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Ukraine: Creeping Annexation – What Comes Next?

By Alexander Kochetkov, Ukrainska Pravda

First of all, the main issue – external policy matters. This is not war. War is when two or more countries engage one another in combat. When one country conducts armed operations on another’s territory unhindered, and the other responds with appeals to the international community, that is annexation.

It so happens that at one time I worked with the Kremlin as a political analyst, and I continue to follow its “points of reference”. That was during the time of “Putin the Moderate”, but the main approaches still apply. So it’s with some sense of responsibility that I agree with the argument that “Putin is not the monster you think he is. He’s a monster, of course, but of a quite different kind.”

Vladimir Putin has long been interested in money merely as an instrument. He has grown accustomed to the pomp and luxury of official life, and no longer notices it. He sees adulation, whether genuine or false, even deification as only his due. He has become jaded with wielding undivided power.

He has grown somewhat weary of the “bicycle” that is power in Russia. It is a bicycle in that if you don’t keep pedalling, you will fall off.

The only thing that still moves the Ruler of All Russia is his global standing. Intuitively, he is always measuring himself against Stalin, who was unloved and feared globally, but always reckoned with.

In this regard, Ukraine has definitely been disappointment to this newfound friend of Olympic sports.

As early as the beginning of 2004, Putin was being warned that counting on Viktor Fyodorovich [Yanukovich] would guarantee victory for Viktor Andreyevich [Yushchenko], and furthermore set Yushchenko against Russia. But the Kremlin decided that its unerring influence could easily override lowly sociological considerations.

And so off it went, one fiasco after another.

These days, Ukraine stands as an irrational obstacle to Vladimir Puto, in the same way as Carthage was to Cato the Elder, in that it upsets the proper ordering of the world.

One gets the impression that the Russian autocrat has begun to believe in the inventions of his own spin-doctors. For instance, that all gatherings on the Maidan in Kiev are entirely made up of fighters and radicals trained with American money in camps in the Baltic states. That the anti-Russian movement in the Baltic countries was made in Poland with American money. And so on and so forth.

The upshot is that the Carthaginian Maidan in Russia’s underbelly must be destroyed.

Another point is that the patriotic imperial hysteria whipped up by Russian propaganda has reached a point where, unless it has some way of being vented externally, it will turn into some new Biryulevo [scene of 2013 trouble near Moscow] in the form of ethnic clashes.

So for Vladimir Putin, this attempt to annex Crimea combines the pleasurable with the useful.

In addition, he wants to remind the world again that, as one modern Russian writer has put it, there is no such thing as Ukraine, merely a “territory deficient in statehood” that is a zone of strategic interests for Russia.

Now for the main domestic issues.

I have been part of several crusades for clean government in the past, with Leonid Danilovich [Kuchma], Alexander Alexandrovich [Moroz] and Yulia Vladimirova [Timoshenko]. No need to laugh, since initially all three of them truly intended to reform the country, root out corruption and other evils, and propel us towards a radiant future.

As I read the names of those who have been appointed to the interior ministry today, I have an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. I recall sitting in 2005 among a small group of people led by the new minister Yury Vitalyevich [Lutsenko] in the Grani-Plus office and devising the criteria for appointing the heads of regional-level interior ministry departments.

At first, we naturally decided to go for professionals who could not be bought. We looked over the lists and were saddened to see there was no one who fitted the bill, not even someone still at police academy.

So we lowered the bar. Surely regional-level generals would not be suspected of earning illegal incomes. We read over the internal security documents again. Not one in sight.

Down came the bar – we decided to make sure none of them was mixed up with criminal groups and businesses. Failed again.

In the end, we hit rock bottom. We said that those who were appointed shouldn’t have blood on their hands. No contract killers, that sort of thing. The guardians of the law were selected along these primitive lines.

In practice, it turned out even worse. While we were tying ourselves in knots with systems, the more enterprising cops were treading a path to associates of Viktor Yuschenko, who took it upon himself to appoint the provincial police chiefs without informing the interior minister. So it is not even the case that the “no murderers” criterion was observed in the end.

I say this as an analogy with reference to the composition of government and the gulf between what is desirable and what is achievable. We have a moratorium on criticising the authorities at the moment, so there is no point enumerating the clearly stupid, even dodgy-looking errors that look similar to those made by Yanukovich.

What is obvious, though, is that many members of the team called upon to save the Titanic that is our state would do well to find out the difference between the waterline and the water closet.

