Why Won’t Putin Just Let Ukraine Go?

Russian president Vladimir Putin addresses a joint session of parliament at the Kremlin in Moscow, March 18, 2014 (Presidential Press and Information Office).

Russian president Vladimir Putin addresses a joint session of parliament at the Kremlin in Moscow, March 18, 2014 (Presidential Press and Information Office).

Russian president Vladimir Putin stands to gain little from continuing to incite rebellion in Ukraine. But having framed his actions there as coming to the defense of ethnic Russians, it is difficult for him to back down. With Ukraine’s government forces on the offensive in the restive southeast of the country and Russia’s economy expected to hardly expand this year at least partially as a result of Western financial sanctions, it is difficult to see what more the Russian leader can accomplish in supporting the uprising.

If his goal was to dissuade the European Union from entering into an association agreement with Ukraine that will put it on a track to membership, Putin’s strategy failed. His invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the cutting off of gas supplies last month only hardened most European leaders in their resolve to draw the country into their orbit.

Putin’s actions also alienated the vast majority of Ukrainians. Whether sympathy they had for their former Soviet master quickly dissipated when it violated Ukrainian sovereignty. Rather than fostering a renewed sense of brotherhood between “Mother” and “Little Russia,” it turned most Ukrainians decidedly away from Putin’s regime and convinced them their future lay in Europe — evidenced by the election of the outspokenly pro-Western Petro Poroshenko as president in May.

A minority of pro-Russian rebels is keeping up the fight in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions but Russia has held off from endorsing their requests for annexation and, despite Ukrainian accusations, does not appear to have lent significant support to them in recent weeks by sending fighters or weapons.

Why isn’t Putin calling it quits?
One reason could be that there is still strong support within Russia for the Ukrainian uprising — thanks, in no small part, to the Kremlin’s unprecedented propaganda effort which has portrayed the separatists as noble resistance fighters, battling a “fascist” regime in Kiev bent on denying ethnic Russians their heritage and language. A poll published last month suggested 40 percent of Russians would support military intervention in Ukraine, up from 31 percent a month earlier.

Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center, which conducted the survey, told Time magazine support came mainly from young and undereducated nationalists on the one hand and seniors nostalgic for the glory of the Soviet Union on the other. Euphoria in both segments of the population pushed Putin’s personal approval ratings toward record highs of over 80 percent earlier this year when Russia annexed the Crimea. “The revival of those strong imperialist feelings, playing on the idea of a fallen nation rising up, all of that ensured the sudden upswing in support for Putin,” he said.

And, unlike Putin, it seems, the nationalists have not given up their ambition of reincorporating the entire southeast of Ukraine — Novorossiya, as they like to call it — into Russia. “We gave them hope,” said Aleksandr Dugin, a prominent ideologue who believes Russia should lead a Eurasian civilization in opposition to the West, of the Ukrainian separatists last week. “When we said we’re a united Russian civilization, this didn’t just come from a few patriotic forces. It came from the president!”

Putin had appeared to warm to the fantasies of the likes of Dugin, espousing what Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor and Wikistrat analyst, described earlier this year as Russian exceptionalism — “a belief that Russian civilization has a distinctive and unique place in the world and must be protected from homogenizing Western influence.” Hence his appeals to Russian patriotism and tradition and an infamous ban on gay “propaganda”.

This nationalist revival seemed designed to shore up Putin’s working class support. Especially urban and middle class Russians, whose economic prospects improved during the last decade in large part because of the liberal economic reforms Putin enacted early in his presidency, are increasingly dissatisfied with corruption and nepotism at the top as well as Putin’s own authoritarian tendencies. Yet their prosperity is often tied in with the crony capitalist regime. Rather it are the elderly, the undereducated and the poor who have seen little economic improvement in recent years and threatened to turn away from Putin, toward communist and nationalist opposition parties — regardless of the extent to which they operate independently of the Kremlin.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin, the presidents of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia, meet in Minsk, October 24, 2013 (Presidential Press and Information Office).

Nursultan Nazarbayev, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin, the presidents of Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia, meet in Minsk, October 24, 2013 (Presidential Press and Information Office).

The shift became especially apparent early last year after Putin had won a third presidential term and began removing liberals from his inner circle in favor of conservative veterans of the nation’s security and spy services known as the siloviki. Economic reforms stalled, Russia’s dependence on oil and gas exports increased and Putin appeared to have given up hope of improving relations with the European Union and the United States, retreating instead into the former Soviet sphere with his proposal to create an Eurasian Union — one that should have included Ukraine.

For the Eurasian Union to truly compete with Europe’s, it should be a primarily economic project, removing border checks, customs duties and tariffs between the former members of the Soviet Union and enabling a free flow of goods, services and people between them. This had seemed Putin’s design. But the heavy-handed tactics he used to try to coerce Ukraine into joining the same body — blocking Ukrainian exports at the Russian border, raising the price of gas — and the sudden talk of protecting Russian “compatriots” exposed the project for what it really was: an imperialist scheme.

Even Russia’s closest allies, Belarus and Kazakhstan, which nevertheless entered the Eurasian Union in May, are apprehensive. Belarus refused to endorse the Crimean annexation while Kazakhstan wisely abstained from voting on a United Nations resolution that called on countries not to recognize any change in the peninsula’s status. With at least 70 percent of Belarusians speaking Russian and ethnic Russians comprising the majority of the population in the north of Kazakhstan, both naturally fear they might be next.

If non-Russian peoples in the former Soviet sphere didn’t already see Putin’s attempt to draw their countries into an association with Russia as a way to reconstruct the Soviet Union, his justification for invading Ukraine certainly raised their fear that in such a new union, they will be second-class citizens. Most Ukrainians decided they wouldn’t let that happen to them — and they might very well have been only the first to make that choice.

Ironically, it was Putin who saw this coming. He warned two years ago, “If a multiethnic society is infected by nationalism, it loses its strength and durability,” adding, “We need to understand what far-reaching effects can be caused by attempts to inflame national enmity and hatred.” — Indeed.

This entry was posted in English, Nick Ottens, Russia, Ukraine.

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