Window on Eurasia: Putin Seeks to Destabilize Former Soviet Space Not Occupy It and to Repress Russia Not Modernize It
May 21 – If Vladimir Putin had wanted to occupy part or all of Ukraine, he
would have installed a different group of leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk,
Yegeniya Albats says, a comment that provides an important clue to the Kremlin
leader’s more general strategy with regard not only to Ukraine but to the
entire post-Soviet region.
observation (echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/1323360-echo/) points
to a core aspect of the Kremlin leader’s strategy, one that should be
remembered especially now when some are interpreting a troop pullback from the
Ukrainian border as signaling an end to his threat to that country or others in
the region and even as a victory for the West’s sanctions regime.
those interpretations of what Putin has done in the last 24 or 48 hours are
based on an assumption that he wanted to do exactly the same thing in
southeastern Ukraine immediately that he had done earlier in Crimea and that
anything short of that represents either his coming to his senses as a result
of Ukrainian resistance or Western pressure.
in some of the commentaries in the West, there are notes of what could almost
be called celebration reflecting a sense that Putin has overreached or even
failed in Ukraine and that the crisis is now over. Not only are such
celebrations premature, but they are based on a conjecture about what Putin really
wants and how quickly he thinks he has to achieve it.
case of Crimea notwithstanding, Vladimir Putin seems more interested at least
at present in destabilizing Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet space to
make them less attractive partners for the West than to occupy them and thus assume
the costs of doing so even as he uses the crisis he has created to increase repression
at home to protect his own position.
short, the Kremlin leader is seeking to exclude the influence of the West on
the non-Russian countries than to occupy the former at least for the time
being, and he knows he can whip up a new crisis in many places in “the near
abroad” any time he needs to in order to boost his standing at home and cover
his increasingly authoritarian approach.
a tactician, Putin understands the value of periodically appearing to pull back
when tensions are at their height. He knows on the basis of experience that he
will always be given credit in the West for stopping something he should never
have been doing in the first place and that this extension of credit will
undermine efforts to combat what he is still doing.
will not take very long until voices will be heard in the West saying that it
is time to put the Ukrainian crisis “behind us” and focus on all the many “common
interests” the West has with Moscow – thus effectively ratifying the Russian
Anschluss of Crimea, ignoring Russian efforts to destabilize the region, and failing
to attend to just how repressive Putin has become at home.
Unlike Western leaders with their short time
horizons, Putin has a long one. He expects to be in office many years, and he
knows that a pause in his aggressive behavior will work to his advantage both
immediately and long term: now it will allow him to recoup his standing
internationally, and later, it will mean that the West will have taken fewer
actions to restrain him.
the West takes a larger and longer view of what Putin and his regime are about,
the crisis some are declaring over will return in a new place and with renewed
violence. Moreover, it will do so at a time and place of Putin’s choosing thus
allowing him to retain the initiative whatever some in the West may think.