Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Putin Transforming Near Abroad into Near East, Mitrokhin Suggests

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 4 – Vladimir Putin’s approach in Ukraine appears to be modelled on what he believes the West been doing in Syria, an approach that he hopes to use as the basis of a swap between Moscow and the G-7 but one that could transform what many in Russia continue to call “the near abroad” into an unstable “Near East,”  Nikolay Mitrokhin suggests.

            In a article this week, Mitrokhin points out that “the armed conflict in the Donbass no longer is a clash between the central authorities of Ukraine and regional separatists.  The level of involvement in it by the Russian side is so great that many analysts now say Russia is conducting a new type of war” (

            However that may be, Mitrokhin continues, there is a related political question that analysts and officials should be focusing on: Why is Moscow “so openly” supporting “small groups of Russian citizens” who continue to attack “’the fascists of Kyiv’” despite being in a situation where “sooner or later” they will be defeated by the Ukrainian army?

            The Moscow analyst suggests that the answer to that may lie in how Moscow has been behaving in “another place on the earth where now many are also shooting, where a weak central government is also struggling with groups of militants who are motivated by various things but who are united in their effort to remove the illegitimate, in their view, head of the country.”

            That country, of course, is Syria, Mitrokhin continues.  The Syrian case is “close to the Donbas by virtue of the fact that in an internal conflict in a country with a complex mix of population there are now involved various external forces,” with Russia and Iran supporting the Asad regime and various countries or at least groups in them backing the opposition.

            That parallel in turn suggests something else. “In the current Russian political lexicon, the term “little answer” [“otvetka”] which comes from criminal jargon and means a forcible response to certain actions or challenges by a competitor.”

            Those who use this term, he argues, see “Crimea, for example, as ‘a little answer’ for Kosovo,” and they qualify other Russian actions “which violate international law” as “’little answers’ for Kosovo, Qaddafi, the ‘NATO bombing’ of Serbia and even for the collapse of the USSR.”

            The Kremlin is unhappy with what it believes the West is doing in Syria just as it is “by any other attempt at overthrowing a dictator by a pro-Western opposition.  Consequently, Mitrokhin says, “it is possible that [Putin et al.] hope to use the Donbass as the basis for an exchange in the course of its global conflict with the West.”

            Such a possibility is suggested, he continues, by “Putin’s silence regarding the election of Poroshenko” as president of Ukraine, a silence which suggests that “in the eyes of the Russian authorities, the elected Ukrainian president is no more legitimate than [Syria’s] Asad is in the eyes of the West.”

            Moreover, Mitrokhin notes, “the Orthodox terrorists and Chechen volunteers” ostensibly fighting on their own in the Donbass are “partially the very same people who already fought in Syria.”  And the announcement of plans by the US to provide military equipment to Ukraine is likely to reinforce a Kremlin view that Ukraine and Syria are analogous.

            An invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces “still looks improbable,” the analyst argues, “although such a threat (again by analogy with the actions of Western countries in Syria) constantly hangs in the air, sometimes materialize in the form of Russian drones.”  Putin simply wants the conflict to continue, until he can use it for his own geopolitical goals.

            “What price will Putin set for peace making in Eastern Ukraine?” Mitrokhin says that he believes that the Kremlin leader will propose to the West a “package” deal: Western recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a non-bloc status for Ukraine and an end to “military support for the anti-Asad opposition in Syria.”

            The G-7 leaders are hardly like to agree, the Moscow analyst continues, particularly because “the Ukrainian government has begun to show some success in the military arena. But what this means is that no one should expect news about peace in the Donbass anytime soon.”

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