Russian President Vladimir Putin giving a speech celebrating the annexation of Crimea by Russia during his visit to the port of Sevastopol on May 9, 2014. (Image: YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian actions at the Donetsk airport over the last week and in Mariupol now show that “except for military blackmail and murders, Putin has nothing to offer either Western leaders or Ukraine,” a conclusion that Vitaly Portnikov argues should compel both to re-examine their willingness to negotiate with him.
Ukraine’s defensive actions need no explanation, the Kyiv commentator says; they reflect what people have always done when faced with aggression. But Putin’s actions do require answering questions like: why is the Kremlin leader dispatching his forces to fight and kill even in places that may have little strategic significance?
Why is Putin sending new military units to Ukraine “to prevent the liberation of Donetsk and other cities of Ukraine from bandit formations which are terrorizing local residents” even as he is “talking about peace and sending his foreign minister to Berlin ‘to achieve progress?’”
The answer to these and related questions isn’t hard to identify, Portnikov says. “Putin is not a military leader and even not a politician. He is a huckster,” someone who seeks to get his way by blackmail, intimidation, and trading one thing for another. That is clear if one considers what he has done in Ukraine in the past.
The Kremlin leader has used a series of carrots and sticks to try to bend Kyiv and Ukraine to his will, shifting from one to the other when his earlier “offers” didn’t work out and increasingly working to destabilize Ukraine with military force and violence, something Ukrainians are of course resisting.
“Now try to answer the question: what can Putin trade now? – given, Portnikov argues, that “his chief goal is not Ukraine and even not the restoration of the empire. His chief goal is that he be recognized as a real ‘emperor,’ a player equal in weight to the president of the United States and the leaders of the European Union.”
The only thing he can “trade in” is killing, the Kyiv commentator argues. His economy is at the brink of collapse, and he has nothing else to offer Ukraine, the remainder of the former Soviet space, or the world beyond.
The only way he believes he can “convince Obama, Merkel and the others to speak with him on conditions of equality is the destabilization [of Ukraine] and with the murder of Ukrainians.” And if he concludes that doing that in Ukraine won’t be enough to “frighten” them to the table, then “he will begin to kill someone else” elsewhere.
Putin is convinced that if he kills enough Ukrainians and destroys the Ukrainian economy, the West will invite him to sit at the negotiating table as an equal; but given that the West isn’t prepared for such a trade, this “Putin dialogue with the West is a dialogue of the deaf,” one in which neither side understands the nature of the other.
Whether Putin gets his wish and sits down with the Western powers in a position of equality as he hopes “depends on [Ukrainians] themselves. [They] must understand that Putin is proceeding from incorrect assumptions and that if [they] keep from being panicked and clenching [their] teeth,” they will live until the collapse “if not of the Russian regime itself than of its foreign policy course.”
“Such a collapse,” Portnikov says, “is a question of time. It is only important that [Ukrainians] do not destroy [their] own home out of the fear that tomorrow it will be destroyed by the trader of death.”