However, they are unanimously viewed as something in between useful or necessary evil and outright invaders by almost everyone. On the Arab-Israeli war they have been completely impotent for decades. The current arab-israeli "peace process" is not taken seriously by anyone in the region. The US/NATO has position on Syria is basically neutral. Meanwhile they have eroded the legitimacy of UN enforced sovereignty and non aggression principles.
There are no new Middle Easter democracies or any likely path to one. There is no path to a permanent end to any hostilities. What they do have is massive numbers of committed troops and military costs for very little net gain.
Europe is the other baby elephant. Their approach to the Ukranian crisis has been a removed, impotent, Eurocrat strategy. Russia clearly defines the future status of Ukranian trade and military alliances as a zero sum game and declares their intentions. Europe responds with various technicalities about central back solvency and anti corruption benchmarks that Ukraine must meet. For all its wealth, the idea of Europe as a player of the caliber of either Russia or the US is thoroughly debunked for now.
Russia is playing by old rules. Divide, show force, claim ownership and defend your position.
Mar 3, 2014 at 4:14am
Excellent, excellent article and discussion. No one does the view from 25,000 ft like Dyer.
Mar 3, 2014 at 6:51am
"...the west would fight very hard, and continue to resist with terrorism..."
What is this conspiracy theorist going to say next? This strategy of tension (a terror tactic that divides, manipulates and controls public opinion) has been used for decades. The 'war on terror' is the latest chapter:
"pro-Russian crowds have appeared in cities,demanding Russian “protection” are actually Russians imported from just across the border for the occasion, and not Russian-speaking Ukrainians at all. "
What is this conspiracy theorist going to say next? Maybe that the US was behind the right-wing Ukrainian fighting groups? Victoria (fu )Nuland talks freely here and describes how the US has invested $5 Billion in the "skills" of the right-wing fighting groups to move Ukrainians in the right direction:
In Distorting Russia, Stephen Cohen, a scholar of Russian studies and a contributing editor of The Nation describes how the media misrepresents Ukraine and Putin:
"The confrontation was ignited by the US/EU ultimatum, in November, that the democratically elected president of a divided country choose between Europe and Russia....the media have followed leader-centric narrative, consistent with US policy,demonization of Putin, with little regard for facts..."
Mar 3, 2014 at 8:26am
As usual, people are seeing this as a black hats-white hats situation, when its not. Putin has repeatedly backed the wrong horse here and trashed international law with this military action, but the truth is that Ukraine is a binational state much like Canada. The people who knocked over Yanukovych - and he deserved it - mostly see Ukraine as a nation state, and they are fiercely anti-Russian. Ok, history gives them plenty of reasons to dislike Moscow, but 40% of their countrymen have different feelings and they were not respected. That gave Putin the opportunity to respond like this. The whole sorry episode might have been avoided if the new government in Kiev made different choices last week, and maybe there is still time to undo them.
Mar 3, 2014 at 8:35am
"wrong" in the context that Gwynne uses for Putin's involvement in the Ukraine is a relative term.
Putin's approach to the Ukraine is not about "right or wrong" it is about what is the best option based on the tools you have at hand.
When I look at all the players in this particular issue I would have to say that Putin is ahead of the pack.
Mar 3, 2014 at 10:53am
Reading about this around the net, a lot of posters seem eager to paint Putin as a good guy here. Hmmm. It is one of?
1) RT has been an incredibly successful PR effort
2) There are a lot of truly credulous people around, and/or lefties actually are as knee-jerk anti-western as the right would like to believe
3) Russia has a few hundred 50-cent-army posters going through the news sites.
I'm going with a mix of all three.
News flash: In the real grownup world, there does not have to be a good guy. All sides can be dirty and stupid. Putin in particular is a pink ring and a white cat away from being a Bond villain.
Vlad The Impaler
Mar 3, 2014 at 10:56am
"A new cold war?"
Who you gonna bet on?
The former head of the K.G.B.?
Or a former community organizer?
Mar 3, 2014 at 11:29am
I think it is mostly "lefties actually are as knee-jerk anti-western"
I've seen in before over different issues. There are a lot of lefties who have defended all manor of detectors and oppressors just because the US is threatening them, claiming justification by the, admittedly very long list, of wrongs the US has committed over the last 60 years.
Adam C. Sieracki
Mar 3, 2014 at 1:50pm
The elephant in the room is that Russia is controlled by a petro-ologarchy that wants a monopoly over gas and oil exports to Europe. The Russian military adventure in Georgia effectively precluded any possibility of pipelines via that country, carrying oil from pro-Western Azerbaijan. With Crimea under Russian control, now even maritime transit of LNG and petroleum products are subject to Russia shutting off the tap. An expanded Russian naval presence in the Black Sea could eventually threaten traffic through the Bosphorus. This is something that could have grave implications for the energy security of Europe and Turkey.
Notwithstanding the Budapest Memorandum (obligating the U.S. and UK to come to Ukraine's aid), this is a situation that will directly effect Europe and America, and warrants immediate action. Sanctions and freezing of assets need to be directed at Russia. Vldaimir Putin and his Gazprom bosses will not be so hawkish, when Russia's economy implodes. And it is truly appalling to witness some people here in Canada and other Western countries who are regurgitating Russian propaganda about the Ukrainian government and people. This is a repeat of the 1990s, when the same neo-Marxists (e.g., Michael Parenti) denied the ethnic cleansings and atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo, or the denials of genocide in 1970s Cambodia, the Ukrainian famine, etc. These people are as twisted as neo-Nazi Holocaust-deniers.