A Ukrainian-American Watches Putin from Kiev and Wonders What’s Next for Ukraine
I watched Putin's March 19th speech celebrating Russia’s annexation of Crimea in a coffee shop in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv. I watched with a friend who'd been active in the establishment of the Ukrainian state in 1991 and then, as he puts it, decided to disgrace himself by entering politics for a brief period at the city level. He considers himself a patriot and was keenly interested in Putin’s announcement.
To both of us, Putin’s speech seemed disconnected from reality. Here’s one of the more glaring examples:
“I understand those who came out on Maidan with peaceful slogans against corruption, inefficient state management and poverty. The right to peaceful protest, democratic procedures and elections exist for the sole purpose of replacing the authorities that do not satisfy the people. . . . They resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup. They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day.”
None of this is true.
The major violence was sparked on January 20th when the Russian-backed Yanukovych government, without following legislative procedures, criminalized virtually every conceivable form of protest.
Regarding the persistent accusations of hooliganism, one can easily contrast the nature of the pro-Ukrainian protesters with the pro-Russian ones.
In Donetsk, pro-Russian protesters broke through police lines and stabbed to death two pro-Ukrainian protesters - the raw footage is here and here is a heartbreaking eye-witness account with subtitles. The victims were locals. It is widely believed that their attackers arrived from Russia. Ukrainian language books have been burned in Crimea and Kharkiv.
Also in Crimea, a Tartar, Reshat Ametov, was found murdered with signs of torture. His friends said he was going to join the Ukrainian military.
There has been no analogous violence directed toward Russians. The hypocrisy of the Kremlin propaganda is unbearable.
For weeks Ukrainians have been wondering how far the Kremlin will go and how they should prepare. Though I wouldn't curtail any preparation for worst-case scenarios, to my friend and me, Putin's speech, which condemned pro-Ukrainians as neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites, and attempted to put the invasion in historical context, seemed like a declaration of victory and an attempted consolidation of moral authority, rather than a pre-cursor to more Russian aggression.
It seems that Putin will only attempt to discredit and affect the government in Kyiv by covert means, as discussed by Forbes contributor Paul Gregory.
One can only speculate about Kremlin's calculations, but here are four that may inform Putin’s future actions.
First, Russia had deep internal divisions. They've waged war on two occasions to prevent secession of Chechnya. The invasion of Crimea has sparked huge protests. Dissenters included included university professors, and a former Russian General. If the Russian army advances into new territories domestic unrest will likely increase. By stopping now, Putin will have made a point about Russian power and can turn his attention back to stifling dissent in Russia before the internal protest movements grow into a bigger problem.
Second, Ukraine has been a tentative ally of Moscow and a huge trading partner,fourth in imports and sixth in export to Russia. Influential oligarchs who have interests in both countries would be harmed by the all out war, which would likely ensue if Putin pressed too hard. Perhaps he also hopes he can keep Ukraine as a borderland instead of having it join NATO.
Third, though Peter Pomerantsev has argued that Russia's ruling elite may actually have been enriched by recent market turbulence, perhaps Russia is feeling the pressure of investor flight, and, separately, the newly announced sanctions which target influential Russians appear to be significantly more severe and impactful than the last round.
Lastly, Crimea was the easiest target. It is geographically defensible, and had the highest percentage of people who wanted to join Russia: 41%, according as reported by Ukrainian News Channel 24 last month. Substantial, though certainly not the 97% indicated by the referendum.
The subject of Crimea's considerable Russian minority has been discussed since Ukraine gained independence, and was frequently polled. The 41% reported by Channel 24 is consistent with USAID sponsored polls from 2009, 2011 and 2013. According to them, 40-45% of Crimeans considered themselves Russian, 23-33% believed Crimea should join Russia, and 12% rated relations with Russia as one of the top three issues from a list of 17. Interestingly, it also found that in 2013, 40% of Crimeans do not use the internet.
Channel 24 reported that Ukraine's Eastern regions had smaller, though still significant Russian minorities. Donetsk 33%, Luhansk 24% and Kharkiv 15%.
The world provides plenty of examples of multi-ethnic regions existing on the border of two countries who claim them. History shows that it’s often only after blood has been shed by both sides that peace is reached, and that the most stable arrangement for these disputed border lands solution seems to be local autonomy (which, incidentally, Crimea had according to the Ukrainian Constitution).
Right now, Ukrainians feel slighted and wary about the future. They want to fight for every inch of their homeland. I hope Russians take this feeling seriously enough to not press further. I hope the anger subsides and local autonomy is granted and diffuses tensions where large ethnic minorities exist. Lastly, I hope that Ukraine's strategy for self defense includes a determined effort to create a country freer and more prosperous than their tyrannical neighbor. A contrast in standard of living would be the best long-term defense.
The attitude among Ukrainians is promising. The sense of civic duty is soaring, at least here in the Western part of the country. One friend of mine who was on Maidan during the worst days returned to organize his neighborhood, which sits on the outskirts of Lviv. He helped make a call list of volunteers and a plan to address potholes and dumpsters. Another friend of mine, the owner of a small software company, is designing an online corruption-reporting platform. I hope they get a better future and the chance to pursue it in peace.