Saturday, August 16, 2014

What is Putin up to?

Churchill famously called Russia “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”  That comment was prompted by the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland in 1939.  This week Vladimir Putin has lived up to that characterization; although, this time it is Russia’s actions towards Ukraine that has left heads people scratching heads.  
In as much as questions about Putin’s intentions have loomed over events in Ukraine since the beginning of the crisis there, I have been tempted several times to write a piece about Putin's role in events.  These efforts have always foundered because I am not really a Russian specialist and more to the point even the best informed analysts cannot get into Putin’s head.  This weeks news, however, offers a useful lesson about how Putin manipulates us even as it seems clear that that he has failed to foment civil war in Ukraine and that he is unlikely to succeed in creating a frozen conflict in the Donbas. 
From the moment of the bombings attributed to Chechen terrorists shortly after being named Prime Minister in 1999, Putin has demonstrated a deep appreciation for how the propaganda of fear can be used to manipulate events and the political atmosphere. This week’s announcement that Russia was sending a humanitarian aid convoy to the besieged Donbas city of Luhansk has been a textbook example of that tactic.  From the high diplomatic level where Russian claims that the convoy had the approval of the International Red Cross when it did not to the origination of the convoy’s journey from a town with a special forces base and the refusal to let independent journalists get a look at the cargo being loaded all was calculated to maximize anxiety that Putin had decided to go to war in Ukraine.  Almost immediately the phrase “Trojan horse” was on even casual observers’ lips; although, the notion that the trucks would be used to stage a provocation that would provide the justification for a full-fledged war seemed even more plausible.  In a climate created in the previous week by analysts of solid reputation saying we were reaching the moment when Putin would have to make a decision and that war was a very real possibility these seemed plausible concerns and even the idea that Putin might attempt a multi-pronged invasion could not be entirely dismissed.  
Of course, almost all informed experts knew such a move would be disaster and would bring little good to Russia, as the past several months have made it eminently clear there far too many Ukrainians committed to their independence to make long-term occupation successful even in the unlikely event that blitzkrieg tactics would succeed at first.  Most of those same people also knew that opinion polls showed the majority of Russians did not want an open war with Ukraine. Moreover, there were even signs that the Kremlin was not particularly interested in changing that.  While a crowd of about 1,000 people gathered in Moscow to support war with Ukraine at 2 August, anyone familiar with “managed democracy” knows that number could have been much higher if that is what the Kremlin had wanted, especially since the demonstration had a permit for 10,000 people.  Yet, with all eyes focused on those more than 260 trucks and word that Putin was going to make an important speech when he visited Crimea on 15 August those things did not matter and we willingly allowed Putin to appear once again to be master of events.  
That must have felt great for the man who has spent his political career, and no doubt his KGB career before that, making himself appear in command. The game continued with a Russian incursion early Friday that was verified by the presence of a Western journalist, although the Ukrainian military claims they substantially destroyed, the crucial fact was that the vehicles involved had not been unloaded from trucks from the convoy.  Indeed, so much materiel was already massed near the Ukrainian border that no massive convoy was needed, and when western journalists finally got access to the convoy they found the trucks were half empty.  Then, there was the curious matter of Putin’s speech in Crimea that same day.  During the week it had been billed as a major policy speech that would be broadcast nationally, but then at the last minute it was not, nor has a full transcript been published.  So we do not know what if any important policies Putin announced during his visit; although, quite clearly it was not a declaration of war on Ukraine.
No doubt, Putin has ideas about how he and his minions will use the convoy and other events this week to preserve the aura of mastery over Russia and its relations with the world.  Yet, the past week have done little to change the perception beyond Russia that Putin’s policy towards Ukraine has been a colossal mistake that Russians and Russia will be dealing with for years, and the question remains what other than fear were this weeks’ games supposed to achieve?  My guess, and it is only a guess; although I think it makes good sense of what otherwise quite confusing information, is the fear was used to obscure Putin’s decision to begin the recalibration of his Ukraine policy, and that his immediate aims may well have been quite successful.  By the end of the week, the most visible Russian face in the leadership of the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic, Ihor Girkin aka Strelkov had resigned, as had the leader of the Luhansk Peoples’ Republic Valery Bolotov.  Remarkably, reports suggest they were both injured within hours of each other, which raises suspicions.  Perhaps their injuries are real, and the timing is a coincidence.  Anyone following what the Ukrainian government calls the Anti-Terrorist Operation knows that the noose is tightening and were these men rallying their troops in the wrong place at the wrong time they could well have been seriously wounded.  Alternatively, and more likely, given that Girkin and Bolotov have totally disappeared from public eye, even though a picture of either men would cheer nationalists in Russia, something bigger is up.  

  Girkin and Bolotov are hard men committed to the the idea of a greater Russia and ideally the destruction of Ukraine.  As such. if Putin has decided to let their project rot on the vine, they must be removed in a way that does not rile other Russian nationalists.  With that in mind Putin's actions last week make good sense. For while Ukrainians and the outside world were worrying, Girkin and Bolotov would have been cheering the signs that Putin was finally ready to commit to their side.  They may even have been advised as much and told that the time had come for them to step aside and let the Russian military command take over with a promise of laurels as Russian heroes back in Moscow.  Wherever they are now, the two are likely dismayed to see that the full-bore invasion Russian Nationalists had hoped for has not materialized.

  Extricating Girkin and Bolotov could only happen if both were convinced that Putin was at last committed to a full-scale invasion of the Donbas, if not all of Ukraine.  At the same time, neither was born yesterday, and their previous careers have made them familiar enough with the ways of the double-cross that hard proof might well have been necessary.  In that case, how better to allay their concerns than letting a western journalist witness a Russian incursion and for supplies and reinforcements to continue cross the border along with continued shelling from the Russian side of the border?   To be sure, the chronology is a bit off. Girkin and Bolotov both resigned before the incursion occurred, or was at least reported, but maybe their egos got the better of them and they were more easily convinced than expected.  Ultimately, from Putin's perspective the key was getting the two militants out of the way, and that was achieved.

  Meanwhile, the war goes on and Putin may have conceded to himself that Novorossija will not be redeemed, but he does not see turning his back on pro-Russian fighters as acceptable either so fighters and equipment keep coming. On 16 August the head of the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic claimed  they have received 1,400 reinforcement fresh from training in Russia.  This remains unconfirmed but we would be wise not to attribute too much meaning to it even if it is true; although, it may also provide an indication of what else was in the half-empty trucks before they reached the Ukrainian border.  Still, this is beginning to be reminiscent of Nixon’s escalated bombing and Vietnamization circa 1970 with the twist that if these new troops are Russian and not Ukrainian, shipping these boys off to Ukraine with minimal training is an easy way to get rid of the kind of people who might cause problems at home if Putin starts appearing insufficiently committed to Ruskyi Mir.  Above all, it shows that Putin has little qualms asking some men to be the last to die for a mistake.  That is not exactly news, but it should help keep this story in perspective even as we mourn for those who because of Kremlin’s whims will die in what may well be the closing weeks of this phase of Ukraine’s move to real independence

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