Why Putin’s Strategy in Ukraine Is Entirely Predictable

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 2 2014 3:37 PM

Putin the Predictable

The Russian leader follows a consistent strategy. First he condemns. Then he copies.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters after a session of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council.
Copycat.

Photo by Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Reuters

DONETSK, Ukraine—To get into the headquarters of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the world’s newest self-proclaimed country, you have to pass two barricades laced with razor wire made up of tires, paving stones, and a couple of truck fenders. Everywhere homemade signs are hanging that say “Ukraine against American-Fascist Aggression” or “No to USA-EU.” A line of flags above the entrance flies the colors of Russia, the Russian airborne troops, and the DPR—a black-blue-red tricolor with a superimposed Russian double-headed eagle. 

Inside the 11-story regional administration building, seized by pro-Russian separatists on April 7, there is a burst of activity. Young men in camouflage, some wearing masks and carrying clubs, rush up and down the stairs as they carry out orders. In offices once occupied by civil servants, middle-aged men in fatigues huddle to plan the DPR’s glorious future.

It’s no coincidence that the tires, placards, flags, masks, and fatigues bear an uncanny resemblance to the Maidan protest in Kiev, because even if the message of the Donetsk revolt is radically different, its trappings are an imitation of the people’s uprising that chased out the government of Viktor Yanukovych in February.

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For Vladimir Putin, mimicking his opponents is a key element to keeping power. At home the Russian president oversees a democracy with sham elections and a loyal parliamentary opposition made up of stuffed shirts. His foreign policy can be best described as “condemn and copy.” Since 2007, when he assailed U.S. hegemony in a Munich speech, Putin has been raging against the West—and then committing his version of the sins he’s just condemned.

Regime change in Iraq gave Putin the green light to march into Georgia and make President Mikheil Saakashvili fear for his life; the NATO intervention in Kosovo and its eventual recognition as an independent country served as a justification for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March; even the Eurasian Union, which Putin has been trying to force Ukraine to join, is a fake alternative to the European Union, which he envies and disdains.

Now the Maidan protest, characterized by the Kremlin as a Western-sponsored armed coup, is being crudely imitated in towns across the Donetsk region. “If the guys on the Maidan could revolt, why can’t we?” has been the pro-Russian supporters’ motto, which ignores that the Kiev protest began as a grassroots, peaceful demonstration that grew over months and only became violent as a result of escalating police brutality.

The peaceful phase of the Donetsk rebellion barely lasted a month before masked gunmen seized the town of Slovyansk without any provocation from the provisional government in Kiev. Only after the heavily armed fighters dug themselves in did the authorities launch a halfhearted, unsuccessful “anti-terrorist operation,” which resumed Friday morning.

Russia supporters who take to the streets in the Donetsk region are hard-pressed to articulate their grievances. Most often people mention a law downgrading the status of the Russian language that the interim government tried to pass, but that bill was immediately vetoed by acting President Oleksandr Turchynov. Sometimes they complain that Kiev is using “tanks and planes” against them, yet the army rolled in only once the separatists took up arms. If the provisional government can be accused of anything, it’s that it neglected to reassure the citizens of the Donetsk region—Yanukovych’s political base—of their place in the new political order.

Nobody I’ve met at pro-Russia rallies has described any real threats or instances of repression. Asked what’s motivating them, they invariably turn to stock phrases that have been widely propagated on Russian state television: “Kiev junta,” “fascists,” “illegitimate government,” “referendum,” “federalization.” Follow-up questions rarely yield any enlightening answers. “Federalization means that Kiev listens to us,” Boris Dekhteryenko, a car mechanic from Makeyevka, explained to me. “We want independence within Russia.”

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