By Thomas Theiner
Putin is awakening to some very unpleasant realities and must now choose between backing down or doubling down: abandon the collapsing secessionist movement in Eastern Ukraine that he himself created—or murder Russians in Russia as a pretext for invading Ukraine.
The first option would kill his image as the great Russian leader and glorious victor over the West; the second one would see Russian troops decimated in a bloody war, before being bogged down combatting a massive insurgency for many years to come. Meanwhile Russia’s economy would be hit by all-encompassing sanctions and total ostracism in the West, all of which would require Putin to massively ramp up oppressive actions in Russia.
So, what will Putin choose? Invasion, without any doubt! His mind has long been set on invading Ukraine, overthrowing the current government and forcing Ukraine to submit once and for all to being a colony of the Russian Empire.
But so far, none of the pretexts he ordered his secret services and propaganda apparatus to orchestrate have worked out. Plan A was to invade in March, but the expected uprising in Eastern Ukraine did not materialize. No uprising, no civil strife, no refugee streams, nothing Russia’s leadership expected to happen took place, depriving Putin of a Kosovo scenario, where ethnic cleansing brought NATO into the picture.
Plan B was to organize and stoke an uprising in Eastern Ukraine using covert Russian Special Forces, irregular militia, and secret service agents. The first target was the city of Sloviansk, which Russian militia took under control on April 12, 2014. But even then, no general uprising took place. Further seizures of buildings in other cities had to all be undertaken by Russian militia and soldiers. The few locals who showed up for these attacks proved unable to take and hold any building on their own. Even bribing the police to abandon their posts or switch sides failed to bring out the necessary masses.
Tellingly, in Sevastopol (pop. 380,000) around 15,000 showed up at a pro-Russia demonstration, while Donetsk (pop. 1 million) only saw about 10,000 at a similar rally. Right now Russia is still pouring troops and weapons into Eastern Ukraine as its plan continues to unravel: too few people have been joining the Russian troops, while resistance against Russia’s occupation continues to grow—even in the face of kidnappings and murders perpetrated by Russian subversives. Russia even resorted to paying thugs to beat up families demonstrating for a united and free Ukraine, but it remained unable to muster up a single mass demonstration in its favor in the cities it has partly occupied. With no mass uprising in sight, Putin then hoped that Ukraine’s Armed Forces might slaughter civilians indiscriminately in a bid to retake the occupied areas, but Ukraine’s military has not acted the way that the Russian military does, and civilian casualties have been too few to serve as a pretext such as what NATO used for its intervention in Libya.
Putin is now in a stew. By suggesting that the May 11 referendum in Donbas be postponed, he is admitting that Plan B has also failed. But without a serious pretext, he can’t invade Ukraine: while the Russian population is ready for an invasion, as relentless lies and propaganda have brainwashed it into believing that fascists rule in Kyiv, the Western press and the Western governments are not fooled. Nobody serious in Europe believes Putin anymore, and while European governments have been successfully divided on the issue of further sanctions, thanks to the work of Putin’s agents among them, all Heads of State agree that, the minute regular Russian forces cross into Ukraine, devastating sanctions must be enacted. Such sanctions would sap Russia’s capabilities to fight a war in Ukraine and the Russian General Staff is aware of this. There are only two ways out for Putin now: back down completely, call his troops back, and see Ukraine turn decisively West, or machinate a new, even bloodier pretext, Plan C.
There is no question that Putin will put Plan C into action. To have an idea what pretext we can expect, we need to analyze Putin’s obsession with NATO. In Putin’s world, spies rule and every significant event is the work of spies, whether it’s the fall of the Soviet Union, ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, colored revolutions, September 11th, the Arab Spring, Al-Qaida’s existence, or Euromaidan. In his reality, these are all CIA operations. In his view, Euromaidan was a CIA plot to steal Ukraine from him, so his use of secret agents, unmarked troops and militia to steal Crimea and now Eastern Ukraine was a justifiable tit for tat.
This suggests that Plan C will try to imitate an event that he believes the West also engineered. As Putin has already tried to replay Libya and Kosovo, he will probably try a replay of Afghanistan next. The West’s reason to invade Afghanistan was that the Taliban were sheltering Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. Multiple attacks in Russia that the Russian press and leadership will immediately link to the Right Sector, the presumed ultra-right militaristic group that played a role during Euromaidan, will be Putin’s scapegoat. This time, his agents won’t bomb apartment buildings, as they used this scheme to create a pretext for invading Chechnya. Instead, they have a different arsenal of “terrorist attacks” that they can make use of: car bombs around the May 9 celebrations in Moscow and Sevastopol, the downing of a Russian civilian airplane or two using portable missiles, the assassinations of leading Russian politicians, or even the explosion of a dirty bomb in a Russian city near the Ukrainian border. These are the likely events and would all be blamed on the Right Sector. Putin would then demand that Ukraine hand over Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh and use Ukraine’s certain refusal to do so as pretext to invade, ostensibly as a parallel with Afghanistan: harboring a terrorist.
In short, Putin is not done yet. He will not rest until he controls all of Ukraine and he needs a serious pretext—not for his brainwashed audience at home, but for his agents and useful idiots in the West. If he were to invade without a pretext, his agents would quickly be sidelined and silenced. But if there is a plausible pretext, they will be able to continue to argue in Putin’s favor, dividing Europe and sabotaging any campaign for meaningful sanctions. Plan C will surely provide Putin with a pretext. Where this will lead to is war. A war, the size of which is hard to foresee. We all need to remember: World War I began when Serbia refused Austria’s demand to hand over the people involved in assassinating the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo, in 1914.
Edited by Lidia Wolanski
Thomas Theiner is a writer and production manager. He has previously lived in Kyiv for 5 years and worked at a subsidiary of Ukraine’s biggest film company.