Staunton, April 11 – Despite Moscow’s protestations that it wants a resolution in Ukraine, Yevgeny Kiselyev says, Vladimir Putin in fact doesn’t need or want “stabilization” there anytime soon and that is in fact pursuing a policy based on the Leninist principle that “the worse things are [in Ukraine], the better [for the Kremlin]” (ej.ru/?a=note&id=24883).
The Moscow commentator’s observation on this point is important because many, especially in the West, assume that because an unstable Ukraine on Russia’s doorstep would ultimately create problems for Russia itself and that because Moscow says it wants a resolution, the Kremlin would in fact like the instability in Ukraine to end quickly albeit on its own terms.
But there are at least three compelling reasons to think that is not the case, as Kiselyev’s essay effectively calls attention to. First of all, as is becoming clearer with each passing day, the share of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine who actuallywant to join the Russian Federation is much smaller than Moscow claims
Not only do many of the ethnic Russians in that region fully identify as Ukrainian citizens and believe that they benefit from being in Ukraine rather than in Russia, Moscow’s own actions in Crimea since the occupation have cost Russia support among ethnic Russians elsewhere. By promoting unrest, Moscow buys itself time to change that.
Second, continuing instability in Ukraine keeps Kyiv off balance and casts doubt on Ukraine’s ability to hold its May 25 election on time. If the unrest continues, the Ukrainian authorities might be forced to postpone it because they could not guarantee its operation in portions of the country.
That would undercut the authority of the government in Kyiv and thus open the way for Moscow to expand its beachheads in eastern Ukraine, possibly to the point of sparking more violence not only there but elsewhere in that country, a development that could contribute to the idea already promoted by the Kremlin that Ukraine is not an effective state.
And third – and for Putin, this may be the most important reason for continuing to promote unrest even as Western governments try to negotiate with Moscow on a settlement – if the violence continues, ever more voices will be raised in Western countries that Ukraine is somehow a hopeless case that the West should not get involved in trying to help.
The spread of such views gives Putin two critical advantages. On the one hand, if the West does not help Ukraine in a massive way, it will be even harder for Kyiv to address the situation and even easier for Putin to promote instability and ultimately a broader Russian Anschluss of Ukrainian territory.
And on the other, it will mean that Putin will become increasingly confident that he can use the methods he has applied in Ukraine elsewhere in what many Russians still call “the near abroad,” thus extending his aggression and making it more likely that he will at some point cross a red line that the West will actually feel compelled to enforce.
That is why no one in the West should be trapped by Russia’s diplomatic strategy of saying one thing while the Russian authorities are doing something else. Crimea and Ukraine have never been just about Crimea and Ukraine. They are part of Putin’s general offensive against the international rules of the game.
Opposing his moves now, rather than being taken in by his diplomacy, can be done in large measure by using the “soft” power influences of basic principles in which the West enjoys a comparative advantage even in the interior of Eurasia. Opposing later moves, if this one is not blocked, will require the use of “hard” power.
Not only will that be more costly and difficult, but – and this needs to be understood as well – on the territory of what was the former Soviet Union, the West does not have a similar advantage in “hard” power assets and thus will, if Putin gets away with the promotion of continuing instability, be far harder and more difficult than stopping him now.