In January 1991, after Soviet soldiers killed 14 Lithuanians in Vilnius, a remarkable political cartoon appeared: It showed a Soviet soldier pointing a gun at a Lithuanian who was proudly thrusting his chest forward and then, further away, Uncle Sam, the universally recognized symbol for the US, throwing up his hands in abject surrender.
On the one hand, this cartoon reflected the anger many around the world felt about Washington’s failure to stand up to Mikhail Gorbachev because the West was about to begin its campaign against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But on the other, it underscored an important truth: the real target of Moscow’s actions may not be the most immediately apparent one.
Three analysts are now making that point with regard to Putin’s military maneuvers near the Ukrainian border, arguing that the Kremlin leader’s real targets are Barack Obama and other Western leaders rather than Ukraine and that he hopes to achieve his goals by threats alone but will use force if they don’t give way and put pressure on Kyiv to see things Moscow’s way.
Indeed, each of the three suggests that Putin’s strategy is likely to be more effective if he can convince Western leaders that unless they force Kyiv to accept Russia’s conditions, Putin will use force and dramatically expand his war against Ukraine, something the West doesn’t want and that it is struggling to find a way to prevent, short of supporting Moscow.
Putin is seeking to put pressure on Kyiv to accept his interpretation of the Minsk accords both directly and via the West by the kind of threatening behavior that the West has often responded to by seeking to find some common ground given that Putin appears quite prepared to escalate the situation if he does not get his way, Sungurovskiy says.
Putin’s goal in Ukraine since his Anschluss of Crimea remains unchanged: he wants to prevent Kyiv from “escaping the orbit of influence of Russia.” He hasn’t achieved that, the Kyiv analyst says; but he hasn’t given up. Using the threat of force to frighten the West is just one more step in that direction.
And the Kremlin leader thinks he has a chance to win out that way, to get the West to back down on sanctions against Russia and on its support for Ukraine. So far, that hasn’t happened; and if it doesn’t happen soon, then, Sungurovskiy concludes, Putin will go for broke and seize the territory of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts “up to their administrative borders.”
“The occasion for such actions, the Ukrainian analyst says, “could be provocations similar to those used in Crimea. Putin has shown what he is capable of and the next provocation certainly will be more carefully prepared, more massive, and more threatening.” That too will send a message to both Ukraine and its Western partners.
Belkovsky shares this interpretation of what is now happening: “Putin is seeking to gain Obama’s attention and is creating phantom threats along the borders of Ukraine” to force the American president to meet with and make concessions to the Russian leadership with regard not just to Ukraine but around the world.
Putin’s “tactics are clear: the more problems you create for your opposite number before negotiations, the greater the chances that he will agree because he will want to escape from these problems. Before the [G-20] summit, it is useful to create a foundation for pressure and to fright everyone with the notion that Russian forces are about to attack Ukraine.”
According to Belkovsky, “Ukraine is for Putin ‘only an instrument to force the US into negotiations about the fate of the world’” and not just about lifting sanctions. So far he has not succeeded, but his latest military moves around Ukraine are an indication that he has not ceased trying and even that he thinks the timing is especially propitious.
The reason Putin thinks that he has a particularly good chance to influence Obama now, the Russian commentator says, is that the American president “is extremely interested in the victory of Hillary Clinton. If a war in Ukraine begins,” he argues, “this will have a negative impact on Clinton’s chances and the chances of Donald Trump for victory will grow.”
Andrey Piontkovsky also agrees that what Putin is doing around Ukraine now is all about the G-20 meeting and Putin’s efforts to use the West against Ukraine and to force the West to make broader concessions. The Kremlin leader’s message to Obama and the others is simple, Piontkovsky says.
“’If you do not agree to our interpretation of the Minsk accords and do not force Ukraine to accept it,’” Putin is suggesting, “’then we will look for other means of solving the situation, including military ones.’”
But Piontkovsky suggests, implying that the West should keep this in mind, that
“Moscow isn’t prepared” for a real war. That would be “insane.” But threats and bluffs of one often have worked on Western leaders and diplomats in the past, and so it is no surprise that Putin is using them again.
He concludes that he believes it would be a very good thing for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to tell Putin that he has no hope of achieving his aims. Poroshenko’s rhetoric has become tougher in recent weeks, and Putin should hear directly from him that “Ukraine will never change its constitution or destroy its state” as the Kremlin leader wants because after all “Moscow doesn’t need the Donbas or Crimea but rather all Ukraine.”
And a fourth observer, Dmytro Tymchuk, a Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada deputy from Popular Front who coordinates the Information Resistance movement, says any quieting on the line of the front between Ukrainian forces and pro-Moscow militants may work to Russia’s advantage and do not preclude attacks in the future.
In his view, the Russians are “trying to show a certain contrast: now is a cessation of fighting but if need be, everything can be changed” and changed very quickly because there are a lot of Russian soldiers and Russian weapons in or near Ukraine and they haven’t been pulled back at all.
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