So what, exactly, does Vladimir Putin want? ‘To start World War Three,’ according to the embattled Ukrainian prime minister Arseny Yatseniuk. ‘To rule as president for life with powers on par with the tsars,’ according to Alexei Navalny, leader of Russia’s tiny opposition. To ‘force a major change of boundaries on Europe… and break the post-Cold War consensus,’ according to Radek Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister.
Actually, Putin himself has always been rather clear about his ambitions. ‘Russia has been a great power for centuries, and remains so,’ Putin told the State Duma in his first speech as prime minister, back in August 1999. ‘It has always had and still has legitimate zones of interest abroad in both the former Soviet lands and elsewhere. We should not drop our guard in this respect, neither should we allow our opinion to be ignored.’
Fifteen years in power have done nothing to salve his sense of historical grievance against the West. ‘They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position,’ Putin told an audience of Russian notables in the Kremlin palace immediately after the annexation of Crimea in March. ‘If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard. You must always remember this.’
So here we are, barely ten weeks after the end of the Sochi Olympics, with Ukraine on the brink of civil war, 40,000 Russian troops stationed along the border and an unknown number of Russian special forces fighting hard against Kiev’s forces inside eastern Ukraine. But was this what Putin really had in mind as he presided over the world’s most expensive Olympics, designed to signal Russia’s return as a first-rank world power? Was it always Putin’s grand plan to claw back the Soviet empire, town by town, street corner by street corner?
I doubt it. Putin has always been very candid about the principles — some would say the personal psychodrama — behind his actions. But his Ukrainian adventure has, from the beginning, been driven by events beyond the Kremlin’s control and proceeded according to the law of unintended consequences, rather than according to any coherent Kremlin strategy.
Putin’s goal, first and foremost, is to discredit the new regime in Kiev and make Ukraine ungovernable. The Maidan uprising against the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was, in large part, a revolt against crony capitalism and kleptocracy. Putin can’t bear an anti-corruption grassroots people-power revolution to be a success story. Moreover, it is important for Putin at home to emphasise that lack of a strong leader leads to chaos and anarchy, not stability and prosperity.
The major strategic problem for Putin is that, while he has gained Crimea, he has lost Ukraine. Without Crimea’s sizeable Russian population, the overall Russian minority in Ukraine falls to less than 30 per cent, meaning that there will never again be a pro-Moscow government in Kiev. Russia’s fomenting unrest in the east, and its demands for federalisation, are an attempt to partially reverse that setback. Moscow is also pressing for a delay in the Ukrainian presidential elections scheduled for this month, which are certain to bring a strongly pro-EU government to power in Kiev. With no real pro-Moscow candidate in the race, the best that Russia can do in the circumstances is disrupt or de-legitimise the result by encouraging chaos in the East.
It was a Russian, in fact, who wrote the playbook on the kind of covert warfare which the Kremlin is currently waging in Odessa, Slovyansk, Kramotorsk and Donetsk. Evgeny Messner fought for the Tsarist army and later for pro-Nazi Russians: his 1960 book Insurgency, or the Name of the Third World War predicted that the future wars would be waged by small terrorist cells and special forces, gaining influence by subversion and organised revolutions rather than through traditional warfare.
It’s clear enough that Russian troops are on the ground in Ukraine — Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu came close to admitting as much last week when he said, ‘It is difficult to look for a black cat in a dark room, especially when there is no cat. All the more so if the cat is smart, brave and polite.’ But what’s less clear is whether Moscow is really in control of the situation on the ground. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted last week that ‘from now on Russia… has essentially lost influence over these people because it will be impossible to convince them to lay down arms’ when there’s a direct threat to their lives.
