Not machismo but calculated power politics underlie Russian involvement in Ukraine. As thousands die between Luhansk and Donetsk and the West points at bare-chested President Putin, the Kremlin weighs its options rationally. Supporting separatist rebels was the best way to prevent Ukraine joining NATO and the on-going Minsk peace talks won’t change that.
The rebel army of east-Ukraine is an unusual collection of soldiers. Some are masked, and refuse to say where they are from. Others are Russian veterans that heard about the conflict during a barbecue, Ukrainian separatists fighting for their sovereignty or members of the fierce motorcycle gang Night Wolves, lead by a close friend of Putin. However they all have one thing in common: they are armed to the teeth with Russian weapons.
Russia says they have nothing to do with it. When Russian passports are found on the bodies of soldiers, Russia says they were there on vacation. The absurdity of that argument makes it hard to debate it. However the US came with strong evidence to debunk Russia’s innocence: “On April 12, armed pro-Russian militants seized government buildings in a coordinated and professional operation conducted in six cities in eastern Ukraine.” The written statement goes on to say such a coordinated attack would not be possible if the army was just a random collection of rebels and outlaws and have many similarities to the attacks by Russian troops in the Crimea earlier.
It seems to be obvious that Russia’s fingerprints are all over the sticky situation in Eastern Ukraine. However there is much debate about why Russia is deliberately making a mess of the region. One explanation could be that Putin is an all-powerful, warmongering president who was aggrieved because he lost some of his sphere of influence. This image of an infant playing in the sandpit of international politics is based on domestic propaganda that he uses in a successful attempt to rally his people around the flag.
However the image of an angry spoiled kid is wrong. Putin’s foreign policy is far more intelligent than that. Putin, who has put Russia back on the map, is determined to put a halt to the expansion of western influence in his backyard.
After the iron curtain fell, and the Soviet Union was booed of the stage, Bill Clinton and the European Union took over. One country after another joined the NATO and the EU. Russian president at that time, Boris Yeltsin said that would lead to “a new cold war scenario” … but nothing happened. Russia wasn’t strong enough. The country was suffering from low oil and gas prices, rich oligarchs interfering with politics and the disheartening pile of work cleaning up the ruins of communism.
When Putin cleaned out the Kremlin stables in the early 2000’s and the economy of Russia started climbing again, much of the damage was already done. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary had just joined NATO in 1999 and Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Slovakia were to follow in 2004.
But Putin wasn’t about to make a habit of losing countries in his former regional sphere of influence to the west. He increased flirtations with neighbours, among them the Ukraine. That the love relationship wasn’t the healthiest would become clear. Russia’s new darlings didn’t have to think of seeing other people.
The Ukraine was showered with Russian gifts like heavily subsidised gas. When the country made careful attempts of loosening Russia’s hot embrace, and looked at the west with desperation, the grip tightened and the prices went up.
The country became so dependant on Russia, that former Ukrainian president Yanukovych went straight against his previous efforts and blew off a trade package with the EU the moment Putin came with an impressive counter offer consisting of large sums of aid money and frightening sanctions.
But Yanukovych didn’t only go against his own interests. By blowing off the EU, he ignored the democratic demand for a closer Europe. People, tired of Yanukych’ inefficient and corrupt government, took the streets in Kiev. The Maidan square where people rioted became a symbol of the desire to be European.
Divide and conquer
What was Putin to do now? The democratic government that was friendly with the Kremlin was being overthrown. If he did nothing, the path seemed to lead to EU- and maybe even NATO-membership. A full-blown invasion would be far too expensive and could lead to a dangerous standoff with the west.
The solution was rational and not desperate. Russia, following ancient Roman war methods, would divide to conquer. Indeed, they had done it before in 2008, when they supported separatist groups in Georgia to destabilise the country.
In the Ukraine, ethnic Russian rebels all of the sudden became a force to be reckoned with: heavily armed and well coordinated, their ranks supplemented with Russian veterans, bikers and anonymous soldiers.
Russia made sure their darling would not fall in the hands of the west. NATO and the EU are smart enough not to give membership to a country torn by civil war.
Even if the peace talks in Minsk achieve a lasting cease-fire, there is no permanent Ukrainian peace in sight. Russia slowly succeeded to create a small self-governing enclave, as they did in Georgia. Ukrainians may keep struggling to escape; they are forever safe and warm in the Russian bed.