Thursday, July 24, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Putin Now Down to One Ally – Moscow Television

Paul Goble


            Staunton, July 24 – Tsar Aleksandr III famously said that Russia has only two allies – its army and its fleet – but now, according to Rashit Akhmetov, the editor of “Zvezda Povolzhya,” Vladimir Putin is down to only one – Moscow television with its ability to shape and direct Russian opinion.


            In a lead article in that Kazan paper today, Akhmetov argues that in the wake of the shooting down of the Malaysian airline, Putin is “beginning to recognize that the ‘patriotic’ and nationalist wave” he helped to generate’ “now can be thrown against himself because it will demand a more aggressive policy which Putin and Russia do not have the resources for.”


            As a result, Akhmetov says, Putin has only “one ally -- television” – on which he can rely as he tries to extricate himself from his current problems in Ukraine and to survive in the Kremlin. Russia “doesn’t have a fleet, and its army will suffer enormously from the defeat in Donetsk  (“Zvezda Povolzhya,” no. 27 (707), July 24-30, 2014, p. 1).


            The Kazan editor says that his dependence on television will become ever more obvious because he “will be forced to turn to the support of the West.” To cover himself, he will insist that the West promise not to seek the return of Crimea to Ukraine. Only later, Akhmetov suggests, Putin will “begin to purge those guilty of the Ukrainian adventure.”


            Those are Akhmetov’s conclusions.  They rest on a more extended argument.  He begins his article by saying that the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner is “a turning point” in history perhaps equivalent to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 which triggered World War I.


            That is because, he continues, the shooting down of the plane may have been the work in the immediate sense of the secessionists in eastern Ukraine, but they would not have had the necessary weapons system had Moscow not given it to them and would not have fired it had they not convinced their Russian controllers that they needed to shoot down a plane to prevent the defeat of the secessionist cause.


            In the wake of the surrender of Slavyansk by the secessionists, both they and Moscow were worried enough to use ground-to-air rockets to shoot down Ukrainian military planes bringing in supplies, actions that the secessionists have acknowledged in other cases.  The real question is why was Russian oversight so bad in the case of the Malaysian civilian airliner?


            According to Akhmetov, the secessionists made a mistake, but they succeeded in getting Moscow’s authorization to shoot because they exploited the nervousness of Russian commanders and of Moscow not only about the military situation in southeastern Ukraine but also about what could happen in Russia itself in the event of a total collapse of the secessionist project.


            Unless they got authorization, the Kazan editor says, the secessionists implicitly threatened that the Donetsk Peoples Republic would “suffer a defeat” and be forced to “evacuate tens of thousands” of armed men into the Russian Federation where they would pose a threat to the political situation there.  Out of fear and in confusion, the Russians authorized the launch, and the result was tragic.


            In many ways, this represented a playing out of the misconception Putin himself had about southeastern Ukraine.  As he repeatedly has said, Russia won in Crimea without firing a single shot or without the loss of a single life and without the imposition of Western sanctions. The Kremlin leader clearly expected the same thing elsewhere in Ukraine.


            But he failed to understand two crucial realities. On the one hand, southeastern Ukraine is significantly less ethnically Russian and significantly more integrated into Ukraine than was Crimea, with 80 percent of its population being Russia and its anchor being the Russian naval base at Sevastopol.


            And on the other, while ethnic Russians in southeastern Ukraine might have accepted the integration of their region into the Russian Federation if the Russian army had come to occupy them, they were not and are not willing to fight for that outcome. Because Putin recognized that he could not send in the army without provoking a major war, he thus found himself in a position where he could not win.


            In short, Putin was pushed into a corner, something that ensured that he would make mistakes because of his own nature.  As a KGB officer, Putin was trained never to trust anyone. His suspiciousness of others, even those nominally closest to him, represents a problem that may be even greater to his future than any threat posed by the West.


            And even before he became a Soviet intelligence officer, Akhmetov says, Putin had a childhood experience about what happens when someone is driven into a corner. As he has told journalists, he drove a rat into a corner with a stick. The rat retreated until it had nowhere to go and then it attacked.


            “I once and for all time understood,” Putin said, “what the phrase ‘driven into a corner’ means.” 


            Because he trusts no one, the Kremlin leader could easily imagine that the leaders of the secessionists would turn on him if they were allowed to go down to defeat. And because he can see that they feel that they have been “driven into a corner,” Akhmetov continues, they have all the more reason to come out fighting against the man they blame for their predicament.







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