Even those who thought understood Russia and its leader are scratching their heads wondering what Vladimir Putin’s endgame in Ukraine is—or was.Now that Ukraine has started waking up to this undeclared war, we can start to sum the potential gains or losses of this gambit.The risks and potential losses for Russia are clear and discussed by many analysts. But what can Putin hope to achieve at this stage? In terms of gains, there are two potentially lasting effects of this aggression that could play into Putin’s hands.
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It is known that successful transitions require first a state. Where the state itself is in doubt, reforms suffer. The political scientist Dankwart Rustow in the 1950s speculated that for democracy to function correctly, the people must not have doubts as to what they are and where they belong. Weak states with fractious multi-ethnic populations or confused geopolitical identity usually do not have successful democratic consolidation after the fall of the dictator. Yugoslavia in 1992 and Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 are extreme examples.
Well-meaning democratic forces that come to power in multi-ethnic states have to work harder to make democracy work. Spain after Francisco Franco’s death in 1975 and Estonia’s rebirth in 1991 are axiomatic. Mikhail Gorbachev, on the other hand, did genuinely attempt to democratize the Soviet Union but he soon realized that the new freedoms only served to dismember the huge state.
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Ukraine after the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych finally seemed on the verge of making the huge leap that Poland made in 1989. The new Ukrainian elites were making all the right noises about radical reform, including lustration, curtailing the oligarchs, facilitating investment, confiscating crooked assets, lessening dependence on Russia, etc. But the success of these reforms assumes, again, a functioning state.
However, the Russian aggression suddenly shifted priorities to first and foremost stabilizing the wobbling Ukrainian state. The new interim government suddenly appointed a handful of oligarchs to head eastern provinces and cities, obviously infuriating the idealists of Maidan. Though not entirely diametrically opposite, the interests of reform that would benefit the majority of Ukrainians are not exactly correlated with the interests of these oligarchs. The victory of Petro Poroshenko in the presidential elections (although hopefully to a weakened presidency) has consolidated the country but around a “centrist” figure—perhaps a step forward in preserving Ukraine, but unlikely to make the radical reforms the country needs. Hopefully this will be counterbalanced by a more reformist parliament now that the Party of Regions has essentially dissolved as a party (but not the underlying interests that maintained it).
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This would be the more nefarious of the two victories for Putin.
Since the beginning of the conflict, one of the overt demands of the Kremlin towards Ukraine is the issue of federalization. The Ukrainian elite in Kyiv realizes the reason for this demand is to benefit the Kremlin’s geopolitical designs, by allowing Russia in the future to provoke additional separatisms in other Ukrainian provinces. At minimum, it will make sure the corrupt eastern Ukrainian elites are independent enough to stay in power unreformed and retain control over Kyiv’s foreign and defense policies and veto its EU and NATO aspirations. Federalization would be even worse than letting Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea go and probably meeting them in the EU one day—as the Czechs did with Slovakia in 1993—since their de-jure control by Kyiv is an endless opportunity for the local politicians and population to blame their problems on Kyiv and the West.
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Although Ukrainian political elites realize federalization is a trap, and President Poroshenko in his inaugural address made it very clear he wants a unitary (not federated) Ukraine, in the end, the issue of federalization may be outside the control of Ukraine—or so is Putin calculating. It would not be far-fetched to witness an agreement reached between the great powers and later imposed on Ukraine in order to “resolve” the present crisis or a new one that Putin provokes down the line.
This new Molotov-Ribbentrop pact would, with the encouragement of Berlin or Paris, and then followed by Washington, be accepted by the Kremlin in exchange for promising to keep the dialogue going on Crimea and other issues. The pressure on bankrupt Kyiv may be too great, with a unified proposal by the Western powers plus Russia.
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If this seems surreal, it must be remembered that this exact scenario happened in next-door Moldova a decade ago.
In order to “resolve” the impasse between Moldova and its breakaway region of Transnistria, a frozen conflict with Russian troops on the ground, Moscow proposed a federalization agreement that would give this Kremlin-controlled “gangster separatism” in Transnistria equal power with Moldova. Senior FSB and Kremlin leaders such as General Vyacheslav Trubnikov openly admitted the goal was allow Transnistrian elites a veto over any domestic and foreign policies of the “federation.” Moldova’s communist president, Vladimir Voronin, signaled he would sign the agreement.
This is not surprising. What is surprising is the unequivocal support to Moscow’s federalization scheme given by the U.S. State Department and the OSCE office in Chisinau.
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At the end of the day, the federalization attempt was stopped in 2003 because Moldovan civil society and opposition leaders rallied tens of thousands of protestors and reached out to other forces in Washington that advised the State Department to back off. Fearing another color revolution, Voronin announced at the last minute that he would not sign the agreement, infuriating the Kremlin. Later it also emerged that Washington supported the agreement because there were only four or five people handling Moldova at the State Department, all sympathetic to Moscow.
Defeat or Opportunity?
At the end of the day, we believe that Putin has miscalculated and his impulsive incursion in Ukraine is a desperate act to save his regime from his own domestic problems. After all, Putin also miscalculated in Moldova back in 2003 and 2004.
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At the same time, it is also obvious that Putin’s gamble in Ukraine can mainly be explained by a bid to prevent the success of a “free Russia” next door. Desperately attempting to hold back angry mobs in Dresden from storming the KGB offices (as they had the Stasi ones) in November 1989 taught Putin a thing or two about anti-dictatorial contagion from neighboring countries.
However, he has painted himself into a corner. It may be that keeping the status quo in Crimea is enough for him for now, but “betraying” the separatists in the Donbas may also pose risks for him, as some Russian analysts have pointed out.
Some of Putin’s personal weaknesses and past indiscretions are an open secret in Washington, and these have not been publicly revealed during the present crisis. Given the right moment, Washington could make those gruff Russian generals blush with embarrassment for having so enthusiastically followed this “president”—and Putin hopefully has been made aware of this.
Dmytro Potekhin is a political analyst and trainer in nonviolent resistance. Heading a key voter education project of the Orange revolution he helped to prevent usurpaton of power by Yanukovych in 2004
Fredo Arias-King is the founder of the academic journal Demokratizatsiya, publishing continuously in Washington since 1992, and the author of two books on transitions to democracy. He played a role in the Mexican transition in 1999-2000 as senior advisor to the winning presidential campaign