He might be more right than we think. The problem is that events may be snowballing towards a military intervention that Russia doesn’t necessarily want. Peskov says that Moscow was receiving ‘thousands of calls’ from eastern Ukraine with requests for help and that Putin was ‘extremely concerned’ by the new developments. ‘An overwhelming majority literally demands active help from Russia,’ he said. Many western Ukrainians see invasion as Russia’s goal all along. But many observers, from Nato to Moscow, believe that the Kremlin would much prefer to stay on the sidelines rather than try to occupy swaths of Ukraine — note that even in Donetsk, the most ‘Russian’ area of Ukraine after Crimea, only 37 per cent of the population is actually Russian, according to a 2000 census. A military occupation would be messy, bloody and economically devastating. According to Nato’s supreme commander in Europe, General Philip Breedlove, Putin will confine himself to ‘discrediting the government, creating unrest, setting the stage for a separatist movement’.
Yet the Kremlin’s war of words against Kiev actually threatens to force Putin into a catastrophic escalation. Russia’s state television stations have lately come to resemble the History Channel, obsessed as they are with Russian heroism in the second world war, known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. The government in Kiev is routinely referred to as a ‘fascist junta’ and ‘Banderovtsy’, after the followers of Ukrainian partisan Stepan Bandera, who led an anti-Soviet, Nazi-backed army in the last stages of the war. The obnoxious antics of the neo-fascist Right Sector — which in the last Ukrainian municipal elections garnered 11 per cent of the vote — are portrayed as the position of the Ukrainian state.
According to this narrative, Putin’s actions in Ukraine are nothing less than a crusade to save fellow Russians from fascism. And to Russians old and young, those are fighting words. It is hard to overstate the importance of the Soviet Union’s historic victory over fascism. Along with Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 space flight, these two great national achievements are touchstones of Russian identity — and thanks to years of relentless Putin-inspired propaganda, that goes for all generations. A couple of years ago Russian motorists began adorning their cars with the orange and black bands of the Cross of St George, a Tsarist medal for valour adopted by the Soviets. Now the ribbons are ubiquitous as the official arrangements for the commemoration of Victory Day on 9 May go into high gear. For the first time since the end of the Soviet Union, a demonstration of up to 100,000 flag-waving people — actually referred to as ‘workers’ by the organisers — has been arranged in Red Square. Needless to say, record numbers of military hardware will be on show, as well as veterans of the recent Crimean campaign wearing medals newly minted to commemorate that great victory, known as the Third Defence of Sevastopol (the first two being in 1854 and 1941). It’s safe to say that there will be no mention of the fact that during the Crimean operation Putin vehemently denied to his own people that any Russian troops were there at all.
Which brings us back to the law of unintended consequences. When Viktor Yanukovich fled Kiev in late February after the collapse of his bloody attempt to tame the Maidan activists by force, there was no Russian plan to invade Crimea. But according to members of the Kremlin press pool (many of whom, by the way, are about to receive medals from the Russian government for their ‘objective reporting’ of Crimean events), by mid-March Putin had already decided, along with his small six-person inner politburo, that it was on the cards. At a press conference on 14 March he said that ‘we will never instigate [annexation]. We will never support such trends. Only people who live in a certain territory have the right to decide their own future.’ Western diplomats focused on the ‘never instigate’ part. But Putin was actually emphasising ‘decide their own future’. By 21 March, Crimea was officially signed up as a member of the Russian Federation.
Putin wants respect in the world and influence in his backyard. To preserve a semblance of control after losing the Maidan protests, the Kremlin has sought to delegitimise Ukraine’s forthcoming elections and carve out a degree of regional autonomy for eastern Ukraine. At least that’s the plan. In practice, tweeted the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, ‘Ukraine is reminding me more & more of early days of Yugoslav breakup.’ Putin has taken on the mantle of the slayer of fascism — a new Generalissimo Stalin. But Stalin’s most famous wartime slogan was ‘not one step backwards’. Putin may know in his rational mind that invading Ukraine would be, long-term, an economic and military disaster. But events, and his own fantastic rhetoric, are carrying him quickly towards the brink.