From Ukraine To Amsterdam To Syria, Vladimir Putin Is Running This Poker Table

February 15, 2016
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi. While the games were taking place, Russian troops were seizing control of Crimea | AP

The Kremlin’s sharks are circling, likely because at the moment there are large pools of blood spilling into the water.

Vladimir Putin’s strategy to break the West and expand Russia’s power has perfectly exploited current events and the lack of resolve of his chief opponents. As Ukraine faces a major political crisis, Russian troops are once again surging across eastern Ukraine’s borders. As Syrian refugees are fueling anti-Europeanism closer to home, Russian airstrikes are devastating Western-backed rebels and civilians alike — driving more refugees to Europe and empowering the pro-Putin far-right. Meanwhile, the West has never been weaker. Allies of the United States believe that they have been betrayed by American policy. Europe is on the verge of fracturing, and not only could Russia be the main benefactor, it is also playing a major role as one of the catalysts of that destruction.

Ukraine’s crisis has once again spread to the political sphere and there are two major points of contention which, some are warning, could rip apart the current government. The first and perhaps most immediate was catalyzed two weeks ago by the resignation of economic minister Aivaras Abromavicius who angrily announced that he was fed up with rampant corruption and the lack of governmental reform.

The crisis has divided Ukraine’s politicians further and has shaken the confidence of foreign investors and governments. Abromavicius was well respected in the international community, both by Western officials and by foreign investors, and was brought into the Poroshenko administration in December 2014 to cut government spending, increase privatization, and fulfill Ukraine’s requirements for receiving its loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). When Abromavicius quit, he did so loudly, calling out specific officials and practices that he said were corrupt. The next day, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called an unprecedented emergency meeting of the ambassadors of the G7 nations, who had sent a clear message themselves — they were “deeply disappointed” in  Abromavicius’s resignation as he had made important strides in “implementing tough but necessary economic reforms to help stabilize Ukraine’s economy, root out endemic corruption, bring Ukraine into compliance with its IMF program obligations, and promote more openness and transparency in government.”

Their statement continued:

Ukraine’s stable, secure and prosperous future will require the sustained efforts of a broad and inclusive team of dedicated professionals who put the Ukrainian peoples’ interests above their own. It is important that Ukraine’s leaders set aside their parochial differences, put the vested interests that have hindered the country’s progress for decades squarely in the past, and press forward on vital reforms.

On February 11, US Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Poroshenko over the phone. About two-thirds of The White House’s readout of that conversation focused on the political crisis and Ukraine’s need to reform. The message could not be more clear — according to Kiev’s allies, this is Ukraine’s last chance at reform.

Perhaps the most central complaint of the Euromaidan protests was the rampant corruption within the government. After the Yanukovych administration fled to Russia two years ago this month, there was a window of opportunity due to the post-revolution euphoria, similar to the “first 100 days” that many political scientists say new presidents enjoy. This chance for massive reform, however, was derailed as the central focus of the new government became keeping the country intact and defending against foreign invaders. Just days after Yanukovych reached Rostov-on-Don, Russian troops spread out across the Crimean peninsula. Weeks after this, Russian-backed separatists began to capture government buildings in the Donbass. Soon, not only were government officials focused more on Russia than on reform, but even leading Euromaidan activist groups were almost entirely focused on the war in the east. By focusing on military mobilization, and policies that ensured that Ukraine’s powerful oligarchs did not betray the fledgling government, Kiev was able to avoid losing even more territory, but for a price which has now become due.

This brings us to the second major fault-line in Ukrainian politics — what to do with eastern Ukraine. According to the Minsk agreements which are supposed to provide the roadmap for a more permanent resolution to the crisis, the Ukrainian government is supposed to grant the territories of Donestk and Lugansk, both currently occupied by Russian troops and proxies, more autonomy. This has not yet happened, as many in Ukraine feel that President Poroshenko has already given too many concessions to the Russian-backed separatists despite the lack of reciprocity. Poroshenko would like to see constitutional amendments pass that would grant this “special status” to the east so that his government can say that they have held up their end of the bargain, but so far this has been a tough sell to Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. At the moment, Poroshenko’s offer is conditional — if Russian-backed fighters stop violating the ceasefire then greater autonomy can be granted — but even this has yet to pass.

Since the most basic step called for by the Minsk protocol — a ceasefire — has never really come to pass, it’s easy to forget that Russian-backed separatists have broken every other provision of the deal. The separatists have made no attempt to hold local elections, according to Ukrainian law, despite the fact that multiple election cycles have come and gone. The border is still controlled by Russian proxies. Russian military hardware has not been withdrawn across the border. Russia’s proxies still hold 133 Ukrainian soldiers as prisoners, but Ukraine’s top negotiator now fears that many of the soldiers have been executed because the self-declared governments of eastern Ukraine have failed to even provide Ukraine or the international community with proof that they are alive.

Russia is taking full advantage of this situation. In the last two months, ceasefire violations have steadily increased. Friday, February 5, just two days after the resignation of Abramovicius, the Ukrainian military reported the highest level of fighting since August, right before the newest iteration of the ceasefire went into effect. That same day, alarming amounts of Russian armor were spotted moving through Shakhtyorsk on their way to the western capital of the Russian-backed fighters in Donetsk. Large military convoys have also been spotted on the move in Russian-occupied Crimea last weekend, and last week the Russian military began unannounced snap drills in the Southern Military District which abuts Ukraine’s eastern border. This past weekend, fighting exploded, and the Ukrainian military claimed that Russian military intervention has expanded greatly recently and six Russian military officers were killed near the front lines. Lamberto Zannier, the Secretary-General of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), now says that there is “circumstantial evidence” that Russia is once again directly supplying the Donbass militants with military equipment, but the OSCE monitors have been systematically blocked from confirming these reports. “Why are they blocking us so systematically? But of course we cannot… report on anything specific because we are not there,” he told the press.

