Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ukraine's 'most dangerous 10 days'...and beyond

NATO said that they must re-think their strategic posture in Europe in light of Russia's actions in Ukraine, and especially how to deal with the technique of using covert agents provocateurs (if you can call Russian mercenaries and military officers self-identifying "covert").

Ukrainian Prime Minster Arseniy Yatseniuk is right, Ukraine's interim government is in a "damned if they do, damned if they don't" situation with Russian-orchestrated terrorist-separatist actions in eastern Ukraine: 

"On the one hand, the majority of Ukrainians are pressing on the acting president and security service to conduct the anti-terrorist operation and to bring these terrorists to justice. On the other hand, if you start this kind of very tough operation, you will definitely have civilian casualties. And this is the perfect excuse for President Putin to say look, these ultranationalists kill Russian-speaking people. We need to protect them." 

So far, Ukraine has been opting for "damned if we don't." We'll see how that plays out...

My gut feeling is that the situation in eastern Ukraine is still fluid and President Putin hasn't made up his mind yet whether to invade. As others have noted, the position of eastern Ukrainian oligarchs such as Rinat Akhmetov, not to mention local mafia groups, could be decisive -- perhaps contrary to Putin's calculus.  

My view is that Putin doesn't necessarily need to invade Ukraine. "All politics is local" as a truism is subject to the exclusions of any absolutist statement. Nevertheless, Putin cares mostly, or perhaps exclusively at this point, about Russian public opinion, which now, after annexing Crimea, he has solidly on his side. Does he need to invade eastern Ukraine to keep Russians on his side?  Probably not.  But he does need to appear stronger, more stalwart and "smarter" than the West to his people in the short term.

My biggest concern, beyond Putin's decision whether to invade in the next few weeks, is how much local political mileage will Putin get in the longer term from annexing and destabilizing Ukraine, i.e. standing up to the US and EU?  When the nationalist euphoria in Russia fades, and the Western sanctions and visa bans remain, will Putin's popularity rating dip again, requiring him to initiate a new, more dangerous international crisis?  

Indeed let's not forget how Putin became Putin: by mercilessly cracking down on Chechen separatists and alleged terrorists in other parts of Russia to the delight of the rest of Russia watching it on their TVs. This is a ruthless leader who needs public enemies, who thrives on enemies.

(Maybe that's why Dubya, the invader of two countries, said he looked into Putin's eyes and saw a man he could deal with?....)

By Roman Olearchyk
May 1, 2014 | Financial Times

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