Center for Strategic Communication

 By Patricia H Kushlis

Whoever convinced Vladimir Putin that it would be a cup of afternoon tea by the samovar to send arms and irregulars into Ukraine in the name of “protecting” the greater Russian speaking population and then to hive off the country’s east because its population would welcome them with rose petals and vodka should be off the Kremlin payroll.  True, the takeover of Crimea had been all too easy and Russia’s war with Georgia was a thing of the past.   Eastern Ukraine, however, is turning out to be a different story.

A dangerous card game

It’s not that the Russian special forces sent there were not battle hardened fighters – it’s clear from their backgrounds and swagger that they had had considerable experience on various killing fields at home and in the neighborhood apparently acting under Moscow’s tutelage – if not command.

Presumably the decision to send them across the porous borders was only made after Ukrainians had had enough of the corrupt Viktor Yanukovich. Yanukovich who fled in the dark of night over the Russian border to save his skin had quietly done Moscow’s bidding all the while living in secret splendor on an estate outside of Kiev.  (Why is it that corrupt East European autocrats tend to prefer villas surrounded by fields and forests stocked with game and complete with zoos full of exotic animals?)

Yet the pursuit of one country’s ultra-nationalist goals – whether on the cheap or otherwise – sets an entire region on edge.  Especially when the mantra is the reestablishment of the Russian (or any other) Empire based on the all too friendly embrace of native speakers living outside the country’s borders.

Playing the nationalist card is popular for leaders, particularly those in trouble at home.  This has been true for decades if not centuries.  The problem comes when it’s time to put that genie back into the bottle.  The trick is how to stay in power without losing even greater credibility than before the divisive adventurism designed to shore up popularity among the home folk began.

Nationalism is after all about ethnicity which usually translates as linguistic, cultural and religious sameness. It has its purposes when used to protect the homeland from attack or internal disaster but when unleashed abroad it becomes a dangerous game with far reaching ramifications and unintended consequences.

In the real world, however, there is no ethnically pure country. Would someone please remind the Kremlin that this includes Russia itself.   81 percent of the Russian population is ethnically Russian. This leaves another 19 percent who are not. At least some living on this huge territory that stretches across 14 time zones would prefer to go their own way given the choice.  At the very least, even Russian speakers living far from Moscow itch for the greater autonomy they had pre-Putin, when their governors were elected; not imposed from the center.

Moreover most Russian speakers living outside the Russian Federation’s boundaries presumably prefer to stay put for whatever reason: Outside those borders not inside. They were, after all, given the opportunity to return to Mother Russia when the Soviet Union fell apart.  They could have done so at various times. The Russian government encourages immigration (and is getting thousands of people from Eastern Ukraine fleeing the fighting) to help mitigate the country’s sagging population figures.

Yet, even before Putin’s current Ukrainian folly, Russians had begun leaving their homeland for greener pastures in unprecedented numbers. That exodus began in 2013 – up 76% from the year before according to a UN report issued in March 2014.)  Perhaps as a result, Moscow has apparently begun to make it more difficult for some people to leave. 

Last year the UN statistics show that nearly 40,000 Russians fled the country for political reasons – only refugees from war-torn Syria were larger in numbers.  Many of these Russian political refugees sought asylum in Germany or Poland. Those figures are from 2013. What, I wonder, will the 2014 statistics contain?

One has to wonder why the number of Russian seeking political refuge abroad was so large last year – was it just due to a slowing economy or something more troubling in the air? Meanwhile Russia’s downward population spiral continues especially among the Russian speakers themselves with the only real domestic population growth occurring among the minorities. Foreign adventurism in the name of a Greater or “New” Russia (NovoRossiya) will not reverse the trend. 

Nationalism in defense of the homeland is one thing.  Expansionism abroad based on nationalism’s siren song -whether near or not – is another.    

Meanwhile, a new Ukrainian president elected under the most difficult of circumstances but in an election conducted under the close observation of 1,000 international monitors from the neutral OSCE plus an armed and reinvigorated Ukrainian Army no longer willing to stand aside and let Russian backed separatists have their way are challenging the Kremlin’s “Ukrainian invasion-light.”

The tragic downing of MH-17 two weeks ago – likely by Russian separatists – has raised the ante internationally bringing additional US and EU sanctions down on the Russian economy. Reports from the crash site such as this recent one in Der Spiegel are appearing in well-respected, widely read European publications helping to sway European skeptics to the Ukrainian side in critical countries like Germany.   

Narrowed options

Putin’s options are narrowing. He could, of course, send in the Russian Army as he did in Georgia in 2008.  This might be popular with the home crowd helping to increase support from wavering nationalists, but it would surely push Ukraine not just into an association agreement with the EU (which the new government has signed) but also into the arms of NATO.   Meanwhile NATO is moving equipment and troops into Poland and shoring up defenses in the Baltics to try to contain potential future Russian ambitions – precisely what the Russian government wants least.   Nevertheless, changing borders unilaterally and violently is not looked upon favorably from the outside – especially from the vantage point of potential targets.

Thus far the Kremlin has preferred to destabilize its neighbor on the cheap.  But as the Ukrainian Army continues to gain territory from the irregulars in a classic pincer move and the Moscow backed mini-states – the self proclaimed Free Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk – look less and less sustainable, today’s Czar in the Kremlin needs to watch his backside.  At the very least, he needs to find a way out of the mess he has created – one apparently spurred on by those in his circle of ultranationalist advisers.  Face saving or not.