The Corner

Ukraine: ‘How Many Divisions Has The Hashtag?’

Writing in Foreign Policy, Michael Weiss list “10 facts on the ground that add up to a very real chance that Russia might still invade [Eastern] Ukraine.” Read them and judge for yourself.

A few points in particular caught my eye, not least this on Transnistria (the pro-Moscow statelet wedged between Moldova and Ukraine that I mentioned in a post last night):

Russia has enough men and firepower to reach the separatist region of Transnistria in Moldova, according to NATO’s supreme allied commander Europe, Gen. Philip Breedlove. Meanwhile, Moldova Prime Minister Iurie Leanca sees “provocations” by the illegal statelet-within-a-state as likely. Let’s not forget that the last time Russia held an impromptu military “exercise,” it invaded and lopped off Crimea.

And then there was this:

A little-noticed item in Sovershenno Sekretno, a Moscow-based magazine, authored by Vladimir Voronov, appeared in late February making the case for why Russia would indeed mount incursions into Ukraine. The most salient reason given was that, contrary to conventional wisdom that Ukraine’s military depends on Russia, the situation is actually the other way around: Russia’s military-industrial complex needs Ukraine’s manufacturing resources.

Radio Free Europe has more on this topic here.

Back to Weiss:

Putin doesn’t want the truth to penetrate his national Potemkin village because the lie needs to be sold complete: the narod (similar to the German volk) must understand that its ethnic kin is under systematic assault from Tallinn [Estonia] to Sevastopol and that, if anything, it’s the Americans who are the ones invading another country — Russia.

The “national” dimension here is vital. In the course of a necessary and subtle article in the Wall Street Journal last weekend correctly decrying the way that nationalism has become a dirty word, John O’Sullivan argued that Putin is not a nationalist, but is instead acting “in the service of what he sees as clear state or even personal interests, not from a commitment to Russian peoplehood.”

While I certainly agree that “personal interests” (specifically the securing of his rule at home) go a long way to explaining what Putin is up to, it is important to understand that “Russianess” now lies at the heart of his thinking.

To be sure there is a Russian imperial identity (the country has, as John notes, long been a multi-ethnic state), but that (as now revived in Putin’s “Eurasian” project) is intertwined and ultimately subordinate to Russian national identity. Whether it’s in his attempt to provide his countrymen with a unifying historical narrative (think, for example, back to the opening ceremony at Sochi), or his increasingly close association with the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin is reverting to the older ideology codified in 19th century Russia as “Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality.” “Nationality” then and now means Russian.

But, for all this, there remains the question as to what the West can (or should) do. As Weiss writes:

How many divisions has the hashtag? Indeed, no one at any senior level in the U.S. government or NATO is contemplating a military response to an invasion of the Ukrainian mainland and the dismemberment of a European country. And Putin knows it. There’s not even a bluff he has to call.


And that brings me to this interview with James Sherr in the Kyiv Post. James is more optimistic about the eventual outcome (and more critical of Ukrainian restraint) than I would be, and perhaps more committed to a Manichean view of what lies ahead. Nevertheless, with the exception of his observation that over the longer term Russia’s “weaknesses will prove telling” (I’m not convinced), these comments by James ring very true:

This is not a soft power contest. War is a tool of policy, but it is also war, and as Clausewitz said, it has its own syntax. Economic and institutional reforms take time to work, and they won’t work if, by the time of the elections, half the country is transformed de facto into Novorossiya [lands north of the Black Sea incorporated into the Russian Empire by Catherine II]. Ukraine and the West have a few months to change the dynamic: not to prevail, mind you, but change the dynamic. If we do that, our struggle becomes easier, and Russia’s becomes more difficult. Russia’s strengths are short-term. Like Hitler, Putin fights short wars. He is a treacherously agile tactician who tries to gain strategic advantage from tactical steps. But in a prolonged contest with Ukraine and the West, Russia’s weaknesses will prove telling. The challenge is to get to that point. We need to reach what Churchill called ‘the end of the beginning.’ And we will do so only if Ukraine and the West raise their game.

It is frustrating that in these conditions of national emergency, some are still pinning their hopes on EU membership perspectives and MAP. These things are beside the point. Even if they were politically realistic, they would do nothing to help. In June 1940, the British War Cabinet declared: ‘Every citizen of France will enjoy immediately citizenship of Great Britain, every British subject will become a citizen of France.’ Did that help France? Perhaps somebody in the Kyiv Post will draw a cartoon: one man drowning and another on the shore holding a document entitled ‘EU Membership Perspective.’ Ukraine needs tangible assistance and as quickly as possible. It will not be saved by grand gestures.

No, it will not.

As I said, I’m not optimistic.


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