The possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine is now front-page news, with little sign that Putin is going to move his massive military buildup by the border back anytime soon, even if he does not invade. After the phone call this past week between him and Biden, supposedly lower-level negotiations have started, but it is unlikely Putin is going to be given anything dramatic that he has been demanding, such as a written guarantee Ukraine will not join NATO, something that polls now say 58% of Ukrainians support in the face of the ongoing threats and invasions and annexations and other provocations that Putin keeps indulging himself in, with a loud stream of propaganda over the past year that involves simply questioning there is any legitimacy to a Ukrainian state separate from Russia at all. What did Putin think all this noise would bring about in Ukraine? Is he actually deluded about popular opinion there?
Yes, there are almost still some areas under Ukrainian military and political control in eastern Ukraine where Russian speakers dominate and who might prefer to be under Russian control, either as part of a separatist republic like the current Russian-supported Luhansk and Donetsk republics or as part of Russia itself as Crimea has become, effectively since its annexation, although that remains unrecognized by most of the rest of the world. Perhaps Putin will insist on invading some of those territories presumably adjacent to those currently existing republics, thus expanding the territory under his effective control before backing off. But, perhaps he will prefer just to keep everybody on a long-term state of high alert for various reasons. Presumably, he is aware of which areas would be more willing to accept such control, given that clearly the vast majority of Ukraine would oppose it, which would make ruling such territory very difficult, even if he were to conquer it, which he probably could if he really pushed it, although this would surely bring a major economic cost in being shut out of the international SWIFT financial system, which would certainly make life difficult for his crony oligarch pals.
Probably the most dramatic expansion he could do and maybe even sort of get away with, although I think it would probably bring that expulsion from the SWIFT system, would be to conquer Kharkiv (Ukrainian name, “Kharkov” being the Russian name). This is the second largest city in Ukraine after the capital, Kyiv (“Kiev” Russian name), at about 1.5 million. This is a city with a majority Russian speakers, although I do not know current sentiment. As it is, it nearly joined to become another separatist republic when Luhansk and Donetsk did. A “local” separatist group did briefly seize control of the city hall, what happened in Luhansk and Donetsk, but unlike in those cities, after a few days the local police, not the Ukrainian military, removed them, and that was that. It and its surrounding province and remained fully a part of Ukraine, without any of the fighting happening there since. But that would be a big prize for Putin. As it is, the city of Donetsk, which is in the separatist territories, is officially the fifth largest city of Ukraine at about 900,000, a major center of heavy industry.
So, why is he doing this now? One reason, rarely mentioned in the media reports, is this looming anniversary, which I am sure is very much on his mind: Christmas Day. It was 30 years ago on December 25, 1991, that the Soviet flag was lowered over the Kremlin in Moscow and the Russian flag was raised. Putin has on more than one occasion declared that event to be “the worst socio-political catastrophe in world history,” or words to that effect, surely a completely absurd statement. But he seems to take it seriously, and many reports do note his desire to somehow undo “the end of the Cold War,” even as these reports somehow fail to note this looming 3oth anniversary of that end.
A front page story in today’s Washington Post by its main Moscow correspondent, Robyn Dixon, lists six reasons why Putin is making this push. The first is effectively this “redo the end of the Cold War” one, even as she fails to notice this looming anniversary as probably a factor in that.
The second is the ongoing claim reinforced by Putin’s long June essay on the issue that Ukraine “is not even a state,” that it is or should really be at most “a protectorate” of Russia, if it even should be independent at all. This is clearly historically absurd even if it is true that prior to the 20th century there was at most only briefly anything resembling a separate and independent Ukrainian state. Of course, when one goes back far enough in time to when there was first a unified Russian-Ukrainian state, it was ruled out of Kyiv, not out of Moscow or St. Petersburg, a detail Putin and his spokespeople prefer to ignore. But even acknowledging several centuries of Russian rule over Ukraine, even in those periods there were parts of modern Ukraine that Russia never ruled, notably the highly nationalistic western part that was ruled alternately by Poland and Austria at different times. I think even Putin is not keen on trying to rule those unruly anti-Russians there.
