Sunday, 16 March 2014

What Putin Should Do About Ukraine

by Sam Collings-Wells

Poster in the Crimea describing the Kiev-based government as "fascist"
(image source: BBC)
On the 22nd of February, a group of right wing Ukrainian thugs gathered in Maidan Square, Kiev. After successfully launching a coup detat and ousting the legitimate president Viktor Yanukovych, the safety of the ethnic Russians living in Ukraine was called into question. These suspicions were largely confirmed when the fascist-backed, illegitimate revolutionary government issued a decree which stripped the Russian language of its secondary status.

Fearful of the effect the unstable situation in Ukraine would have on the livelihood of his fellow Russians, Vladimir Putin sent in his troops to ensure order and stability in the region. And why shouldnt he? Just because a few Western leaders, their broad assertions of territorial integrity now drenched with hypocrisy since their excursion in Iraq, may huff and puff over Ukraines sovereignty, that should not stop Mr Putin from defending the Russians that live east on the Ukrainian border. 

So runs the narrative on the Ukrainian crisis in the mainstream Russian media. The grip of the Russian state is again tightening on news outlets. Only yesterday, three websites that were critical of the Russian government were shut down. One rogue reporter who expressed her reservations about the occupation was sent to Ukraine to rectify her ignorance on the situation. The one-sided nature of the Russian media indicates why Putin's approval ratings hit a three-year high after the invasion.

While western commentators may fume about the injustices of not allowing a free press, this does not change the fact that most Russians approve of what Putin is doing. By whipping up Russian hysteria about the Maidan Revolution, denouncing it as a neo-fascist power grab sponsored by the Americans, Putin now has little room for manoeuvre and negotiation. The Kremlin has, in a sense, become a slave to its own propaganda. And this is entirely intentional. 
Anti-Putin rally in the Crimea yesterday
(image source: BBC)
It is a very similar approach to the one adopted the Bush administration before the Iraq invasion. While the reasoning for the invasion was complex, the government ostensibly claimed it was to prevent the build up of WMDs. The evidence of Iraq possessing WMDs was razor thin, yet that did not stop the New York Times and other respected papers taking the administration's assertions at face value and endorsing the war. 79% of Americans in 2003 thought the war was justified. Powerful governments are very good at creating their own reality for them to act within. Angela Merkel shouldnt be surprised that Putin appears to be in another world.

Because of this, Putin has to act.
Democratic consensus may have been reached through authoritarian means, but it has been reached nonetheless. It would be foolish for Putin not to act upon it. Putin the Machiavellian should use the rather dubious Crimean referendum to annex the territory. The US and Europe have said they will not recognise the referendum. Yet it will go some way to legitimising Putins occupation and is sure to give him more leverage. If successful, Putin will be able to present the accession of Ukraine as an unequivocal achievement to his people.

Western leaders must realise this when they are deciding what to do about Ukraine. Putin cannot afford to balk now. At best, he will simply appear weak and indecisive. At worst, it will appear that he has crumbled in the face of western pressure and left Ukraine and the Russians within to the mercy of the neo-Nazis. Alternatively Putin could stick to his guns, and be seen as the strong leader who called the West's bluff and increased Russian territory by the size of Belgium. Putin is no democrat. Yet he takes immense pride in his leadership and his legacy. Putin knows there is no greatness to be found in weakness.

Which is unfortunate for Russia.

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