Staunton, February 27 – There is an emerging consensus in Moscow about Ukraine, one that includes the notion that no one can require Moscow to give up what it has already seized already –Crimea – and its positions in the Donbass lest that provoke instability within the Russian Federation, Vitaly Portnikov says.
In an interview given to Marina Yevtushok of the Apostrophe news agency, the Ukrainian commentator says that Russians won’t talk about this and that his Moscow contacts insist it can be raised only in the course of discussions about improving Russian-Ukrainian and Russian-Western ties (apostrophe.ua/article/politics/2018-02-27/rossiyane-hotyat-reshit-problemyi-s-ukrainoy-no-u-nih-est-tri-usloviya---vitaliy-portnikov/17098
Portnikov says that he has told them “’we cannot discuss these points together because this is schizophrenia. They do not understand why. They say ‘You must understand out position, Vitaly. You know you are interested in a stable Russian state because a stable Russian power can reach agreements with Ukraine and the West and there won’t be chaos.”
“If you want that the [Russian] power to be stable, you must understand,” they say, “that it cannot display weakness. Any backing away from this position is a manifestation of weakness.” And Portnikov points out that the Kremlin is using exactly the same tactic in its relations with Japan and the question of the status of the Northern Territories.
He says he has told the Japanese that “Putin doesn’t want to show a constructive approach. He wants to show that he is “an ingatherer of Russian lands.’ And such a person cannot collect them one place and give them away in another. He can’t even if he would like to do so and even if you convinced him with logic … This is a Procustean bed.”
The only thing he can do in the case of Ukraine is “not to go further if he sees that this will not bring any dividents or may even lead to a worsening rather than an improvement in his situation. I think,” Portnikov says, “that after the Vagner episode in Syria, his desire not to go further has intensified. But there where a Russian ‘boot’ has stood, it will stand to the end.”
Putin could strengthen his hand in Ukraine as a whole by returning Crimea and the Donbass to Kyiv’s control. That would change the electoral balance in the country and help to bring to power a more pro-Russian government. But Putin is trapped by his own mental image of how to behave as a Russian ruler and by what Russians expect.
Portnikov does not say, but using the threat of instability in Russia against foreign powers is a long-standing Kremlin ploy that has a double target. On the one hand, because many people want to avoid instability at all costs, it leads them to make concessions to anyone who says that instability will happen if outsiders do anything.
And on the other, it allows the Kremlin to blame any threat of instability on outsiders rather than to acknowledge the role its own policies play in this regard and then to insist upon and then impose ever greater repression on its own population as a result. That is what Vladimir Putin is doing now against not only Ukraine but the West as well.
Often this simple strategy works given fears of instability in a nuclear power; but it doesn’t always. Mikhail Gorbachev justified his turn to the right this was at the end of 1990, hoping that the West would not criticize what he was doing and what Eduard Shevardnadze among others warned against.
Many in Western governments accepted his argument, talked about saving Gorbachev and preventing instability in the Soviet Union. But the nations of the USSR in that case did not; and within a year, both that country and its president were cast on the ash heap of history .