The Ukrainian secession crisis brought about a sharp boost in Putin’s popularity at home: his latest approval ratings are at a soaring 83% and keep climbing. However, rather than a sign of presidential longevity (a new joke calls Putin the “odd President”, as opposed to his “even” partner Medvedev), this jump may be a precursor of an imminent demise.
Here are the arguments for such an unintuitive conclusion.
First, the war on Ukraine was not engineered by Putin. While he is a clear beneficiary, he is not in the driver’s seat of the invasion – and he feels visibly uncomfortable with this sinecure position. What is worse, the people who are in the driver’s seat are not Putin’s natural allies – and their symbiotic relation is unlikely to last beyond a few months.
Let’s consider some of the actual engineers of “Project Ukraine”.
The self-appointed “Minister of War” in Eastern Ukraine, Igor Girkin, is the man with the actual (military) power on the ground. His war-time buddy from the Transnistria secession war in 1992, is the self-appointed Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Their key remote collaborators in Moscow are Marat Musin and Olga Kolygina. None of these are natural friends of Putin, quite on the contrary. All four have historically been anti-Putin (and anti-establishment) in their ideology, and until very recently – in their public statements. All four were activists who, arms in hand, tried to topple Yeltsin in 1993. Two of the four are self-admitted monarchists, the other two are essentially hard-line communists, but all four are united by their extreme “Greater Russia” ideology, and would give their lives to return Russia to the quasi-empire it was under the Soviet Union.
None of the four – and more importantly, neither of the two now dealing the cards on the ground in Eastern Ukraine – are reporting up to Putin. They report directly to their sponsor: the “orthodox oligarch” Konstantin Malofeev. A clear proof of the absence of even a dotted reporting line to the Kremlin was the intercepted call between Putin’s personal envoy Lukin and Col. Girkin – Lukin was sent to “negotiate” the release of the kidnapped OSCE monitors, but Girkin only agreed to release them because his boss – Malofeev – told him to. Not because Putin (via his envoy) asked him to.
Let’s look at the sponsor himself. Malofeev. The billionaire was detained over fraud charges by Putin as recently as November 2012; and his property – including his controlling shares in Rostelecom – was put under a criminal arrest. It was only through an undisclosed arrangement that the charges were dropped and the shares were released. Whatever political truce Malofeev may have agreed with Putin, it is only going to last for as long as Putin has the leverage. The moment Malofeev gets any leverage over Putin, revenge for the public humiliation is likely to be imminent. And Malofeev now has the leverage of control over the self-determination of a new country – for which Putin has taken the full public credit, on credit.
Another influential “actor” we might consider is Alexander Barkashov, an extreme – openly fascist – former politician, who brought his swastika-bearing private army to shoot at Yeltsin’s supporters in 1993 (thus his linkage to the “big four”). Barkashov was the person caught on tape giving instructions to the Donetsk activists on how to fabricate the upcoming referendum results; he was also caught referring to Putin as, essentially, a sissy who is not willing to provide the military support needed for a successful secession from Ukraine. In the call, the local Donetsk activist asked Barkashov for permission to postpone the referendum, citing lack of time to prepare for a plausible “due process”. Barkashov said absolutely not. The next day, Putin made a public appeal to separatists to postpone the vote. Guess which of the two instructions the Donetsk “self-defense” heeded. (No points for ignoring Putin).
So, all in all, not difficult to see where this is going. People who have no reason to like Putin, have full control over the way separatists in Eastern Ukraine act. They have been smartly patient in allowing him to bask in the legend of “Vladimir the Uniter”, but will only do that for pragmatic reasons. These reasons include fostering the belief in the media in Russia that this is Putin’s project (and for as long as they believe this, they will break their legs push to support the separatists – and in the process, to glorify Girkin and Boroday. They also include the foreign policy support by Russia to their actions – engaging the mighty power of Russian diplomacy and foreign propaganda to demonize the Ukrainian army’s anti-terrorist initiatives and brand them as “genocide on their own people”. But this bunch won’t stop at that. They know that Putin will come to his Waterloo very soon. A likely Waterloo will be the decision – that he will have to make – to NOT accept the new-fangled republics DNR, LNR and all the *NRs that will keep popping up. Annexing these territories is a non-option for Putin – it will virtually destroy the Russian economy. It is almost possible to accommodate 1.8 m people who are net budget recipients, but quite another to find the funds for another 7 or 8 m budget drainers. And let’s not forget the pariah state that Russia will become once it annexes territories that don’t have even the flimsy “part-of-Russia” legend that the Crimea had. Even the sanction-wary EU countries will be forced to act on full scale then.
Putin is in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t pickle. If he does offer military intervention and/or annex Eastern Ukraine, the Russian economy will collapse and he will quickly became unelectable. If he doesn’t, he will condemn Eastern Ukraine to the status of a new Transnistria, and will be branded as a traitor to the “Greater Russia” resurrection idea. That will make him unelectable again.
Let me make one thing clear: Putin’s pickle in the Ukrainian context is not something that I just discovered; there have been numerous publications on his no-win dilemma.
What I am trying to bring to the debate is the very strong probability that this predicament is not a chance deviation from the Kremlin’s original plan. On the contrary, I strongly believe that the pickle was the plan itself. A plan written by people, who – for one – will not allow Putin to take the credit for something that he hardly even contributed to.
Now, the fact that the carpet is likely going to be pulled from under Putin’s feet by the initiators of the Ukraine secession crisis do not mean that they will succeed. There are many other factors that make sure the inertia is in favor of Putin – his strong control over the FSB and judicial system and over the media. However, there are likely to be centrifugal forces there too. The Russian oligarchs – who are Putin’s proxies in control of the media – are not thrilled with the sanctions, while Putin, as a Russian economist said, prefers the sanctions to be expanded to as many oligarchs as possible, to keep their interests aligned with his. When they decide to switch their loyalties is a function only of how much longer he can feed them “Sochi”s” and – now – “Crimea’s” – but all these projects depend on his ability to squander budget rubles. Which may not last much longer, especially if he does act on Eastern Ukraine.
Last, let’s not forget the army. While it is in the firm grip of the Kremlin, there are more and more military online forums where Girkin and the “Russian volunteers in Ukraine” are beginning to get a halo of near-mystical respect that may well compete for their loyalty, given the opportunity.
In 2010, Girkin wrote to a friend:
“Everyone I talk to…swears allegiance to Putin […] In Russia, today, it seems there is nothing to be done. There is no conflict, no catalyst, everything is strictly under control […] Maybe a Transnistria option for Ukraine can be such a catalyst.
In any case, I have many friends -veterans from Transnistria and the Chechen wars – who are willing to sacrifice anything and will show up at a moment’s notice”
It just might be that by now he has many more friends – or ready followers – in the Russian military.