Ukraine Is On the Verge Of War And Putin Is To Blame

Corpses littered the streets of Kiev today and the man to blame for Ukraine’s crisis is none other than the king of Sochi himself.

02.20.14 7:15 PM ET

Corpses are piling up in the capital city of a European country again, and the main beneficiary of the ongoing Grand Guignol is now the celebrated master of ceremonies at an international sporting competition.

As of this writing, Ukraine is drawing to a close the bloodiest day of a 72-hour pogrom. Dozens have been killed. The government of Viktor Yanukovych, having lost all credibility weeks ago, has decided to behave as if it now has nothing to lose and no one, outside of Moscow, to impress.

“Government” may in fact be too strong a term to use to describe what’s left of power structures. Yanukovych already appears more warlord than president. His police force has been firing indiscriminately into the crowds with automatic weapons, joined by roving gangs of loyalist paramilitary units—titushki—who are conspicuous by their own automatic weapons and their yellow arm bands, the latter to keep the police from shooting at them. Hotels have become field hospitals. Bodies of protestors have been found without heads; others have been laid out in rows reminiscent of Aleppo.

Two Ukrainian journalists were recently yanked out of taxis and beaten savagely, one shot in the chest and killed. Evidence of execution-style gunshots with armor-piercing bullets has emerged. Ukrainian authorities, too, have been shot and killed in what now threatens to become all-out civil war and certainly has the telltale signs of one. Barricades erected line the Maidan, or Independence Square in Kiev, as they do in other cities around the country, sometimes with World War II cannons-cum-monuments. Tires and government buildings have been set alight with Molotov cocktails, their fires burning through the night amidst strangely playful green laser light shows. Before long, this mood suggests, someone’s tanks will be rolling into city streets in a replay of Hungary in 1956 or Prague in 1968.

Perhaps the most salient development today was the report that Russia’s spetsnaz (special forces) have been deployed by Putin to help put down what was once a peaceful protest movement, but now is seen as a mayhem of Molotov cocktails and riots. According to Tyzhden, a Ukrainian weekly, one such officer was “captured” by protestors and displayed before the Euromaidan masses today, his martial insignia of a double-headed eagle, proof to many, if proof were needed, of where he came from and who’s actually running the show in Kiev.  (Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the president of Estonia, who knows something about Russia’s infiltration of its next-door neighbors, credited this report as plausible and tweeted a link to the Tyzhden article. The Russian embassy in Tallinn accused him of spreading “lying tweets”—before deleting the accusation.)

Why did I say it was alarming that this present state of affairs was not foreseen by the West? Because Putin told us what was imminent. He always has the courtesy to notify in advance, even if we choose not to listen.

Sergei Glazev is his right-hand-man on Russia’s “integration” with Ukraine, which is more properly understood as re-colonization. Yanuykovych “has a choice,” Glazev last month told the house organ of Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas company and, up until now, Putin’s preferred tool for getting what he wants out of Europe. “Either he defends Ukrainian statehood and puts down the insurrection…or he risks losing power, in which case Ukraine faces growing chaos and internal conflict with no escape to be seen.”

The consequences for not putting down the “insurrection” were further spelled out by the Kremlin. When Yanukovych appeared to go wobbly and offered conciliatory gestures to the opposition late last month (like an Arab dictator in trouble, he sacked and swapped his cabinet, mainly for cosmetic effect, in January), Putin threatened to withhold the $15 billion loan which first enticed Yanukovych to defy the majority of Ukrainians by quashing a very modest but symbolically important association agreement with the European Union. Was it a coincidence, then, that the first day the shooting started—Monday—was also the day that Putin’s Finance Ministry announced that Yanukovych’s punishment would not be meted out and that $2 billion of that loan would instead be dispensed after all?  Dialogue may get you trade agreements with Brussels, but crushing skulls gets keeps the bribes coming from Moscow.

It pays to remember that while Putin was, since his St. Petersburg days, always an obvious Chekist and mafioso, he didn’t really start to become one in the Western imagination until the end of his first term, after the so-called “color revolutions” kicked off in the former Soviet states, including and especially in Ukraine. This is because his response to these democratic ferments was to eliminate any and all possibility that they might flourish where they started or, god forbid, spread to Russia itself. His scapegoats then, as now, were the United States and Europe, which he blamed for mucking about in his backyard. So began a gradual and fitful process of re-Sovietization which, since Putin’s return to the presidency, has accelerated rapidly. That return, and that acceleration, are not coincidences either.

