Every morning this last week, the Kremlin has been stepping on a landmine—Ukraine. After it goes off, Vladimir Putin and all his men have been spending the day in hard-tackling it, putting the pieces together and emerging with a matching response.
It all started when deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych backed out of plans to sign landmark deals with the European Union in November 2013. Instead, he said, Kiev would seek closer economic and trade ties with its former Soviet overlord, Russia.
For three months, passionate anti-government protests at Euromaidan in Kiev demanded changes in the political and economic life of Ukraine. On February 18-20, gun-battles between police and protesters resulted in the death of 98 people (some died from wounds in the following days). On the evening of February 19, Yanukovych said he had agreed to a truce and “the start to negotiations with the aim of ending bloodshed, and stabilising the situation in the state”.
On February 21, Ukraine’s parliament voted in favour of returning to the constitution of 2004, under which Yanukovych would lose some powers. But in the teeth of rising impatience with his regime, the Russian-backed Yanukovych hastily abandoned Kiev. The parliament called a new presidential election on May 25. As protesters took control of presidential buildings, an arrest warrant for Yanukovych was issued, the elite Berkut police unit was disbanded and an interim president was put in place. The Russian response was ruthlessly swift.
On February 26, president Putin ordered the defence ministry to carry out a review of troop readiness in the western and central military districts, as well as some on the border with Ukraine. On February 27, armed men seized government buildings in Simferopol, capital of Ukraine’s semi-autonomous republic of Crimea and hoisted a Russian flag over a barricade. Their identities were not immediately known, and they issued no demands. On the same day, Yanukovych emerged in Russia and issued a statement, saying he was still the legitimate president and that people in Ukraine’s southeastern and southern regions—largely populated by ethnic Russians—would not accept the ‘lawlessness’ brought about by leaders chosen by a ‘mob’ in Kiev.
On March 1, Putin secured permission from his parliament to use military force to ‘protect’ Russian citizens in Ukraine and told US president Barack Obama that he had the right to defend Russian interests and nationals, thus spurning Western pleas not to intervene. While the Russian military—Moscow says they are pro-Russian forces—continues to bloodlessly surround and blockade Ukrainian army units and naval installations in Crimea, the country’s security council ordered the general staff to immediately put all armed forces on the highest alert. The defence ministry was ordered to stage a call-up of reserves. As Putin ordered troops back to their bases from their military exercises in central and western Russia, opposing clouds began to gather.
On March 4, at a press conference in Moscow, Putin said he does not foresee any immediate military invasion. But he stressed that Russia would not tolerate separatist moves in Ukraine, where people in the eastern and southern regions speak Russian and have closer ties to Russia than to the leaders in Kiev hankering for a place in the EU. “We are not going to meddle,” Putin said. “But we think all of Ukraine’s citizens, wherever they live, should have the same rights to...determine their country’s future.”
Putin also said that a threat to pull Russia’s ambassador out of Washington over the situation in Ukraine, which he blames on ‘Western interference’, would be a last resort.
For weeks, the Kremlin’s effective monopoly on television news has been sounding the alarm over Ukraine. The ferment there, they claimed, was the result of an American alliance with ‘Nazis’ who intend to weaken Russia. Even so, the Crimean intervention seems to be one of Putin’s most unpopular decisions. According to the Kremlin’s pollster, 73 per cent of Russians reject it. Thus, most Russians oppose a Russian ‘reaction’, let alone a military occupation they are now watching unfold in Crimea.
Russia’s 2008 invasion of the Georgian province of South Ossetia—to which this is being compared—had broader support, but Georgia is not Ukraine. Ukraine is a Slavic nation with deep cultural and historical ties with Russia. Most Russians have family or friends in Ukraine and the idea of a war between the two largest Slavic nations evokes horror. In fact, people on Moscow’s streets say that it’s a good idea to form a special battalion from the deputies who allowed Putin to use military force and send it to Crimea. The anchor of one TV channel funded by the Russian government announced she “wanted to say something...about the ongoing political crisis...and Russia’s military occupation of Crimea”. “What Russia did is wrong,” she said. “I don’t know much about Ukraine’s history...but what I do know is that intervention is never the answer, and I will not...defend military aggression.”
No less worrying for Moscow would be the economic sanctions the West is considering in retaliation. These could cut off the ability of Russian firms in getting Western loans and trading with the world’s largest economies. Putin’s allies could also find it difficult to keep their assets in Western banks, as they now almost universally do. For Putin, that raises the risk of a split in his inner circle. There is hardly anything more important to Russia’s political elite than the security of their foreign assets, certainly not their loyalty to a leader who seems willing to put all of that at risk.
In the coming days, Putin will have to decide how far he is prepared to go and how much he is willing to suffer for it. But it’s clear that Moscow cannot emerge as the winner from this crisis. At most, it would be a Pyrrhic victory, wherein Russia’s president could say, ‘I didn’t back down and cave in when the pressure got too great.’
By Vladimir Sukhoi in Moscow