Putin’s power play
When Vladimir Putin talks about what is happening in Ukraine these days, it is as
if he’s looking into a mirror. He says fascists and nationalists are running amok in Kiev, even as Crimea is annexed in the name of Great Russia; he says Russians are threatened in eastern Ukraine, even as Russia directs secessionists there to seize administrative buildings and arms; he calls on President Barack Obama to use his influence to prevent the use of force in Ukraine, even as he puts a major military force on the Ukrainian border.
This ploy was a fixture of Soviet propaganda, and when other sources of information are silenced, it can fool people for a while. But nobody outside Russia is buying it.
What the world sees is an outrageous and highly dangerous power play. A report by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights says “greatly exaggerated stories of harassment of ethnic Russians by Ukrainian nationalist extremists” in Crimea were “systematically used to create a climate of fear and insecurity.”
The same is now happening in eastern Ukraine — and with 40,000 Russian troops poised across the border and the Russian secessionists seizing arsenals and throwing up roadblocks, the potential for bloodshed is alarmingly real.
Putin’s aim may be to raise the tensions so high that the Ukrainian authorities and their American and European supporters will agree to Russia’s terms for a fragmented Ukraine, in which Russia gains considerable influence over the heavily industrialized southern and eastern regions. The threat of a Russian intervention is also real, if only because the secessionists who have seized buildings in Donetsk and several other cities could easily touch off violence and draw Putin into putting his fist where his mouth is.
Russia is likely to push its agenda at talks on Ukraine that have been scheduled for Thursday in Geneva, involving the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine and the United States and the foreign policy chief of the European Union. Ukraine has ruled out any discussion in Geneva of reorganizing its government, though its representatives said they are planning to devolve some of Kiev’s powers to the regions and to guarantee Russian language rights.
The Americans and Europeans must make clear that they will not acquiesce in any effort to partition Ukraine between East and West. For their position to carry any weight, the trans-Atlantic partners must come to Geneva prepared to be tough with Russia.
Washington and Brussels are aware that the time for symbolic sanctions is coming to an end, and Moscow will be watching them in Geneva to gauge their seriousness and solidarity. That does not mean the West needs to draw red lines in advance of the meeting.
It does mean that if Russia does not pull its forces back from the border and stop inciting secessionists in southeastern Ukraine, the trans-Atlantic partners — and in particular the Europeans, who have considerably deeper economic ties with Russia than the United States — must reach a clear and binding consensus on the next level of sanctions.
These must include far-reaching trade and financial penalties that will be painful and costly to both sides. It is imperative that Putin see a united front.