But Putin is interested in avoiding any more trouble than he is likely to get from Islamist terrorists in the run-up to, and during, the Sochi Winter Olympics: a showcase event in which the Russian leader has invested tens of billions of dollars and an incalculable amount of prestige. Thus Putin declared on January 28 that “the Ukrainian people can sort this out themselves” while pledging that “Russia will never interfere in this [i.e., Ukraine’s current crisis].” Which is, of course, a pledge that should be trusted as much as one would trust a rattlesnake with a silencer on its rattle (to borrow from Dean Acheson).
In making that non-interference pledge, however, Putin could not resist a side-swipe at those European leaders who had expressed support for the Maidan civic reformers, suggesting that this constituted the kind of meddling that Europeans would not tolerate were the Russian foreign minister to go to, say, Greece and start making anti-European comments to Greeks demonstrating against economic reforms being pressed from Brussels. Even more tellingly, Putin spoke of the “consideration” that must be given to “certain specifics of relations between Russia and Ukraine” in bluntly stating that continued, open support by European diplomats for the Maidan movement “is simply unacceptable and impossible for us.”
By “certain specifics of relations between Russia and Ukraine,” Putin was likely referring, at least obliquely (and perhaps even unconsciously), to something more than the $15 billion economic lifeline he tossed Yanukovych as a reward for the Ukrainian president’s backing off the EU association agreement. One suspects that he was referring to the ancient Russian notion that the people of Ukraine — those “borderland” types, as the etymology of the country’s name implies — are an inferior lot who can only be managed and kept in order by the superior folk of great Russia. Recently, in remarks that previewed Putin’s January 28 warnings, Russian foreign minister Sergiy Lavrov referred to Ukrainians as Russians’ “brothers” — deftly omitting the pejorative adjective “little,” which many Russians habitually attach to “brothers” when describing Ukrainians.
Ethnic and cultural snobberies and longstanding Russian convictions about the divinely ordered leadership role of Russia in the Slavic world are not all that is at work here, however. Putin, the geopolitical strategist who once declared the breakup of the old USSR a historic disaster, knows that Russia cannot be a superpower without Ukraine. Moreover, Putin can read a map (a skill which sometimes seems beyond the capacities of Western leaders); and from the map he can see quite clearly that a Russia that has brought Ukraine back under its hegemony is a Russia poised once again on the borders of central Europe — a point that has certainly not been missed in Vilnius, Warsaw, and elsewhere in the neighborhood. Further, Putin understands that a successfully reformed Ukraine would, over the long haul, be a living rebuke to the post-Soviet model he has tried to sell the world as a grand success.
So what might Putin’s strategic game plan be?
Veteran Russian democracy activist Andrey Piontkovsky told Window on Eurasia’s Paul Goble that, as “Putin cannot swallow Ukraine whole,” he is likely moving toward a “Plan B,” which would involve “the dismemberment of Ukraine and the subordination to Moscow of eastern Ukraine.” But this, Piontkovsky argues, will not work, because of the now-significant Maidan movements in eastern Ukraine, who “want to get rid of their own bandits in power” and who would not accept a divided country in which their portion would be under Moscow’s thumb (and worse). Thus, on Piontkovsky’s analysis, the final gambit left to Putin, “Plan C,” would be “the seizure of Crimea,” to preserve Russian access to the Black Sea (and the Mediterranean). This would cause an uproar internationally, but is, Piontkovsky judges, a play that Putin could, “in principle,” pull off.
None of this drama is likely to happen during the Sochi Games (which is perhaps the only reason anyone has ever found to justify snowboarding and freestyle skiing as Winter Olympic “sports”). But as Ukraine sorts through the complexities of civic renewal, constitutional reform, and political change, which have been made even more challenging by Yanukovych-regime brutalities that have ignited long-smoldering public anger, it would be well for Washington and Brussels to pay attention to the broader strategic picture. For Ukraine’s future will have a marked impact on the future of Europe, and of the West.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.