It is a reflection of the poor quality of Putin’s Ukraine policy that he should find himself in this dilemma. Russia had several levers of power in responding to the Maidan coup; it was not inevitable that Putin would choose the one that would lead to the current civil war. Seizing buildings in the east, in imitation of Svoboda’s seizure of buildings in the west before the revolution, was sure to give greater prominence to the extreme Ukrainian nationalists of whom the Russians were most fearful. If Putin didn’t mean to support the insurgents in the Donbass, he should have condemned their activities far more quickly and led them back from the brink. Instead, he tried to pair the disarmament of the insurgents in the east with the disarmament of nationalist paramilitaries in the west, together with ending the occupation of official buildings in Kiev. That objective was reasonable enough, but as it turned out, unrealistic. The West just ignored him. Instead of disarming the paramilitary forces, Ukraine absorbed them into its armed forces.
In this unfolding drama, Putin is less the devious tyrant anticipating every circumstance and more the elected president responding, somewhat incoherently, to his own domestic opinion. According to a recent poll reported by Fred Weir of the Christian Science Monitor, 64 percent of Russians “support Russian volunteers participating in the conflict on the rebel side, and majorities consistently say Moscow should do more to back the rebels. But 68 percent also say they fear the local conflict could develop into full-blown war between Russia and Ukraine, while 54 percent worry it could grow into ‘World War III.’” It seems deeply implausible that Putin intentionally put himself in this trap, in which he can neither advance, nor retreat without grave cost. Clearly, he miscalculated.
But the Ukrainians may be miscalculating too. The more they give vent to their hatred of Ukraine’s Russophiles, the more one must question the desirability of keeping these discordant peoples within the same state. The Ukrainian nationalists think they are dramatically making their case by proclaiming loudly their intent to annihilate the terrorists, but they may instead be demonstrating they are unfit to rule the distinct people from which those “terrorists” sprang. Mutual hatred is no basis for a civil relationship.
David Hendrickson is professor of political science at Colorado College. He is the author, with Robert W. Tucker (editor emeritus of TNI), of Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson and The Imperial Temptation: The New World Order and America’s Purpose.
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