Will Putin try to split Ukraine?

Written by on February 22, 2014 in Perspectives - No comments

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych has fled the presidential palace and the nation’s capital, taking refuge in his hometown of Donetsk. That city is a 45-minute drive from the Russian border.

Two leading Russian politicians have flown from Moscow to meet with dozens of politicians from Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. At the meeting, one speaker called for “self-defense units” to block revolutionaries from Kyiv if they try to move into eastern Ukraine.

Earlier, the speaker of Crimea’s parliament talked about ending Crimea’s 60-year attachment to Ukraine, and returning to Russian control.

Where is Ukraine heading?

Will Europe’s largest nation split up?

Will Yanukovych rule a rump Ukraine, perhaps returning to the Czarist label: Little Russia?

If Ukraine cracks, will it be peaceful, the way Czechoslovakia split in 1993? Or will it be bloody, the way Yugoslovia did in slow motion in the 1990s?

A lot depends on Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

Judging by the helicopters I heard out my open hotel window here in Sochi, Russia’s president is back here for the closing ceremony of his $51 billion pride and joy, the Winter Olympics.

Putin is probably furious that after seven years of Olympic preparations, Yanukovych bumbled, cracked down, killed almost 100 people, and then lost control of about half of the nation.

Instead of the world watching the New Russia — hockey games and figure skaters in Sochi — world television viewers are watching journalists tour a gaudy mansion abandoned by Yanukovych in Kyiv.

But Putin is cold and calculating, one of the world’s most astute geo-strategists. On Thursday, he skipped watching a young Russian woman win a gold medal in figure skating. He was back in Moscow Friday preparing to lead a meeting of his Security Council, about Ukraine.

What will Putin do?

In the past, Putin has stated publicly what many Russians think privately: that Ukraine is not a nation.

Past Russian leaders have seen Ukraine as an economic colony and as a security buffer zone. It slowed down invaders from Europe. Today, Russia’s navy base in Crimea at Sevastopol projects power into the Black Sea and on to the Mediterranean.

So in a replay of Soviet history, we might soon hear calls for “fraternal assistance” from political leaders in Crimea and eastern Ukraine who want Russian peacekeepers to protect them.

Six years ago, Putin got unending flak for directing his military to cut Georgia in half while he was at the Beijing Summer Olympics.

On Monday morning, the Winter Olympics are over. Don’t be surprised if the Olympic host stops playing Mr. Nice Guy. The Kremlin has prepared the ground for a possible “peacekeeping” option.

I was in Georgia the week before Russia’s invasion on Aug. 8, 2008. The parallels between that situation and the current crisis in Ukraine are crystal clear.

The Sunday before the Georgia-Russia war, Russian state TV gave hysterical coverage of the evacuation of women and children from South Ossetia to Russia. Hysterical because the Russian TV reporter seemed to be on the verge of a heart attack. In contrast, the women and children boarding buses were as relaxed as if they were going to summer camp.

Similarly, Russian government TV is now in overdrive telling viewers that Ukrainian nationalists are neo-Nazi bandits paid and manipulated by the West. At the same time, the Kremlin is restricting dissident voices – TV channel Dozhd, Ria Novosti news service and Echo Moskvi radio.

And while Russia’s state-controlled media replace their portrayal of Ukrainians as Slavic brothers to with criticism of Western puppets, Russia distributes Russian passports in Crimea. This also was done in the region’s three Russian-speaking separatist enclaves that are now controlled by Russian “peacekeeping troops” – Moldova’s TransDniester and Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

If the Kremlin tries to engineer Crimea’s secession, it would fit with Russia’s divide and control policy toward its immediate neighbors.

Rather than seeking outright Soviet-style administration, the Kremlin prefers to be surrounded by neighbors that are weakened by separatist conflict. Not coincidentally, a new pan-Russian group called “Rusintern” was formed last week in Moscow. In an echo of the Comintern of the 1920s – the Communist International – its slogan is “Russians of the world unite.” Rusintern supports pro-Kremlin groups in the Baltics and Ukraine.

Last year, I visited three of these secessionist statelets – Abkhazia, TransDniester and Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous corner of Azerbaijan controlled by ethnic Armenians. One factor unites all three: ethnic homogeneity, achieved through violence and ethnic cleansing.

And that will be the rub for Russia in Ukraine.

In Crimea, 10 percent of the population are Crimean Tatars. Largely Muslim, they are dead set opposed to any return to rule by Moscow. During the first half of the 20th century, Moscow nearly wiped out the Crimean Tatar population through famine, war and mass deportations.

There is a second factor that would make any Russian “peacekeeping” in Ukraine more difficult: Russia’s Soviet-educated leaders do not understand that in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, many Russian-speaking Ukrainians do not want to be Russians.

Finally, there is a third factor: Ukrainians, generally under 35 years of age, who simply cannot speak Russian. I have found them in the West, but also in villages east of Kyiv. Some have studied Russian, but with TV in Ukrainians in the West sometimes do not speak Russian because they do not want to.

Before Putin, a normally cautious leader, sends Russian peacekeepers into Ukraine, he should remember that wars are often easier to get into than to get out of. I write “war” because any Russian “peacekeepers” dispatched to Crimea or eastern Ukraine might be supported by Russian public opinion, but also face a possible guerrilla campaign of violent opposition.

The tenacity of Kyiv’s winter protesters gives a taste of what could come.
A few years ago, I visited the regional museum in Nikolaev, a Russian-speaking city in southeastern Ukraine. The city has historic ties with Russia. It was founded by Grigory Potemkin in 1789 as a shipyard for the Russian navy. The museum followed Ukrainian history up to the end of World War II.

Then, starting in 1945, Soviet-era panels were blocked by life-size portraits of handsome, sandy-haired men wearing uniforms that were unfamiliar to me. After studying the Ukrainian-language explanations, I realized that they were soldiers of the post-war Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the anti-Soviet guerrilla group.

Little known in the West, these guerrillas turned western Ukraine into a hellish assignment for police and soldiers sent from Moscow. In turn, Moscow’s agents killed an estimated 150,000 UPA soldiers and supporters, some by shooting, some through torture.

Today’s draft-age Ukrainians, aged 18 to 35 years, have been taught in school and by the media to revere the UPA. Some have assimilated these teachings. Some have not.

But keep this history in mind when you read that young men in western Ukraine have invaded Ukrainian army bases and seized weapons armories.

Russian “peacekeepers” who enter Ukraine will face the grandsons and granddaughters of the UPA.

Source: VOANews.com

(Putin skips his Olympics to return to Moscow to preside on Friday over Security Council meeting on Ukraine. Photo: Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service)

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About the Author

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.