The Russian Putin blames the most for bungling Ukraine’s Orange Revolution is Dmitry Medvedev, erstwhile placeholder president, now relegated to the position of sinecurist premier and scapegoat for of Russia’s expanding domestic problems. Medvedev is further burdened with being the meek fool who botched the Russo-Georgian summer war of 2008 (he started it too late and finished it too early, according to Putin) and allowed NATO to depose Muammar Gaddafi with a no-fly zone. Never again, Dima.

Medvedev’s antithesis is a man named Vladislav Surkov, the variously and sporadically employed “grey cardinal” of the Kremlin, who is credited with consolidating Putin’s power, post-Orange Revolution, and conceiving of the concept of “sovereign democracy,” now Russia’s second largest export after oil. Indeed, Surkov has become the Scarlet Pimpernel of Euromaidan, allegedly spotted here, there and everywhere in Ukraine, yet existing only (so far) as a sinister rumor.

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Surkovian is an adjective that Westerners would do well acquaint themselves with when trying to understand what’s happening in either Kiev or Moscow. It means politics taken to the level of a retrovirus: co-opt anything organic, trick it into thinking it’s still healthy, then liquidate it by slow measures. It means agents provocateurs and pseudo-oppositions and just enough meaningless liberty to make society not care about the real thing. It means fashioning loyalist youth-mobs which set upon a very green and very limited genuine opposition by depicting it as a Nazi fifth column of the U.S. State Department. It means unleashing hell when the moment is right and then presenting the aftermath as a warning of what happens if the status quo is not maintained. There’s also an element of Byzantine absurdity to the Surkovian, a combination of the ludic and the vicious. Holding the most expensive and corrupt Winter Olympics in history as a PR coup, then letting Cossacks horsewhip Russia’s most famous female dissidents in between bobsled races is one example. Phone-tapping American statesmen badmouthing their European counterparts may be pure KGB “tradecraft,” but releasing the audio for all the world to hear is a Surkovian triumph.

Events now unfolding in Ukraine threaten to be yet another, and the options to prevent civil war or the breakup of the country are dwindling. Still, there are options. My friend Edward Lucas has laid out two in Britain’s Daily Telegraph. First, help protect Georgia and Moldova, the other two former Soviet republics now in the “Kremlin’s firing line,” and strengthen our alliance with the Baltic states that keep getting mock-invaded or cyber-attacked by Russia. Second, freeze the U.S. and European-based assets of Yanukovych and his ruling “family”. These are actually very well known to sanctions monitors, and if they require additional assistance, a good place to start is at

I’d add to Lucas’ list that Washington and Brussels ought to exploit the cracks now beginning to appear in the Yanukovych monolith. His own functionaries and partisans all seem to realize their man is finished as anything other than a satrap of a revanchist empire-in-the-remaking. More and more of them are resigning, going over to the other side, or declaring their independence. The mayor of Kiev, Volodymyr Makeenko, has left the Party of Regions and promised to re-start the city’s stalled subway system. “None of the oligarchs have died, none of the politicians died. I, as head of the city administration, am taking care of burying tens of bodies of common people every day,” Makeeno said in a letter addressed to Yanukovych. He also said that he planned to assume “personal responsibility for the livelihood of the city of Kiev,” which may mean that the capital, and the country’s centre of finance, will become a semi-autonomous city-state before long, one that could theoretically parlay with the U.S., E.U. and U.N. directly. 

Yanukovych also seems to have lost his own Foreign Ministry, which has now put out a statement endorsing the association agreement with the EU as a measure that “can unite us all.”

Meanwhile, Putin’s own method of minatory agitprop should be used against him, repeatedly and without the usual happy-talk hedging. Failed statehood is what happens when you sell out your own people to do a deal with the czar. And this has a habit of affecting not just the politicized man in the street but also the establishment fat-cat or illicitly enriched bureaucrat with real estate and bank accounts everywhere but Russia.