Putin’s War on Ukraine Intensifies

by John O'Sullivan

I have a lot of sympathy for people who are entirely perplexed by the crisis in Ukraine. Not only is the crisis complicated, but there seems to be even less correspondence between what people say and what they do than usual in such conflicts . . . 

At present there are several sets of negotiations taking place between Ukraine, Russia, the OSCE (an unwieldy diplomatic talking shop that brings together Western and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Russia), the European Union, and the U.S., and maybe others I haven’t listed or noticed, to settle different aspects of the conflict. Poland’s foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, and his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, are meeting Russia’s Sergei Lavrov today in St. Petersburg to press him to stop fueling the conflict with men and material. President Putin gave Western leaders the impression that he would do just that when they met at the D-Day memorial.  

Yet since then, the fighting in eastern Ukraine has been intensifying in the undeclared Russo–Ukrainian war. (That’s what it is, incidentally, and not a Ukrainian civil war as Moscow now repeats endlessly.). The new Ukrainian president, Peter Poroshenko, has just proposed a “civilian corridor” that would allow ordinary Ukrainians fleeing from the fighting to leave safely. Not a bad short-term response to a major humanitarian crisis, but will they be allowed back if the “pro-Russian” (i.e., Russian) forces prevail? Or will they form a new set of permanent refugees whose homes subsequently end up in the possession of the local thugs and non-Ukrainian mercenaries whom Moscow put together for its Potemkin revolution when a spontaneous uprising failed to occur?   

Russia’s war on Ukraine is very much Putin’s war. It bears all the marks of what the Anglo-Russian journalist, Peter Pomerantsev, calls his “post-modern dictatorship” with shameless official lies, flashy media dissimulation, and a willingness to turn the geopolitical narrative on a dime if that’s what the needs of the Kremlin suggest. 

I examine the impact of this post-modern approach to foreign policy in the London Spectator here.  

“Thus, Putin announces the withdrawal of the same troops several times over and even gets credit for his willingness to compromise. Or . . . he assures the world that the troops in Crimea are nothing to do with him until some time later he cheerfully admits they are Russian. Or he publicly calls on the separatists to abandon their planned independence referendum while continuing to give practical military support to them after they ‘ignore’ him . . . Pomerantsev compares these exercises in political technology to the final scene in the Wizard of Oz. Another comparison might be the satirical film Wag the Dog, in which an American president gets re-elected by winning an entirely simulated war. In Putin’s case, of course, the war is real enough — a recent UN estimate was that 127 people have been killed in the recent unrest in eastern Ukraine — but the dialogue [with Ukraine and the West] is simulated.”  

Quite a number of Westerners, including some conservatives, don’t want to look too closely at the shabby tactics and wholesale denial of truth employed in Putin’s war. They have a soft spot for him on various grounds — he’s a nationalist, he’s a conservative, he’s a Christian, he’s an opponent of the UN international system, he’s a good business partner. In fact he’s none of those things. He’s the kleptocratic head of a Chekist regime run by its intelligence service that happily puts on a good media show to please whatever Western audience it wants to flatter at any one time. Our willingness to be deceived by him is the most effective weapon in his armory. 

His Ukrainian crisis is unlikely to be the last crisis he engineers. His conduct of it will reveal a great deal about his larger modus operandi. So we should watch it, and him like, ahem, a hawk.