The strategy employed here seems to be to either force Ukraine’s government to respond militarily, which will make Kiev look like the aggressor to the international community, or to make the Poroshenko administration, and the West, look impotent if they do not act. Vladimir Putin knows that if Ukraine ratchets up the violence enough, then Moscow could raise the alarm and directly intervene like it did in the fall of 2014 under the false clarion call of “protecting ethnic Russians.” Short of that, however, every civilian who is killed on either side of the line of demarcation makes reuniting the east with the west — the stated goal of the Minsk agreements which all parties have signed — harder to realize.

Either way, Russia wins. It is now clear that Vladimir Putin has decided that his country cannot compete against 21st century democratic and open societies by playing by their rules. He has rejected freedom of speech, government transparency, and international law while embracing a legacy of militarism, dictatorship and corruption. As a result he is waging an imperialist zero-sum game. It is also clear that Russia’s moves in Ukraine and Syria have more to do with crushing popular pro-democratic uprisings than geopolitics or regional security.

To this end, Russia is seeing its second great victory, this time over the West itself. Beyond Ukraine’s borders, Europe is falling apart. The economic downturn is just the latest bad news for the EU. As a reaction to German-directed austerity measures, the people of Europe are electing anti-EU populist politicians, isolationist reactionaries who reject any involvement in the international arena. Thanks to the tidal wave of refugees fleeing war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa, this upswell in populism is also nationalist, often disturbingly xenophobic, in nature. Vladimir Putin’s propaganda wing has spent years warning that Western intervention in the Middle East would cause a surge in terrorism and the flood of refugees.

The anti-EU movement in the Netherlands has petitioned and successfully forced the Dutch government to hold a referendum that would reject Ukraine’s association agreement with the European Union. Though the vote is non-binding, it puts the Dutch government in an awkward position. If it passes it could jeopardize Ukraine’s goal of joining the EU, a move which would renege on promises made to Kiev and would leave the eastern European country on its own, sandwiched between the EU which it cannot join and Russia which is openly hostile.

Ironically, this is a crisis of Moscow’s making. Ignore for a moment that Russia, since day one of the Syrian crisis, has provided all the weapons that have killed nearly all of both combatants and civilians alike, and has propped up the mass-murdering Assad regime. Ignore the fact that Russia is still not focusing its attacks on ISIS but is rather destroying Western-backed rebel units. Ignore that the majority of refugees who speak to reporters say that they are fleeing Russian bombs, not terrorism or Western-backed rebels. Ignore reality because the European people are increasingly ignoring it. Just as the populist politicians — in France and Greece, Hungary and Poland, the Netherlands and the UK — are anti-EU, they are simultaneously pro-Putin. In fact, as Alina Polyakova,  deputy director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, argues in a new paper, the Kremlin has covertly and overtly helped fostered Euroskeptic political parties, anti-Western politicians, and anti-immigrant xenophobia, both at home and across the world. The Russian state media has also fueled racism and fear. Perhaps the most iconic example of this occurred last month in Germany, where the Kremlin’s premier propagandist Dmitry Kisilyev spread a fake-and-thoroughly-debunked story about a 13 year-old girl who was allegedly kidnapped and raped by a gang of immigrants. As Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on Russian neo-Nazis and global far-right movements, has pointed out now numerous times, the Kremlin media supports and promotes ultranationalist publications, politicians and news stories. Some of Putin’s key advisors are neo-Eurasianists who have played a vital role in getting ultranationalists to fight in the Donbass against Ukraine, and Russian fascists have even given money to European far-right parties (just to link to a few examples). Is it any surprise, then, that Putin is both directly supporting Europe’s far right while bombing the Syrian people into fleeing to Europe and providing them more fuel for their xenophobic fire?

Furthermore, the Russian state-controlled media outlets are pushing the UK towards a “Brexit,” a development which could drive one after another major player out of the economic union which Russia so forcefully opposes.

Just as corruption was the central complaint of the Euromaidan Revolution, EU membership was the central goal. If the Ukrainian government does not collapse under the weight of its internal political struggles, it could be frozen out of the central aims of its revolutions. Either way Putin wins, as Moscow continues to point to Kiev, and to Syria, as examples of popular unrest that destroy nations. While the Putin regime destroys its political opponents at home, it is running up the scoreboard in Ukraine and within the European Union.

No matter what happens in Kiev, or the Donbass, or Crimea, or Syria, Putin should be confident that there will be no backlash from the West. Europe shows no appetite for new sanctions, and many EU observers have been surprised that current sanctions against Russia have not already been rolled back. Russian troops and airstrikes have been able to wage a successful military campaign in Syria, and the world is sitting back and watching a complete disaster unfold as a result. In fact, already today Russia has destroyed five hospitals and two schools across Syria in an apparently-systematic effort to drive the populace from northern Syria. The more who flee Syria, the fewer people left who oppose Assad, the worse the humanitarian crisis becomes, and larger the flood of refugees which are fueling the ultranationalist parties in Europe which could split the EU apart.

Yet somehow the international community speaks about Russia’s role in the Middle East as if it were the peacemaker, not the primary arms dealer, and now murderer.

There is also no sign that this is changing as most yet-to-be-elected political candidates in both Europe and the United States appear to favor rapprochement with the Kremlin. In the United States, even if the new president were to take a harder line on Russian aggression, they will not take power for another year. As long as the current Western leadership is willing to accept this, what will be left of Syria, Ukraine, or the European Union by then?