By bold paramilitary action, Vladimir Putin is seizing full power over eastern Ukraine. At the same time his empty threat of outright invasion is leading the Ukrainian government—supported by Barack Obama as a rope supports a hanging man—to agree to a “federative structure” for the country. Thus, by creating facts on the ground and scaring Obama, Russia will control the East, and through it have gained the power to take part in governing the rest of Ukraine. Obama’s pretense—detailed in a sympathetic Peter Baker story in the April 18 New York Times—that he is limiting Russia by the threat of escalating sanctions and that he is playing a long game with regard to Russia, is a shameless attempt to put a brave face on what amounts to helping Putin.
Putin’s Russia has its cake in Ukraine, and can look forward to eating more of the former Soviet empire, thanks substantially to U.S. foreign policymakers’ tendency to live as if the world were as they imagined rather than as it is.
Imagining that the “end of history” was at hand when the Soviet Union broke up, our Euro-American ruling class discouraged the countries of the former Soviet empire from arming themselves sufficiently to maintain their independence. Republican and Democratic administrations urged Ukraine, the Baltic States, Georgia, and even Poland, to entrust their security to a combination of good relations with Moscow and Western assurances backed by precisely nothing.
Vladimir Putin never made a secret of his objective to re-create as much of the Soviet empire as possible, nor that he would use what he calls oppressed Russian minorities as instruments and justification. His 2008 invasion of Georgia detached the Abkhazian and South Ossetian regions, and limited the rest of the country’s independence. This set a pattern for Putin’s pursuit of “the new Russia.” Ukraine, the key to “the new Russia,” would be his major objective. When two successive U.S. administrations and the European Union neither imposed costs on Moscow for what it had done to Georgia nor acted to strengthen any of Eastern Europe’s defenses—indeed when the Obama administration, despite the attack on Georgia, removed even token missile defenses from Poland and the Czech Republic—they virtually guaranteed that Putin would move against Ukraine if and when Ukraine resisted its ongoing subversion.
But, despite the February 2014 overthrow of the pro-Russian Yanukovich regime, Putin never envisaged keeping the Ukrainian people in the Russian orbit by invading with Russian troops. Ukraine is too vast, and the population of all but its Eastern parts is congenitally primed to enmesh Russia’s army in guerrilla warfare too violent for Putin’s regime to sustain at home. Moreover, Ukraine’s future is so important to the rest of Europe that an obvious invasion would be too likely to generate more international opposition than Putin cares to deal with.
The method that Putin chose, therefore, was seizure of the Eastern regions’ governments by Russian special forces masquerading as, and mixed with, local sympathizers, covered by troop moves that bluffed a threat of invasion and coupled with demands for concessions from Kiev and the rest of the world. His plan depended for its success on his opponents’ preferring to pretend to believe what they know is not true rather than confront him. Putin bet on that, and won.
Now, with unchallenged power over the Eastern regions, he can claim to have gathered from those regions as many votes as may be needed to prevent Ukraine’s May 25 elections from bringing in a stable, pro-Western government. Next, he will wield that solid power among Kiev’s factions to maneuver them to his liking.
Putin can feel secure in his victory, since Obama’s America has accepted it and no one will challenge it without American support. Note the President’s obliging comments from Tokyo a few days after the Baker story in the Times: “I understand that additional sanctions may not change Mr. Putin’s calculus . . . How well they change his calculus in part depends on not only us applying sanctions, but also the cooperation of other countries.” Catch 22.
This acceptance-based-on-pretense has only begun to reverberate through Europe. All the countries with Russian minorities from the Baltic to the Black Sea know what is in store for them: They can expect the West only to talk loudly while making matters worse for them. Hence they had better pretend to agree to the justice of Russian demands. Germany, too, is accommodating “the new Russia” by pretending to broker negotiated solutions in Eastern Europe, effectively choosing for itself the role of Putin’s facilitator at the region’s expense.
The more’s the pity, since defeating Putin’s drive for re-formation of the inner Soviet empire would have required just a bit of good judgment and fortitude: 1) He was never going to send troops to Kiev, so his bluff should have been called. 2) The Russian special forces sent first into Crimea and then into Eastern Ukraine fit the international law definition of unlawful combatants because they wore no insignia, therefore the Ukrainian government would have been within its rights to call for, and NATO to respond with, international assistance to shoot them on sight. Putin had not put them there to fight. He would have withdrawn them. 3) For Ukraine to hold on to Eastern regions whose allegiances lie with Russia makes no sense. The West should have conditioned serious protection for Ukraine on its shedding its Eastern albatross.
Instead, the Obama administration in 2014, much as the Bush administration in 2008, congratulated itself for helping to avert an invasion of the capital of a former Soviet Republic, even though no such invasion was ever intended, and for working closely with its European allies. All the while, Vladimir Putin was reshaping Europe and giving serious people reason to disrespect America.