Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Next Moves in Ukraine (Part II) - Putin's Press Conference, Annexation and Diplomatic Stalemate
March 4 - Putin's Press Conference
On March 4th, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave an extensive press conference from his country residence outside Moscow about the situation in Ukraine and the developments in Crimea. As examined in Part I, the democratic revolution-turned-coup in Kiev sparked an unexpectedly frightful reaction in Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine. The numbers on the streets on February 23 in Sevastopol could not be explained as a pre-planned Kremlin operation even by the most cynical of conspiracy theorists. 30-50,000 demonstrators out of a total population for the municipality of 380,000 could not be rallied to protest against their will within two days short of overwhelming pressure for which there was no evidence. Irrespective of activists subsequently moved in or the machinations, such as there were, around the secession referendum last weekend, these initial manifestations were largely genuine and there was no knowing exactly how Putin would enter the picture. Although this author was convinced that Crimean secession was in the cards almost from the outset, the pulse on the streets did not regard this as a foregone conclusion.
When Putin appeared a week later for the press conference, his purpose was not to explain or foretell anything. Instead, the aim was to cement the reality on the ground and embed the inevitability of 1) Crimean secession and 2) Russia's long-term involvement (direct or indirect) in rump Ukraine's domestic affairs. By March 4th, Russian forces had secured all principal points on the peninsula, locals in Sevastopol and Simferopol installed new, pro-Russian authorities (Alexei Chalov as Mayor of Sevastopol having been unilaterally "chosen" by the February 23rd demonstrators) and Kiev had basically accepted it had no options to retake the peninsula as its local forces were confined to quarters. In short, there was nothing for Putin to update. Effectively, the press conference was meant as a demonstration of his having regained control of events and that Kiev, and its western backers, would now be reactive rather than proactive.
Whereas February 21st seemed to deliver the Kremlin a major blow, the rebound was practically complete by March 4th. Just as Generals Kornilov and Denikin packed away to south Ukraine to raise a volunteer army to resist the Bolshevik takeover of Petrograd and Moscow in 1917 and early 1918, so too did the fulcrum of the anti-Kiev "resistance" emerge in Crimea. Proper metaphor or not, Crimea offered a clear path for Putin to exploit the vacuum left by Yanukovich's sudden departure and turn a seeming defeat into a tactical victory to reclaim the initiative. Had emotion not taken over on Maidan and the militant forces been muscled for even a few days, it is doubtful that events would have unfolded as they did.
As with most everything related to Putin, the current situation in Russia and the trajectory the country has been headed since 1991, the western media narrative regarding his press conference was completely backwards. Instead of obtaining clues about Putins next steps, bemused readers were treated to articles like these. Apparently Putin was "paranoid", "cornered" and "delusional". Merkel, the only western leader Putin respected, had tried to talk sense into him and failed. The Obama Administration, NATO, Cameron and the EU commissioners were warning of serious consequences, sanctions and isolation if Putin did not send his forces to barracks, recognize the Kiev government and relent from further interference in Ukrainian affairs. Far from cornering Putin, this unhinged reaction by western leaders indicated that it was they who felt cornered. Putin had moved faster than they had anticipated, the Kiev government was chaotic and rejected by half the Ukrainian population and military intervention was never considered. The realization that Crimea was gone and nothing in the short-term could be done to shore up Kiev was apparent to everyone. The game of saving face had begun, which took more time away from what should have been sober diplomatic maneuvering.
