The definition of “pretext”: a reason given in justification of a course of action that is not the real reason. Putin’s pretext: Ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine must be protected at all costs.
With Europe high on Russian gas, President Obama high on rhetoric, and the rest of the world high on total lack of interest, Ukraine’s newborn government is facing Putin alone. But it is standing firm. Over the past couple of days, Ukrainian government forces have moved courageously to reclaim their country’s sovereign territory, retaking buildings that had been seized by pro-Russian mobs. And in doing so, Ukraine has, at least for a moment, slightly trimmed Putin’s claws.
Unfortunately, however, Putin is highly unlikely to retreat. After all, he knows that Ukraine’s armed forces are no match for his. He also knows that, whatever the White House might claim, the Western sanctions imposed so far are truly and unambiguously pathetic. In fact, they’re worse than nothing — only reinforcing Putin’s belief that the U.S. lacks the will to stop him. In the same vein, while it’s true that American warships are now patrolling the Mediterranean and Black Seas, under the invisi-line president, those otherwise potent vessels might as well be docked in Hawaii. To cap things off, as Eli Lake explains, Obama is refusing to share Russia-related U.S. tactical intelligence with Ukraine.
This is to Putin what a shipwreck is to a shark: a catalyst to a bloody feast.
And so, we’re seeing his evolving three-pronged policy — and it’s straight out of the KGB playbook.
First, we see the classic “active measures.” Encouraged and assisted by Russian intelligence officers and select friends in the Russian mafia, the pro-Russian mobs are waging a classic KGB-style insurrection against Ukrainian sovereignty. Their intent is clear: to provide Putin with the pretext for a “protective military operation” in eastern Ukraine — a crisis that he could then use to claim, even if ludicrously, that the Russian invasion was a peacekeeping mission.
Second, we have the Russian bear hug — a squeezing off of energy supplies to Ukraine. Raising prices by 80 percent, Putin is sending an icy and unmistakable message to the Ukrainian government. Here, in a sick twist of irony, as Ukrainians face the cold, Europe’s top soccer clubs have been playing under Gazprom sponsorship in the continent’s major tournament.
Third, as I’ve noted before, Russia continues to focus its destabilization campaign on a number of major cities. And Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk aren’t just population centers. More importantly, these cities are located on major highways — in Kharkiv’s case, the north–south E105; for Donetsk and Luhansk, the east–west M104. Coincidentally of course, these highways connect with massed Russian military forces both in Crimea and in Russia proper. In short, these are the roads that would become the main supply routes for any Russian invasion.
But what’s most stunning here, indeed almost unbelievable, is that the Obama administration is well aware of what’s going on. NATO’s intelligence community is also fully aware of the military dynamics at play. And yet, still, we have taken no substantive action to restrain Russian aggression. Instead, we have been using that most lethal weapon of democratic liberalism: inanely repeated warnings.
This is inexcusable. We have options. “Want to make Putin hurt?” an informed British friend said to me yesterday. “Then sanction VTB Bank” (a major artery of the Russian banking system).
He’s right. Doing so would hammer the Russian economy. Moreover, VTB’s motto illustrates its sympathy with Putin’s worldview: “World Without Barriers.”
Let’s prove VTB and Putin wrong.
— Tom Rogan is a blogger based in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to The American Spectator and the Guardian.