Staunton, March 19 – Despite Vladimir Putin’s assurance that he won’t seek to absorb more of Ukraine than he has done already, the Kremlin leader almost certainly will continue his offensive approach there and elsewhere lest he look to himself or to his supporters as if he is backing down in the face of international pressure, according to Dmitry Bykov.
In an article entitled “It Won’t End with Crimea,” the Moscow commentator says that people in eastern Ukraine “have begun to understand that things won’t be limited to Crimea. Expansion has only one logic: extension … The Russian authorities are operating on those who need ever more chauvinist doing: any stopping will look like a retreat [and] ratings will fall”.
The reason for this is not to be found in Ukraine but in Moscow, he suggests. Any objective survey would show that no more than 25 or 30 percent of people in eastern Ukraine would vote to have their regions absorbed by the Russian Federation. Not because they dislike Russians – they don’t – but because Ukraine as a country offers them a more open future.
In Moscow, on the other hand, the commentator points out, the propaganda machine has changed its message, Bykov says. Earlier, it spoke about Crimea “carefully” but now “it openly broadcasts about defending (cleansing) Ukraine as a whole” and insisting that for that “task,” “all means are good.”
Neither the local population, ethnic Ukrainian and ethnic Russian alike, or Kyiv needs or wants clashes; but, Bykov argues, Moscow needs that “we hate one another” because “hysteria is needed by those who are attacking something and not by those who are defending it.” And that has far-reaching consequences.
Bykov says he would like to ask one simple question of the Muscovite geo-politicians: “is acquiring Crimea at the price of losing Ukraine (and with it possibly all of Europe) a reasonable exchange?”
Nonetheless, now that Putin has said he will not annex more of Ukraine, many are arguing, some perhaps more out of hope than real conviction, that this is the case and that, having swallowed Crimea, the Kremlin leader’s appetites will be sated not just for a time but forever.
Such suggestions are likely to be picked up in the West and used as arguments that the West should not press too hard because of Crimea, should accept Crimea as “a special and unique case,” and agree to what Putin is demanding about the remainder of Ukraine as a price worth paying for cooperation elsewhere.
But as Bykov suggests, those who go down the road of aggression and annexation are unlikely to stop until they are forced to. And there is a precedent that at least one Russian commentator has invoked: the so-called “phony war” of 1940 when Hitler appeared to stop after occupying Poland and dividing it with Stalin.
But that “’phony war,’” as Maksim Kalshnikov points out, did not last for long. It extended only from September 1939 to May 1940. Then Hitler resumed his attack. There is tragically no reason to assume that Putin will not do the same unless he is confronted, as Hitler was not, by overwhelming resistance.