Putin's press conference was significant for what it omitted rather than what it included. A precedent that immediately came to this author's mind was Joseph Stalin's speech to graduates of a military academy in 1935 where he declared that "cadres determine everything". Read between the lines and in the context of the purge to come two years later, this signaled that most of the audience was targeted for liquidation and would be replaced with new, neutered cadres loyal to Stalin. He pulled a similar maneuver during a meeting of the Central Committee in 1952 when he laid criticism on Molotov and Beria for various missteps and anti-party activities, which signaled to delegates that they were marked men. Putin's presser was laced with this type of multi-layered double-meaning. Framing any potential intervention in Crimea on humanitarian grounds against unleashed neo-nazis, nationalists and anti-semites and to "protect life", Putin signaled that any Russian intervention in Crimea (and Ukraine broadly) was legitimate whether or not anybody had asked or would ask for it. In other words, Russia had already intervened and would continue to intervene to prevent any permanent entrenchment of western interests and western-supported groups in Ukraine, and there was no need for any justification. Putin then said that if the scheduled May elections in Ukraine would be carried out under a similar guise of "terror" as was on display in Kiev after the coup, then Russia would not recognize the result. In other words, irrespective of how the elections come out (presuming the current government, or possibly a more nationalist coalition, wins), Russia will not recognize the result and probably foment activity in the south and east to keep the new government at bay. So, as you can see, by negating Putin's affirmative statements and paying close attention to what was left out of his monologue, his strategy (pursued like clockwork over the past weeks) revealed itself during his tango with friendly reporters.
Crimea Annexation and Diplomatic Stalemate
The minutiae of the preparations for the Crimean referendum, its acceleration by a month and the predictable western reaction have by now been analyzed ad nauseum. The significant issue is not that a referendum took place, how it was conducted, how representative (if at all) the vote was or whether this will spill over into similar initiatives in Donetsk, Gorlovka or Kharkiv. The issue is that the Crimeans did not seek and Putin did not settle for the frozen conflict, South Ossetia route, but pushed ahead toward Crimea's formal accession. Why the different treatment for Georgia's regions when the situations are so similar (i.e., majority ethnic Russian communities, Russian passports spread around, thousands of Russian troops manning and building permanent defensive installations and a host country without the economic or military options to do anything). In Georgia, Putin was blessed with a president who made the first move. Kiev is too broke to have done the same. So why annex Crimea and do it so quickly?
The answer to the question of speed is easy as it flows from Putin's rapid engagement in Crimea in the first place: a vacuum does not remain unfilled for long. Had Putin waited another week, the EU may have unilaterally sent monitors to the peninsula or Kiev may have acted to shore up its minority, but resilient, support base. Putin understood that there is no one West just as there is no one East. Japan imposed minimal sanctions while China, seeing that it could not lose either way, largely tuned out and abstained from the symbolic UN Security Council vote on Crimea's future. The only western leader that has been paying attention is Merkel, and even she is under tremendous domestic pressure from German car and industrial manufacturers not to push Russia too far. She probably fears that Germany will be the primary source of Kiev's financial salvation, and having to deal with Russian energy cuts and business acrimony would turn a headache into a migraine. So Putin, resigned to ceding western Ukraine for the moment, boldly staked his countermeasure in Crimea and presented the West with a diplomatic fait accompli.
This still, however, does not explain annexation. Here I believe it has as much to do with cutting the legs out from under Kiev and strengthening the hand of separatist factions in rump Ukraine as it does with playing toward the domestic audience. Putin's popularity has soared in the wake of the crisis, as admitted even by more independent polling agencies. As was discussed in "The Weimarization of Russia", the mantle of the gatherer of lost Russian territory is one worn by opportunistic Russian leaders with eagerness. Yeltsin went into Chechnya partly to shore up his collapsing approval ratings following the disbanding of the Supreme Soviet and continued economic chaos. Putin rose to power on his security credentials, and with Russian headlines declaring his reputation secured if he restored Crimea to the homeland, it may have been what pushed him to act. In this sense, Crimea is fundamentally more significant, culturally and historically, than either of Georgia's pseudo-statelets. The move could also have served as another signal to the West that Russia is willing and able to take the ultimate step in pursuit of its narrow interests without halfway measures. What is clear is that this will likely be a one-off performance, at least for the foreseeable future. If Putin's speech yesterday on Crimea's accession is any indication, Russia will most certainly not let Maidan Kiev fully control Ukrainian policy. Russia is watching and, if the West makes another bold move, is prepared to counter (see Putin's statement that the division of Ukraine is not in Russia's interest and, as always, read in reverse).