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Decoding Putin’s State of the Union Speech

Vladimir Putin’s December 4th “state of the union” address to Russia’s Federal Assembly once again explained why he annexed the Crimea. This time, his explanation reached new ideological heights, while again confounding academic realists, who continue to insist that Russia grabbed the Crimea in response to an aggressive West. Here are Putin’s words:

[The annexation of the Crimea] has special significance for our country and our people. Because our people live in the Crimea, and the territory itself is strategically important; because it is here that is found the spiritual source of the formation of a multifaceted but monolithic Russian nation and a centralized Russian state. It was here, in the Crimea, in ancient Chersonesus or Korsun, as ancient Russian chroniclers called it, that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized and then baptized all of Rus.

Who Will Save the People of the Donbas?

The answer, as is becoming increasingly obvious, is no one. Having ruined the economy of the Donbas enclave they occupy and caused a humanitarian catastrophe, neither Russia nor its terrorist proxies will come to the population’s rescue. Western powers reluctant to confront Vladimir Putin certainly aren’t going to open their wallets to the tune of billions of dollars. And Ukraine, which continues to proclaim that the territories are “temporarily occupied,” lacks the financial and military capacity to liberate the area. That leaves the enclave’s people isolated and, ultimately, completely dependent on themselves.

As many residents of the area now realize, the self-proclaimed leaders of the Donbas and Luhansk republics are more inclined to destroy than to create. As long as they’re around, the enclave will be unsalvageable, and it looks like they’ll be around for a while.

Time for a Hybrid War Against Russia?

Should Ukraine embark on a “hybrid war” against the Donbas enclave controlled by Russia and its proxies? One of Ukraine’s best military analysts, Yuri Butusov, the Russian-speaking editor of the Censor.net website, effectively argues that the answer is yes.

Hybrid war is the term analysts apply to what many believe is Russia’s new way of war-making in southeastern Ukraine, one that employs a variety of means—propaganda, subversion, outright aggression, support for proxies, and the like—while remaining undeclared or denied.

Does Ukraine’s Reform Plan Measure Up?

The reform plan of Ukraine’s coalition government-in-the-making has received mixed reviews from a team of Ukraine experts affiliated with the policy discussion website VoxUkraine

According to the analysis:

We assign PASS to 3 sections out of 17, and CONDITIONAL PASS to 6 sections out of 17. We find that the draft does not have a coherent ideology and that many sections advocate Soviet style command economy approach to reforms, while only few sections address the structural causes of the problems in Ukraine.

The good news is that the team rates three of 17 sections as excellent, six as subject to improvement, five as “water” (or boilerplate), and only four as bad. That’s nine of 17 that are at least good enough. And those nine include law enforcement, national security, and energy independence (pass) as well as anticorruption, decentralization, regulation and competition policy, infrastructure and transportation, electoral reform, and ecology (conditional pass).

Kiev Cuts Subsidies to Separatist-Controlled Enclaves

Even as Putin’s proxies in the Donbas enclave are preparing a major assault on the Ukrainian army, they are also evidently panicking. And all thanks to the Ukrainian government’s recent wise decision to stop funding enclave political institutions and providing pensions and other social benefits to enclave residents. All of sudden, the Russia-sponsored separatists appear to understand that the territory they control will soon become ungovernable.

Here’s the evidence. On November 12th, the press center of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) issued a statement supposedly crafted by the “society” of the DNR in which said “society” chides Kyiv for cutting off social payments “to our veterans, pensioners, invalids, and mothers,” all of whom are “citizens of [Kyiv’s own] country residing in the Donbas.”

Ukraine’s Real and Unreal Elections

Ukraine recently witnessed one real election and one pseudo-election, but both may be turning points in the country’s history.

The real election, to the Rada (Ukraine’s Parliament in Kyiv), took place on October 26th; the pseudo-election, in the Donbas enclave occupied by Russia and its proxies, took place on November 2nd. The former was fair and free and, as a referendum on popular attitudes, produced a clear victory for pro-Western, pro-democratic, and pro-Ukrainian parties. The latter was a staged event overseen by thugs with guns that, unsurprisingly, produced a clear victory for the pro-Russian thugs with guns.

Is Russia Artificial?

Most people would unthinkingly answer: of course not! Just look at all the Russians inside and outside Russia. Just look at the Russian state. They’re real, aren’t they? They’re organic. How could one possibly suggest Russia might be artificial?

If you subscribe to these views, take a deep breath and hold on to your seat. The fact is that the Russian state is completely artificial, while the Russian nation is completely fragmented. Both are historically contingent. They’re as real—or unreal—as any non-Russian nation or state or as any recently constructed post-colonial state.

Whether or not Russia is artificial matters because Vladimir Putin and his Western apologists justify Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in terms of Ukraine’s supposed artificiality. The larger principle they’re invoking is that “artificial entities may be dismembered.” That principle is dangerous nonsense. No less important, if applied consistently, it leads to Russia’s dismemberment.

Ukraine's Commitment to Values Ensures Its Independence

At the moment, Russia has lots of hard power and very little soft power, while Ukraine has lots of soft power and little hard power. Russia’s determination to exclude soft power will ultimately be suicidal. In contrast, Ukraine’s future is bright, but only if it manages to hold on to its soft power while building up its reserves of hard power.

Leave Putin His Scraps

Would territorial retreats whet Vladimir Putin’s imperialist appetite?

