Staunton, November 28 – Most analyses of recent developments in Ukraine start with the Maidan, but it may be more useful for understanding why those have occurred if one considers the actions that led to the Maidan and the extent to which these were both unplanned and counter-productive, according to Mikhail Fishman.
The Moscow journalist says that the Maidan was “to a great degree provoked from outside,” but “not in the sense in which Vladimir Putin loves to talk about” such color revolutions. Instead, Putin himself was the outside force, and the impact of his actions led Yanukovich to take the decisions which triggered the Maidan.
The Ukrainian president was already a failure before all this happened, Fishman says, but had he not, under pressure from Putin, turned “180 degrees” on the issue of signing an agreement with the EU at the Vilnius summit, “hundreds of thousands of people would not have come out into the street (slon.ru/russia/kak_kreml_priblizil_nachalo_maydana-1189211.xhtml).
“No one knows” exactly what Putin said to Yanukovich at their critical November 9 meeting, Fishman concedes, “but there is the suspicion” that the Ukrainian leader knew what was coming given the harsh words he had been hearing from the Kremlin in the summer and fall of 2013.
Ukrainian and Polish officials have said that even before November, Putin had sought to intimidate Yanukovich with the threat of a Russian annexation of Crimea. And it is certainly likely that such threats were not delivered on an “extemporaneous” basis but rather part of a general policy.
What is striking, Fishman says, is that just before the summer of 2013, “Russian officials were not excluded Ukraine’s membership in two trade zones at one and the same time,” and that could have been arranged with some careful sleight of hand, especially as the EU was not moving quickly given its insistence on the release of Yuliya Timoshenko.
Given this, “it is very difficult to describe what happened between Moscow and Kyiv from May 2013 onward within the framework of some strict logic,” Fishman says. Instead, one needs to consider an alternative approach, one that focuses on Putin’s personality rather than Russian national interests.
Moscow’s approach was full of contradictions up to that time because Russia’s interests in Ukraine were contradictory, but when Vladimir Putin went to Kyiv, he did so “not as a guest of Yanukovich” as one might have expected but “as “the builder of the Russian world,” something that preceded his change in Moscow’s course.
Pressure on Yanukovich intensified to the point that “by the end of August, anti-Russian attitudes in Kyiv were more like hysteria” than anything else. And then at the end of September, Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s close aide, took charge. It was clear to all that “Putin was on the attack” and would continue to do so.
What was not clear then was his goal.
If Putin wanted to preserve the status quo, his actions included “a change of serious managerial errors” of the kind one has seen Russian leaders make before as in the case with Nicholas I in the lead up to the first Crimean War. “But possibly,” Fishman argues, what we have seen is “a somewhat different case.”
That is suggested by the fact that the program Putin advanced when he ran for a third term had no real content and that “the main problem consisted in its complete lack of an agenda: to rule is fine but quite boring” if all he was going to do was to continue what he had already put in place.
But that left Putin with no challenge and consequently, Fishman says, the Kremlin leader “decided to take a risk” to prevent his country’s slide back into stagnation and to occupy himself with a kind of adventure. That possibility, one that reflects Putin’s personality, goes a long way to explain what Putin did regarding Ukraine beginning last summer.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel spent four hours with Putin in Brisbane attempting to find the answer to the question as why Putin had done what he had done. She didn’t get an answer, but the reason for that may not be the one many have suggested: that Putin keeps his cards close to his chest.
The real reason, Fishman says, is that Putin doesn’t have an answer, that “he does not know why he provoked the conflict in Ukraine’s southeast.” That would fit the facts that suggest Putin had earlier decided to create a crisis somewhere without reflecting in any detail on just what the consequences of any one of them might be.
From the Kremlin leader’s perspective, this is a kind of adventure, one that by definition he has decided he does not know in advance just how things will turn out, a dangerous one to be sure but more interesting perhaps to him than being a president who simply adopts a policy of continuation with no opportunities for creativity.