Citing sources close to the Russian president, “Echo Moscow” and former Putin adviser Andrei Illarionov reported that Putin and his team of advisers had concrete plans to attack Ukraine even before the Maidan took a deadly turn and Yanukovych fled Kyiv. Following the publication of strategy papers from the Russian army’s general staff, it has been assumed for some time that general planning was undertaken for the spring of 2015 and a potential change of government in Kyiv. Up to this point, however, Putin’s concrete plans have not been addressed.
According to anonymous interviews conducted by the Bloomberg news agency, the Ukrainian war was debated at one or more meetings held during the Sochi Olympics between Putin and his government ministers and close associates. The meetings centered on the question of whether the Russian economy would emerge unscathed from the expected costs of an invasion and the resulting sanctions. Putin reportedly decided in favor of the military option, emboldened by favorable and possibly prematurely obedient prognoses from his economic and financial experts.
We now know, 100 billion dollars later – the amount lost by the Russian state, and most importantly 5000 lost lives later: It was not only a catastrophe for the Ukrainian victims of aggression, but it also has not paid off for the Russian warmongers. And they didn’t even include the dead in their cost-benefit analysis. They only considered the economic costs of aggression, not the human costs – not even the Russian citizens killed or injured in the process.
On a daily basis, Russia delivers indirect proof that its expansionary plans not only targeted Crimea but also the entire southeast Ukraine, namely through its inability to properly supply occupied Crimea. It was not part of the calculation that, in the winter of 2014/15, Crimea could be deprived of access to a Russian-controlled hinterland that would guarantee this provision of supplies “from Russia’s hand.” The calculation relied on a smooth takeover of the Donbas and the territories north of the Black Sea, bringing enough power stations, industrial plants and transportation routes to construct a wide land bridge and an integrated infrastructure network between Russia and Crimea.
There is no other explanation for the dramatic winter surprise that presently confronts Russia: the fact that a military port and an unreliable ferry connection are the only paths for supplying the peninsula, and that its supply of electricity is guaranteed almost exclusively by the Ukrainian mainland. The calculation didn’t count on that fact that one can deny and trample on legal principles but not the laws of physics. This is why Sevastopol, Yalta and Simferopol, just like the rest of Ukraine, are suffering under outages caused by coal shortages – itself a result of the war in Donbas. If, on top of this, a technical defect disrupts the nuclear power plants that are keeping the country functioning, then the lights go out in Crimea as well, though the political and economic situation there has been dark since March.
The helpless statements of forced optimism that Crimea will get everything “soon” – a bridge and electricity through an undersea cable – indicate that no one expected that a bridge or cable would actually be needed soon. Both are, of course, doable. The implementation, however, is expensive and protracted. A long history of failed planned bridges across the Kerch Straight could have been a lesson for the Russians, just as the construction of high-tension transmission lines has proved difficult in Germany. The Russian state budget is also, following the collapse in oil prices, not what it once was – and also not the basis used by the expansion-is-possible strategists. It is possible – but not affordable.
The war planners also have to watch out for their own kleptocracy. The Russian variety of patriotism encompasses not only expansion at others’ expense, but also the plundering of its own state at the hands of the “Friends of Putin,” for whom the construction of bridges and cables would be quite opportune, a chance to top-up their accounts that grew fat with Sochi but were hit hard by ruble’s collapse.
It won’t be long before we officially hear what began as valid speculation and is now being brought piecemeal to light. As soon as a reputation is ruined, the loose talk in TV interviews begins. Just as the Russian government’s contract killer, [Igor] Girkin, gloats at home about how he fomented the war in eastern Ukraine, a conflict that was presented to us for months as an internal Ukrainian conflict, Putin also belatedly called the “coup by the little green men” what it was – an intervention by the Russian armed forces. In a few months we will surely hear a confirmation of what today, at the beginning of January 2015, once again “only” is “claimed” by the Ukrainians, namely that the most modern Russian military equipment, operated by Russian soldiers, is being moved on Ukrainian territory, and that the Russian military is attempting to subject the warring ultra right-wing militias to a unitary, tightly-organized command, something that of course can’t happen without casualties.
Regardless of whether he is the sponsor of violence or merely a subcontractor, the aggressor’s garrulity and longing for glory is a stroke of luck for historians as well as The Hague’s investigators. It would be as well for every law-abiding Russian prosecutor, if any existed. Taking Russian law and the available evidence into account, the prosecutor would be obliged open an investigation against certain parties for planning and executing an aggressive war. First and foremost, the version of truth that the aggressor preens himself on is a warning for politicians – the braggadocio still has an unsettled score. His calculation with the experiment in Ukraine did not succeed. The initial euphoria has evaporated as quickly as Russia’s foreign currency reserves. Moscow’s armchair generals are already calling for more patriotic narcotics.
Putin has preferred to answer this outcry with zoomorphic self-diagnoses. He is like a bear, the lord of his “taiga,” which defends his territory with nuclear claws and teeth. Even here he misses the mark: the bear is a careful defender; he flies into a rage only when he’s on his most sacred territory or to defend his offspring. He’s not an attacker, and he could not care less about bears in other countries. He’s not even one who fights preventive wars, as the Russian president likes to see himself. More than anything, the bear sleeps in winter instead of holding Olympic Games as a façade for war preparations.
The bear knows, unlike Putin, where the taiga ends and makes his way home. Other symbolic animals rule the Ukrainian steppe, the Ukrainian forests and swampland, and the Carpathian Mountains: the horse, for example, which has a well-developed instinct for flight and cannot be caught in the flatland, and the wolf, which forms alliances in order to hunt and defend itself.
And because he doesn’t know any of these things – where the taiga ends, where Crimea abuts the mainland, on which reactor block Sevastopol’s electricity supply depends, how much war costs, what a barrel of oil will sell for in the near future. Because of this, Putin is no good-natured Russian teddy bear, but rather a poor student who landed the worst grade in geography and mathematics. Unfortunately, he’s not going to withdraw so that he can learn, instead he will attempt to burn down the school, which in his mind is responsible for his failure. In this Russian “Bowling for Columbine,” maybe a couple of other teachers and fellow students should first believe what’s going on. With this in mind, the neighbors would be well advised to keep the fire extinguisher within reach and the pistol ready in its holster, and, even better, to lock up the discredited failure in his room and search his house for weapons. Otherwise, unlike the bear, he will not hibernate this winter, but instead forge new ostensibly worthwhile and affordable plans – plans that by the end of the year will reach the rest of the world and again come as a complete surprise.