Guest post: take Putin on Ukraine with pound of salt – beyondbrics - Blogs - FT.com:
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The four hour Q&A session of Vladimir Putin televised on April 17 was dominated by his vision for Ukraine. He cheerfully accepted congratulations on the “victory” in Crimea from a political opponent and benevolently corrected “hawkish” appeals of an ardent supporter. But the informal talk with Russian citizens, in my view, sent a direct message to the West: you either accept the way we deal with Ukraine or watch us wreak a much bigger havoc in the country. To make that message more palatable to the West, Putin alluded to Moscow’s involvement in the region as showing a “responsibility to protect”.
Similar to his “Crimea welcoming” address to the Russian parliament in March, Putin’s rhetoric on Ukraine was heavy with irredentism. He drew on the concept of “Novorossiya” (New Russia) – a vast area of land seized by the Russian Empire – thus laying claim to regions of Ukraine. By lumping together in his remarks the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donbas and Slobozhanshyna with the Ukrainian South, he blurs the pro-Ukrainian orientation of the agrarian south. By alluding to a Russian-speaking majority in most of these territories, he falsely implies the equivalency of Russian speakers with ethnic Russians.
In his historical allusions, however, Putin overlooks the fact that the linguistic breakdown is far from homogenous in these regions: while major cities in Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk regions are indeed Russian-speaking, the rural areas are mostly Ukrainian-speaking or use a mixture of both languages called “surzhyk”. Likewise, Putin omits the fact that Donetsk was founded by the Welsh industrialist John Hughes and Odessa has long been a cosmopolitan mixture of peoples and cultures, rather than a “Russian city”.
Talking of the instability in Eastern Ukraine, Putin made an attempt to put all the blame on the authorities in Kiev (Kyiv). For the first time, he admitted the presence of Russian troops in Crimea to “secure” the illegal referendum there. This rendered his previous assurances that the armed men were only “local self-defence” untrue.
Yet he repeated this line by claiming that allegations of Russian troops’ involvement in eastern Ukraine were “absurd”. That assurance rings hollow amid all the evidence: the militants carry weapons typical of the Russian army and speak with Russian accents that differ from eastern Ukrainian ones. The only reason Putin cannot admit the presence of Russian subversive groups is that it is…too early. In Putin’s quirky understanding of the legality of occupation, this is only possible once the control of the territory is sealed by a declaration of independence or accession to Russia. That is a tell-tale sign that Putin does not have a clear-cut plan for what he will do next in eastern Ukraine.
Having rejected the claims of Russian involvement, Putin promptly accused Ukraine’s authorities of escalating the violence in the East. In an attempt to stir the nationalist outrage in his domestic audience, Putin blasted the government in Kiev for sending “tanks” to eastern Ukraine in order to suppress the protests of local residents. While painting a bleak picture of Kiev resolved to violently squash dissent, Putin’s propaganda line omits the fact that preventing casualties among the locals was the major priority for the security forces. This was a primary reason for the failure of the “anti-terrorist” operation announced by Kiev: the local residents sympathetic towards the militants were effectively used as live shields by Russian agents in Donbas towns.
The Donbas standoff between the “incognito” militants and Ukraine’s forces, however, does not have to follow the Crimea scenario. Curiously, Putin refrained from talking about the incident that occurred in Mariupol (a major industrial town and port) on 16 April, when Ukrainian troops successfully defended their military base against a gang of armed separatists who tried to storm it. The assault ended with several militants killed and wounded; dozens more were arrested. This shoot-out served as a wake-up call for the local residents: many rebuffed the separatists’ attack and the business community rallied actively in support of public order. Such reaction to the first deaths of civilians cast doubts on the Russian myth of the ubiquitous support for Russia-inspired mayhem in Donbas; hence his team deemed it necessary not to bring it up in a Q&A session.
Another “talking point” that Putin adopted was the lack of legitimacy in eastern Ukraine. In a fake display of outrage, Putin claimed that Kiev had “installed” oligarchs as governors to supervise the regions while disregarding the “local leaders”. However, all the governors in eastern Ukraine are locals or have extensive experience of working in “their” regions. Not all of them are oligarchs, only two can be assigned that label. Ihor Kolomoisky is from Dnipropetrovsk, where he co-owns the biggest bank in the country, Privat Bank. Putin’s ire towards Kolomoyskiy was conspicuously strong: he jeered at the fact that the oligarch’s bank withdrew from Crimea, thus releasing local residents from their mortgages. What Putin did not say is that Kolomoysky’s team has done a good job talking to political opponents (even among the separatist camp) and strengthening the law-enforcement institutions; there have been no major violent clashes between citizens on the street. Now Dnipropetrovsk streets boast more Ukrainian flags than Kiev.
The situation in Donetsk gives no ground to claim that the Kiev’s despot suppresses it with an iron fist. Quite the opposite is true. Serhiy Taruta, the governor, has spent his life in Donetsk region in the steel business, but was never in the premier league of Ukrainian oligarchy. The governor’s office is far from the most powerful centre of decision-making in Donetsk region. In effect, Taruta is overshadowed by the mightier figure of Rinat Akhmetov, who owns the biggest enterprises and commands huge informal clout over the police. Akhmetov declined an offer to become the manager of “his” region preferring to adopt a “wait-and-see” position.
Putin’s allegations of Kyiv using oligarchs as wardens in eastern Ukraine ring all the more curious after the State Duma (Russian parliament) recently cancelled direct mayoral elections in Russia’s major cities. While professing federalization in Ukraine, Putin is building an even more centralised system of governance at home.
One would ask what animates Putin’s tactics. Instead of tailoring his policy to the reality on the ground, Russia will create a situation of “chaos” in eastern Ukraine to create a pretext for intervention later. But the myth of a “bloodless war” in Crimea that he managed to instill in his domestic audience and even some foreign observers will lose steam if Ukraine’s military and police prevent the Crimea scenario in eastern Ukraine.
The author – who is currently in Kiev after travelling widely in eastern Ukraine in recent days – is an analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), an independent think tank that provides advice to all branches of government.