The third is the “security buffer” argument. Of all of the ones in this list this may have some credibility. But Putin’s own aggressive actions against Ukraine have, as already noted, turned most of Ukrainian public opinion against Russia, with a full 72% viewing Russia as a “hostile power” and pushing toward exactly those outcomes Putin does not want: Ukraine joining both the EU (62% in favor) as well as NATO (58%). He has brought about exactly what he does not want, and no amount of phony claims that the current Ukrainian government is run by a bunch of Nazis will undo that.
The fourth is essentially the fuller more explicit version of what is in the first one, the “One Russia” argument, that Ukraine really is not or should not be a separate state, and that it and Belarus should be part of Russia, or at least that Ukraine should become as subordinate to Russia as Belarus currently is. This has at times, including in Putin’s June essay, involved making clearly false claims that there is not even a separate Ukrainian language or culture. However, more precisely there is the other possibly justifiable argument of admitting that there are two languages (at least) and that Russia needs to protect Russian speakers who are supposedly discriminated against and oppressed by the Ukrainian government. This was the bottom line justification for the annexation of Crimea and the support for the current separatist republics. Again, this might be used to justify conquering some more territory in the eastern region, but that argument will not extend very far.
Then we have the “exporting chaos” argument, one that clearly has zero justification. This is based on the lie that the Ukrainian government is a total mess and not functional, when in fact it is currently democratic and fighting local corruption, if not fully successful. This becomes its real threat to Putin, a neighboring example of such a state, democratically run with full civil freedoms, a looming contrast to what is going on in Russia, where conditions are poor with mismanagement of the pandemic leading to a newly intensified lockdown in much of the country, and reports of Putin’s poll numbers reaching new lows as he kills off or imprisons any credible rival. Of course, the fake claim that the Ukrainian government is run by Nazis is part of all this, fitting in with the security buffer argument (“the Great Patriotic War!!!), although there are certainly some neo-Nazi groups operating in Ukraine who have at times had an influence on governments, although not on the current one. And, of course, a Great Patriotic War abroad is always a good way to distract citizens from local problems and unhappiness, although there are some indications this may not be as popular as this stuff was in the past.
Finally, there is the claim of “Echoes of Russia’s Imperial History.” This may sell in Russia, but it does not do so anywhere else. Allowing nations to claim as theirs whatever they once ruled at some time in the past when they were at their greatest power peak of expansionary rule is a recipe for total global war, given how many of such claims are totally in conflict.
I shall close by noting another unpleasant point that pretty much everybody ignores. It is that in fact both the US and UK promised to “defend the territorial integrity of Ukraine” in the 1994 Budapest Accord, the other parties to which were Russia and Ukraine. This was the agreement that went along with Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons to Russia. Neither the US nor UK followed up on that when Russia seized control of Crimea and then annexed it. As it is, based on that Accord, maybe NATO has no grounds for defending Ukraine against a Russian invasion, but both the US and UK are already derelict in failing to do so previously and will be even more so if they do nothing if Russia further invades, although probably the only thing that will happen in that case will be an imposition of much more serious economic sanctions. In any case, I hope there is no invasion, and I hope Putin can hold himself back from doing so without making too much more tension. Heck, one virtue of being an authoritarian leader is that one can change the narrative and policy at any time one wants to. This whole aggressive move has his been his doing without any substantial provocation by outside parties. He can just stop doing it if he chooses at any point without any threat to his rule, I think. I hope he decides that. Although I am sure this is going to go on at least past this looming anniversary and probably into next year sometime on the best of possible outcomes.
PS: I just noticed that spell check does not like the currently correct “Kharkiv” but seems to prefer the Russian “Kharkov.” Gag.