You have to hand it to Vladimir Putin. Sure, he’s immoral, corrupt, despicable, tyrannical. But he’s also a power politician of the first order, and right now he’s playing the West like a Stradivarius.
Last week, facing growing calls for sanctions on Russia in the U.S. and Europe, he announced that he was pulling his troops back from the border with Ukraine and ending his support for a referendum this weekend among pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine who desire Anschluss with Russia. This rhetorical feint provided a fig leaf of legitimacy for those in the West who don’t want to do anything about Russian aggression. But then of course Putin did not follow through.
According to NATO intelligence reports, Russian troops still have not redeployed from the Ukrainian border. And on Sunday Russian separatists held a rigged referendum in the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which delivered a predictable–if hardly believable–majority in favor of breaking away from Kiev. In Donetsk the pro-autonomy measure won 89 percent of the votes; in Luhansk a truly fantastic 97.5 percent. Pretty incredible when you consider that opinion polls just a month ago showed only 30 percent of eastern Ukrainians wanting to go their own way. These kinds of election “results”–reminiscent of years of rigged elections in the Soviet Union which reliably delivered 99.99 percent majorities for Communist candidates–are only credible to Putin’s mouthpieces on RT (Russia Today) television.
But the results serve to further muddy the waters: They undermine Kiev’s attempts to assert its sovereignty over the breakaway eastern provinces and they call into question the legitimacy of the looming May 25 election in Ukraine–how can a free and fair ballot be conducted when Russian gunmen are in control of substantial parts of eastern Ukraine?
Putin is now being extra cagy. Unlike in Crimea, he is not using this rigged referendum as an excuse to immediately annex eastern Ukraine. Instead he is demanding that the government in Kiev negotiate with the “demonstrators” (really, Russian provocateurs) who have taken power in the east–as if the two forces were of equal legitimacy. Putin is thus avoiding the onus of outright annexation, which could bring about not only more costly Western sanctions but also guerrilla warfare against Russian troops. Instead he is continuing to destabilize Ukraine and preparing the way to create autonomous Russian-controlled enclaves in that country as he has previously done in Moldova and Georgia, thereby helping to undermine the independence of all these post-Soviet republics.
You have to give Putin points for cleverly if amorally pursuing his realpolitik objectives. If only the leaders of the West were half as clever in stopping him. But they’re not. While Putin is playing geopolitical chess like a grandmaster, his opponents are playing checkers with the skill of not-overly-bright six-year-olds. No wonder pieces of the map keep falling to Russia.