Putin Has Unleashed Forces in Ukraine That Even He Can’t Control

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 30 2014 5:30 PM

Ukraine’s War of Independence

Vladimir Putin has unleashed forces that even he can’t control.

Armed pro-Russian separatists stand guard in the suburbs of Shakhtarsk in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on July 28, 2014.
Armed pro-Russian separatists stand guard in the suburbs of Shakhtarsk in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on July 28, 2014.

Photo by Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

The latest round of economic sanctions against Russia is an act of desperation by Western leaders, baffled by Vladimir Putin’s intransigence over the conflict in Ukraine. Pleas and threats—voiced in backroom meetings and countless phone calls with the Russian president—failed to move Putin to publicly disown the pro-Russian rebels. Even the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine didn’t sway the Kremlin leader. The sanctions announced by the U.S. and European Union on Tuesday are an admission that the diplomatic toolkit is officially empty.

The West has miscalculated Putin’s machinations ever since his Ukrainian proxy, then-President Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia in February after three months of pro-EU protests ended in a massacre on Kiev’s Maidan square. To most Western Europeans at the time, Ukraine was an annoyingly large, poor country whose aspirations for EU membership caused more headaches than jubilation. But to Putin, Ukraine signified a strategically vital buffer zone whose sovereignty came only second to Russia’s national security. He was playing the highest stakes from the very start.

When pro-Western politicians formed a provisional government in the power vacuum that Yanukovych left behind, Putin was convinced that a U.S.-funded regime change had returned to Russia’s doorstep. Without hesitation he annexed Crimea—home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet—to forestall any future NATO expansion. Then Putin encouraged pro-Russian protests in eastern Ukraine in an effort to throw the new Kiev authorities farther off balance.

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Putin understood the struggle for Ukraine to be about Russia’s—and his own—survival. He connected the dots from Kiev’s pro-Western Orange Revolution in 2004 to the anti-government protests that swept Moscow seven years later. This time Putin would take no chances: Allowing Ukraine to choose a Western course would be tantamount to letting the enemy in through the gates. In the former KGB agent’s world, where little happens due to chance or coincidence, one cynical conspiracy had to be met with another.

To Putin’s surprise, the attempt to start a pro-Russian, “anti-Maidan” uprising in predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine failed miserably. While local people may have been skeptical of closer association with the EU and the new Kiev government, they also didn’t rally en masse around the Russian flag and incoherent calls for “federalization.” That’s why small, well-armed groups began seizing government buildings at strategic locations around the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in April to force the cause of independence from the “fascist Kiev junta.” Supporters believed a slapdash “yes” referendum would guarantee them a fate like Crimea’s. Instead, the clumsy, unprepared Ukrainian military arrived to put down the rebellion.

Earlier rounds of Western sanctions may have made Putin think twice about sending regular troops into Ukraine, but nothing was stopping men and matériel from crossing the porous border from Russia. What started as a bunch of bored teenagers and frustrated middle-aged men playing soldier has since turned into a localized but very real war that has cost more than 1,100 lives, according to the United Nations.

On a visit to Donetsk last week, I was struck by the change in mood compared with previous months. The city of 1 million has become a ghost town as the Ukrainian military closes in on the rebel stronghold. While locals used to openly express support for the separatists, I heard no praise for the rebels this time. One older woman whose neighborhood had been shelled told me she was disappointed that Petro Poroshenko, elected Ukraine’s president in May, reneged on his promise to make his first trip to Donetsk. A shopkeeper confided in me that she and all her acquaintances were impatiently awaiting the Ukrainian Army. A taxi driver railed that the anarchy was a bonanza for criminal gangs.

It wouldn’t be correct to call the current fighting a civil war because of the ambiguous, outsize role Russia has played. The Donetsk rebels’ commander, Igor Girkin, and their political leader, Alexander Borodai, are both from Moscow. Contrary to Kremlin propaganda, there is no conflict between Ukrainian- and Russian-speakers. Large swaths of Ukraine, including Kiev, speak Russian as a first language.

In many ways, the conflict could be characterized as Ukraine’s war of independence, since the fighting has galvanized a sense of nation among Ukrainians regardless of where they live. Even if they didn’t support the pro-EU protesters during the winter demonstrations on the Maidan, most Ukrainians now view Russia as an antagonistic neighbor that can’t be trusted. It’s become impossible for Ukrainians to feel ambivalent about their national identity.

Just because Putin hasn’t succeeded in instigating a larger pro-Russian uprising doesn’t mean that a quick resolution is in sight. Ukrainian politicians from all camps have proved themselves to be singularly shortsighted and self-interested. Last week, with the battle for the East still far from won, the government coalition collapsed and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk resigned. When cold weather returns in the fall and the Ukrainian government discovers it doesn’t have enough money to pay Russian natural-gas giant Gazprom, the energy crunch will start to bite. And without a decisive victory on the battlefield, frustrations both within the military and on the homefront could boil over. It’s far from clear whether Ukraine can win its war for independence.

Putin has already shown that he is prepared to let Ukraine go up in flames—even if the consequences for Russia are unforeseeable. The danger is that the violent, nationalist elements in Russia unleashed by the war will demand greater Russian involvement, especially if the rebels lose more ground. Should Ukrainian forces manage to stamp out the rebellion, the chauvinist ghosts that Putin invoked to annex Crimea could come back to haunt him. The Girkins and Borodais of the world cheer Putin only as long as they see him restoring lost Russian glory, but their allegiance to the Kremlin is not unconditional. The blowback from Ukraine could make sanctions look like a joke.

Lucian Kim, a former Moscow correspondent, is now based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter.

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