I’d be rich if I had a hryvnia for every time I’ve heard that question answered in the affirmative. Accordingly, if one concedes an inch to Putin, he’ll take a mile. And, naturally, that mile will only be the prelude to many more miles. In sum, you can’t concede an inch—or else.

Critics of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s “peace plan” for the Donbas enclave controlled by Russia and its terrorist proxies generally make this argument. Providing the enclave with a special status and effectively conceding Russian control of the territory isn’t just a “capitulation.” It’s an invitation to further Russian aggression.

Let’s unpack the arguments for inches becoming miles.

Ukraine Should Abandon the Donbas Enclave

Ukraine has two nonnegotiable priorities in its ongoing war with Russia: survival and reform. Ukraine must survive as a sovereign democratic state in the short term if it is to reform, and it must reform itself in the medium term in order to survive and become a prosperous and secure sovereign democratic state in the long term. Both goals can be best advanced if Ukraine washes its hands of the enclave of the Donbas region that Russia and its proxies now control.

Europe’s foremost priority is inextricably connected to Ukraine’s. Europe’s two key pillars—the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—must survive as effective institutions, but they can do so only if Ukraine survives and reforms. If Ukraine, a geopolitically pivotal country in the heart of Europe, falls to Russia or becomes a European Zimbabwe, Europe will be hard-pressed to remain functional, prosperous, and stable.

Ukraine Must Reform to Save Itself

Will NATO Save Ukraine from Russia? I’m surprised by how many people, especially in Ukraine, believe the answer is yes. And I’m no less surprised by how many Western analysts and Russian policymakers claim that that’s exactly what NATO hopes to do—and, by implication, will do. Naturally, Russians describe NATO’s presumed intentions as offensive and not defensive.

It’s time to wake up and smell the espresso in Brussels.

First, NATO has no army. As an institution, as a bureaucracy located in two complexes in and near the capital of Belgium, the alliance does not have troops. It can cajole, persuade, bluster, and the like, but the troop-sending is done—if it is done at all—by NATO member states on behalf of NATO member states or, more problematically, in out-of-area missions. Second, most Europeans have slashed their defense budgets way below the limits they have publicly agreed to sustain. The United States is the only significant exception to this general rule. To put it mildly, Europe has passed the military buck to America, while insisting on the right to kvetch about Washington’s occasionally unwise use of armed force.

Enthusiasm for Separation and Reform Weakens in Ukraine

Three recent news items deserve our attention.

First the good news. According to the Russia-based Sociological Service of the Anti-Corruption Fund the vast majority of residents of Odessa and Kharkiv provinces support Ukrainian statehood and oppose Vladimir Putin’s New Russia (Novorossiya) project. A telephone survey of 1,000 people conducted on September 8th to 17th revealed the following attitudes:

Will Putin's Successor Be Worse?

Who will succeed Vladimir Putin if and when he falls? Will things get better or worse? Those are the intriguing questions posed by Benjamin Bidder, Moscow correspondent for the German news weekly Der Spiegel.

Bidder concludes that the democrats have little chance of replacing Putin and that his successor is likely to be worse.

It takes little fantasy to imagine Putin’s political end. He cannot be voted out of office like his friend Gerhard Schröder. Two scenarios are possible: either the current political elite in the Kremlin installs a successor or the Russians get rid of Putin and his minions….

And then what? The fear is that someone could seize control of the Kremlin who thinks and acts more radically than Putin. The president created the preconditions of such a possibility with his own failed policies. If the Kremlin insiders want to find a successor, they will have to recruit him from the immediate circle of the current president. But Putin has reinforced hard-liners and pushed out the liberals.

Ukraine to Wall Out Putin, Literally

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced on September 10th that he intends to build an extensive set of fortifications along Ukraine’s frontier with Russia and the Russian-occupied enclave of the Donbas. Called “The Wall,” the defensive line would consist of a ditch, a “no-man’s land,” an actual wall, and watch towers.

Although the name brings to mind the Berlin Wall, Poroshenko actually compared Ukraine’s planned fortifications to the Mannerheim Line, the Finnish defense against the Soviet Union, clearly suggesting that he sees today’s Ukraine as interwar Finland and Putin’s Russia as Stalin’s USSR. That reference alone underscores just how profoundly Putin’s aggression against Ukraine has changed Ukrainian attitudes to Russia. The formerly big and intrusive strategic partner has become a mortal enemy akin to the Soviet empire under its genocidal dictator, Stalin.

West's Refusal to Arm Ukraine Invites Guerrilla War

If Russia launches a full-scale invasion and Ukraine is unable to defend itself with its armed forces, the result will be a “people’s war” entailing enormous casualties and millions of refugees. Ukrainians, like the citizens of other countries on Russia’s borders, know that Vladimir Putin is an existential threat to their survival as a people. They also know they have no choice but to respond to continued Russian aggression with mass popular resistance.

Such a war—involving a partisan movement with widespread civilian participation—will be extremely costly. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians will die; streams of refugees will head west. In addition, Putin will have learned that he can have his way with the United States and Europe. Aggressors everywhere will have been emboldened.

If, however, Ukraine’s military has the military equipment needed to deter a Russian invasion, people’s war will not take place, a humanitarian catastrophe will be prevented, Europe will not be inundated with refugees, and the international order might not be toppled.

There are six arguments against the West’s arming Ukraine, and none of them is persuasive.

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