President Vladimir Putin has left little doubt he intends to cripple Ukraine’s new government, forcing it to make concessions or face the de facto partition of areas populated predominantly by ethnic Russians, from the Crimea to Odessa to the industrial heartland in the east.
That strategy has been pursued aggressively by subterfuge, propaganda and bald military threat, taking aim as much at the United States and its allies in Europe as Ukraine itself. The pivotal question now for Kiev and Western capitals is how boldly Putin continues to push his agenda, risking a more heated military and diplomatic conflict.
Putin has yet to make public remarks on the crisis in Ukraine, leaving his ultimate goals uncertain and unpredictable. Yet with a strategy aimed at blunting the impact of a popular uprising that sought to push the country away from Russia and deepen ties with Europe, Putin has already left the fledgling government disorganized, discredited and forced to compromise on terms that would keep the country firmly within Russia’s sphere of influence, especially regarding the Crimea peninsula.
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The Kremlin’s pledge to protect compatriots in Ukraine from suppression of a Western-minded majority mirrors Russia’s role in other disputed territories of the former Soviet republics over the years, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Those two breakaway regions of Georgia survived in a diplomatic limbo after the collapse of the Soviet Union with overt and covert Kremlin pressure until war erupted in 2008 and Russia routed ill-prepared Georgian troops.
Russia brushed aside strong warnings from the United States and others at the time and recognized them as independent countries — and paid little price for it in the long run. Putin appears to be calculating again that Russia is too important for other countries to respond more forcefully, despite warnings like those by Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday that the United States would consider an array of sanctions that could include freezing assets and travel of senior officials here.
“As brilliant as the man is, he has only one pattern,” said Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York and the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, whose decision to cede Crimea to Kiev’s jurisdiction instead of Moscow’s in 1954 is a disputed legacy at the heart of Russia’s claims in Ukraine. “It’s a clever pattern, but he has only one.”
The stakes in Ukraine are, however, much higher than the war with Georgia. And given Ukraine’s strategic position in the center of Europe, so are the risks. Russia has significant trade with Ukraine, but even more so with Europe. Its gas monopoly, Gazprom, has already made it clear that it was prepared to forgo discounts on natural gas that Russia offered the government of President Viktor Yanukovych and to collect on the debt Ukraine already owes. As it did in 2006 and 2009, Russia could turn off the supply to Ukraine. But since its pipelines west pass through Ukraine, that would mean cutting off Russia’s largest customers in Europe, too.
Any escalation of Russia’s military intervention, especially if it meets resistance and bloodshed, will almost certainly rattle investors and plunge Russia’s unsteady economy into free fall. With the value of the ruble already falling, there was quick speculation of a rocky start when the stock market opens Monday.
Sergei Utkin, the head of the Department of Strategic Assessment, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that the relentless anti-Americanism on state media was in the past dismissed as crude propaganda that served a transparent political purpose but appeared now to reflect the actual worldview of the Kremlin. “It’s a catastrophe for Ukraine and for Russia,” he said. “The problem is that quite a few people in Russia don’t understand the consequences. They believe the country is strong and can do whatever it wants to do.”
The deployment of Russian troops across Crimea — which Peskov refused to acknowledge — has already effectively severed Crimea from Ukrainian control, even as it provoked tense confrontation with Ukrainian troops at some bases. It allowed a new regional leader to plead for Russia’s protection and gave the Kremlin the pretense to oblige.
Ethnic Russian supporters — abetted by Russia’s secret services, according to Ukrainian and foreign officials — are now mounting demonstrations in other cities, including Kharkiv and Donetsk, that could lead to similar calls for Russian intervention.
The unanimous vote by Russia’s upper house of Parliament on Saturday night to authorize an intervention, after a debate that vilified the United States in ways reminiscent of the darkest periods of the Cold War, took place after the first Russian reinforcements had already begun arriving, according to Ukrainian and other Western officials. The vote nevertheless gave Putin a strong hand to play, threatening a much larger conventional military operation to protect “citizens and compatriots” in Ukraine, as Putin said in telephone conversations with Obama and the U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, according to the Kremlin.
Peskov said that Putin had not yet ordered the operation but now had “the full array of options available to him” if the crisis worsened.
For now, though, with a large-scale military exercise in western Russian already under way, the country felt very much on a war footing. By Sunday, an information campaign swept like an orchestrated gust through state-controlled news media. There were frenetic reports of clashes in Ukraine, of fascist threats to ethnic Russians and of the flight — entirely unsubstantiated — of 675,000 Ukrainians crossing Russia’s frontier as refugees. (One channel, in fact, showed a short line of cars at Ukraine’s border with Poland, not Russia.) The official Channel One network canceled its live broadcast of the Academy Awards early Monday morning here.
The authorities also authorized and evidently helped organize a rally of thousands of people supporting Putin and the “defense” of Russians in Ukraine on Sunday, while the police rounded up at least 360 people who attempted to rally against war outside the Ministry of Defense and the Kremlin, according to OVD-Info, an organization that monitors political prisoners.
The voices of dissent struggled to be heard over the drums of war. Sergei Mitrokhin, the leader of the liberal Yabloko Party, denounced the Federation Council’s vote as “giving a free hand to start a war with a brotherly people.”
At an anti-invasion protest near Red Square, dozens of demonstrators — one of whom held up just a blank piece of poster paper in protest — were quickly detained by police. The Associated Press witnessed more than 50 detentions and spotted at least five police vans, which carry between 15 and 20 protesters, driving away from the square.
Putin’s most vocal opponent, Alexey Navalny, was confined to his home and barred from using the Internet or speaking to the public for two months.
Navalny was one of 600 protesters detained at two anti- Putin rallies Feb. 24.