Putin takes an even more sceptical view of the new Ukrainian authorities. He cannot make them out, and he is sure they are a band of thieves fighting for a place at the feeding-trough. He cannot imagine them offering up any sensible resistance to his plans to force them into a Carthage-style reconciliation.

As for a negative international reaction, that is to be predicted. But it will consist of expressions of deep concern, no more than that.

The United States has never really objected to the post-Soviet region being Vladimir Putin’s sphere of strategic interests. China is pretty much a Russian ally, a neutral partner at worst. Putin views the European Union as a bunch of inept morons. From things he has said, it is clear that he thinks the only real men in international politics are Angela Merkel and Yulia Timoshenko.

Putin is the equal of Joseph Stalin in that he long ago convinced the world that he is prepared to strike, not just make threats.

All those international treaties and that kind of legalistic nonsense are for weaklings. Strong states and leaders defend their national interests without regard for the formalities. If necessary, Putin would be prepared to go head to head, all the way. “Prepared to”, since he is sure his opponents will give way first and global catastrophe will be avoided.

In that sense, Putin is like a terrorist with a hand-grenade who demands that the plane change course, except that he is holding the world hostage. But it changes course.

Vladimir Putin has executed the first part of his plan spectacularly well. The imperialist impulses of his electorate have been channelled towards Ukraine, and the leader’s poll ratings have returned to a stratospheric 70 per cent. The world shudders at the prospect of the Third World War. Putin the Great and Terrible is invoked to terrify children from Krakow to San Francisco.

Part two of the plan is already under way.

I do not for one minute believe that Russia really wants to burden itself with a Crimea that survives on government subsidies, and one that has a Tatar community that is united, cohesive, organised and well-armed and that could easily become a stronghold for Muslim insurgents.

No, they have a different plan: to prompt mini-revolutions, Maidan-style – that is important for psychological reasons, as payback – in the south, southeast and east of Ukraine, complete with public statements and appeals to Russia to help its dying countrymen.

Puppet structures do not get international recognition, but there is no need for that. Putin can still talk seriously about sending in the troops – he can even do so – about federalisation, about the risk of Ukraine disintegrating, and so on. In other words, he becomes the principal player in the Ukrainian arena.

With the sword of Damocles in place, he will finally be able to nudge someone into the Ukrainian presidency who will really follow in the Kremlin’s geopolitical wake.

Applause and curtains.

It is a broad-ranging plan, and the moment is extremely opportune.

But Vladimir Putin is sadly repeating the fatal error made by Viktor Yanukovich, whom he wholly discounts. Yanukovich was prompted by his circle to believe that all he had to do was pile on the brutality, put on a bit more pressure, and the protestors would get scared and surrender. What actually happened was that every time harsher action was taken, the Maidan responded in kind. When things got to the shooting stage, it was the security forces that ran away.

In short-sighted mode, Vladimir Putin is now going along the same path of ramping up the pressure.

He has already succeeded in making our authorities reduce their blunders to a minimum, and in uniting the population in an almost unprecedented level of patriotic fervour. Ukrainians are even driving on the roads with European-style courtesy.

This ephemeral national unity, which has led to scenes like the soldiers in Crimea who marched against Kalashnikovs carrying only flags and singing a raucous anthem, could yet prove an unexpected resource by which Ukrainians can overcome brute force. That’s how things happen in geopolitics.

Previously unheard of slogans calling for the Russian Black Sea Fleet to leave Ukrainian territory and for accession not just to the European Union but to NATO are now the order of the day.

One might also add that Russia will acquire a fair number of separatist hotbeds of its own in the foreseeable future. “Don’t dig a trap for others – you might fall in yourself”, as they say. The United States will see to that through its foreign agents, even if it won’t risk a head-on confrontation.

Thus, the second and more important part of the Crimean Anschluss could turn out to be one more fiasco.

Now for the most important matter, the general point.

Ukraine has never seen such a serious upsurge in patriotic national pride in its recent history. The thanks for that go to Vladimir Putin. And it has never had so many opportunities before it as the current threats and challenge have created.

But for this same reason, Ukraine would not survive the experience of being disappointed yet again by a talentless, thieving leadership. And it wouldn’t take war or annexation for that to happen.

Alexander Kochetkov, analyst, for Ukrainska Pravda. 

This article republished from Ukrainska Pravda with kind permission.

Original article in Russian.