Does Putin know what he’s doing?

News this morning is that Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric on the Ukrainian crisis is sounding more conciliatory, describing the upcoming Ukrainian election as “a move in the right direction” and suggesting that a referendum on secession in eastern Ukraine should be delayed. The share market, which seems as good a guide to what’s happening as anything, has responded with a sharp rise.

But it raises the question I’ve been thinking about for a while, of whether Putin really has a coherent plan in Ukraine or whether he’s basically making it up as he goes along.

In considering this, a good place to start would be Damien Kingsbury’s piece in yesterday’s Crikey, which has Putin “happy adjusting levers of strategic power” to achieve his goals in Ukraine. I don’t disagree with the general characterisation of Putin, but I’m not so sure about the implication that he has a well-thought-out strategy and that circumstances in Ukraine are going to keep working in his favor.

No dispute that Putin is a skilled and ruthless politician. But we sometimes give him too much credit, partly because we overstate the advantages enjoyed by authoritarian regimes. A couple of months ago, Isaac Chotiner in the New Republic wrote about the “Putin envy” of American conservatives who admire the idea of a macho leader untrammelled by constitutional restraints. In fact, however, Putin’s position seems to me rather unenviable.

The question to be asked is, what he is actually trying to achieve? Where is the semi-occupation of eastern Ukraine supposed to lead? Three possibilities suggest themselves:


On the most obvious theory, Putin is trying to repeat in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces his success in Crimea. Since they are strongly Russian-speaking, economically prosperous and geographically convenient to Russia, they make a logical target.

But for a variety of reasons (some of which I outlined a few weeks ago), Donetsk and Luhansk are a much bigger project than Crimea was. The Ukrainian government knew that fighting to hold Crimea was a hopeless task; it clearly has no such sense about the east, and it will put up actual military resistance if it has to. And while Russia certainly has the strength to overcome that, the costs of doing so would be huge.

If Putin really wants to take Donetsk and Luhansk, he will want to do it by bluffing: by getting Kiev to peacefully cede control – probably in a gradual way, under the guise of some “federal” arrangement – for fear that the alternative will be an even deeper Russian incursion. They may be valuable provinces, but it makes no sense to fight a full-scale conventional war to get them. It’s possible that Putin’s change of heart is driven by a realisation that the Ukrainian government is willing to call the bluff.


If war is too high a price to pay for just two more provinces, is there a prize that would make it worthwhile? Much western commentary has maintained, implicitly or explicitly, that Putin’s aims are much wider: that he wants to dismember Ukraine completely, annexing most of it or reducing it to puppet status, perhaps sharing some of its territory with its western neighbors.

To understand what’s going on here, it’s worth studying the map below. I’ve grouped Ukraine’s provinces into four regions. In pink are Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea (including the city of Sevastopol): all Russian-speaking, with majorities (in Crimea) or large minorities identifying as ethnically Russian, and voting overwhelmingly (more than 80%) for Viktor Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential election.

(base map courtesy of Wikipedia)

If Putin’s goals are more ambitious, next in line are the six provinces in the yellow area. They include Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, and Odessa, site of the recent deadly unrest. All six voted for Yanukovych, with margins ranging from 64% to 79%, and all have substantial minorities that identify as Russian, ranging from 14% to 26% (see census figures here). But that still means that a minimum of 70% identify as Ukrainian; it’s going to be hard to disguise the fact that a move into this area would be conquest, not liberation.

And that’s before getting to the Ukrainian heartland, the blue area, where majorities voted for Yulia Tymoshenko and where only small minorities consider themselves Russian (13% in Kiev city, but elsewhere less than 10%). The green area in the west is even less promising; these are the provinces that belonged to Poland, Czechoslovakia or Romania prior to 1939. They include Tymoshenko’s strongest areas (she won more than 90% in Lviv, Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk), with Russian minorities of less than 5%.

If Putin had designs on these regions, he would have to be posing as the defender of Ukrainian legitimacy; safeguarding Russians would be a non-starter. But there has been little sign of that; Yanukovych has disappeared from view, and if anything Russia has edged closer towards recognising the legality of the current regime in Kiev.


The third option, which Kingsbury leans towards, is that Putin is not interested in further territorial expansion, but in using the threat of it as leverage to secure compliance from the Ukrainian government. He describes the Crimean annexation as “an object of lesson to the Kiev government for what could happen in eastern Ukraine … not necessarily a precursor to what will happen.”

But while it’s easy to see how that might work in the short term for getting particular things that Putin wants – for example, Ukrainian recognition of the loss of Crimea – in the medium term it seems more like a certain device for alienating Ukrainian opinion. Kiev might back away for now from policies that Russia opposes, such as closer relations with the European Union, but it will be reinforced in its desire to find alternatives to dependence on Russian goodwill. Membership in both the EU and NATO will start to look much more attractive.

I don’t dispute that what Putin would like most is a compliant Ukraine sitting safely within his sphere of influence. But it’s a lesson of history that that’s an almost impossible goal to achieve by force: anything short of complete conquest just breeds resentment, which will show itself as soon as it’s safe to do so. Sure enough, that’s what polling in Ukraine (including the Russian-speaking areas) now shows.

This is not to say that Putin is making strategic errors; he may well be doing the best he can with the cards that he’s holding. But ever since the fall of Yanukovych more than two months ago, his options have been very limited. Successful improvisation may still improve his position, but I don’t think we should mistake that for the workings of an international mastermind.

4 thoughts on “Does Putin know what he’s doing?

  1. Nothing about the neonazis and their part in the the coup, including sniping at civilians and police,to create panic?
    No mention of the crimes and fraud that saw Tymoshenko in prison?
    Propaganda throughout.


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