Staunton, December 20 – Twenty times during his press conference, Vladimir Putin said that he supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine, simultaneously the latest example of his dishonesty and duplicity, his efforts to win support from the West for a settlement in his favor, and his desire to exploit a pro-Moscow minority inside Ukraine to undermine Kyiv in the future.
In a comment posted online December 19, Andrey Piontkovsky points out that having failed with his plans to detach “Greater Novorossiya” from Ukraine, Putin very much needs to have that region remain as “a cancerous tumor” within the borders of Ukraine and to use it against Kyiv.
“The illusion of the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Piontkovsky suggests, is a trap for the Ukrainian leadership because the Kremlin leader has no intention of leaving the area but only forcing Kyiv to bear the social welfare costs of the depressed east while continuing to undermine the ability of the Ukrainian state to control that territory or function independently of Moscow.
According to the Russian analyst, “Putin’s new line is to strangle Ukraine not by a direct war but by economic and political means and a game of cat and mouse with it by talking about the so-called territorial integrity” of that country.
This may be a new line for Putin, but it is entirely consistent with the line Stalin pursued in drawing the borders of Ukraine and the other Soviet republics and one equally consistent with the way in which the West has approached the unpacking of the Soviet system in the two decades since the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
Soviet propagandists asserted and many in both Russia and the West believe that Stalin attempted to draw the borders of the republics of the Soviet Union in such a way as to create nationally homogeneous republics. But in fact, that was never true. Instead, the Kremlin dictator always drew the lines in such a way that these republics were not homogeneous.
Moscow’s reasoning was simple: if it ensured that there was a local minority, either consisting of ethnic Russians as in Ukraine or Kazakhstan, for example, or of another competing nationality as in Central Asia or the Caucasus, it could kill two birds with one stone.
On the one hand, it would guarantee itself a ready-made set of agents in place who would be ready to do Moscow’s bidding in exchange for protection. And on the other, by using these “assets,” the center would heighten tensions between those nationalities relative to tensions between the titular nationality and Moscow, allowing the center to present itself falsely as an arbiter between them.
Moreover, returning the principle of border stability after violating it first in Georgia and now in Crimea, Putin will win support from some in the West who will see that as an opening for a new round of cooperation with the Kremlin – given that a commitment to the stability of borders in the former Soviet space has been a core element of Western policy since 1992.
The quintessential expression of this position was the declaration by a White House spokesman on February 6,1992, that the United States would “never recognize any secession from the territory of the former Soviet Union,” a declaration that tilted the balance against any further moves toward self-determination in the name of stability.
But three things have changed since that time that make Putin’s move less likely to work on the ground if not in Western chancelleries than he may think. First, many ethnic Russians and even more non-Russian speakers now have a civic identification with the countries in which they live and will not play the game as Putin hopes. That is why he has failed in Ukraine so far.
Second, Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea and his incautious language about becoming the latest “ingatherer of Russian lands” not only has alarmed the titular nationalities of the non-Russian countries but has also frightened many ethnic Russians there who know they are better off in those countries than in Russia.
And third, by his naked aggression in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, Putin has alarmed enough people in the West that most will not be taken in by this latest turn in the Kremlin line. Instead, they will understand and act to make sure that Putin cannot play a Stalin-like role there or anywhere else beyond the borders of his country.