This isn’t the reporter’s fault, they’re simply enacting their role as an arm of the modern state. It is part of their job to disparage attempts by nation states to alter the structure of the international community, and to uphold that concept as the default assumption in the minds of their readers. Mr Putin is therefore a worthy target of this state apparatus’ wagging finger.
To explain Russia’s moves, we must start with its decision to enter the Syrian conflict on behalf of its President Bashar al Assad. This move was consistent with Moscow’s age-old support of rogue statelets. Rogue in the sense – as per the Times – that these countries chose friction over integration with the international community. Russia has always been generous to such states, even in times of its own financial pain.
The US also utilises statelet sponsorship. A rival power is unlikely to intervene militarily in a breakaway region if it suspects US troops are somewhere on the ground. The diplomatic disaster of potentially killing US advisers in Eastern Ukraine, for instance, has forced Russian-backed separatists (which include Russian regular troops wearing incognito uniforms) to isolate their combat to the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. Had they not been in place, perhaps the Dnieper River would be the frontline of this frozen conflict.
Because ultimately, despite Mr Putin’s attempts to draw the Times’ attention away from the Ukraine crisis by entering Syria, the problem of Kiev still drives the Russian leader’s every decision. What happens in those breakaway regions is a matter of sheer existential significance for the Russian state.
According to the Times, the dominant narrative is that Mr Putin is an arch-villain. His bare-chested, anti-gay belligerency suggest the man is either malicious or conniving, or both. He is trying to pull Ukraine back into a neo-Soviet Union with force. The narrative says all Ukraine wants is to join the West. But seen from Moscow’s point of view this narrative struggles to hold.
What makes Mr Putin a villain is his attempts to rip up the rulebook to change how people consider themselves “citizens.” He has said on multiple occasions that the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mr Putin is not being selfish here, he is describing how many people living in Former Soviet Union countries see the world today.
The 20th century was a period of incredible upheaval. But from New Zealand’s point of view – attached as it is to the period’s military victors – the map looks stable, aside from the odd secessionist movements. But consider Ukraine’s recent election maps. It should be clear that after the music stopped in 1989 millions of people in Europe suddenly were in the wrong chairs. And few of them are happy about this.
Ukraine is not like Poland or even East Germany. There is no roughly homogenous people group sharing history and ambitions calling for the country to do this thing or that. The borders around Ukraine corral dozens of ethnic groups, fiercely hoping to protect their traditional patches of earth. Ethnic Russians live in the immolated east, and it is these people Mr Putin cares most about.
The international community is angry with the Russian leader’s splintering of Ukraine precisely because he believes citizenry should be decided by the language a person speaks in their mother’s kitchen, not where the person was born. The international community cannot allow him to get away with this fundamental reconstruction of the world system, because hundreds of other sub-national groups will be keen try his experiment also.
Mr Putin’s gamble in Syria shouldn’t distract the international community from the opportunity and danger now opening in Ukraine. Recent reports suggest the Europeans may not extend their sanctions on Russia after the first half of 2016. This is serious news. While Europe and Russia aren’t likely to become friends soon, the slipping of European sanctions could help Russia keep control over Ukraine’s eastern regions and perhaps over Kiev itself.
Europe is thinking this way because the barely-holding ceasefire and the recent cancellation of separatist elections are seen as justification for loosening its sanctions. But it is for economic, political and probably financial reasons that Europe is losing its courage. If there was ever a time to press Mr Putin to leave Ukraine for good, it is now.
The danger is the dark possibility of splitting Europe strategically from the US. This will have consequences beyond Ukraine just when the US most needs its allies to tackle emerging and persistent unrest. Mr Putin wants to trade with Europe stability in Syria – thereby stemming the refugee tide – for implicit control of Kiev and Ukraine’s future. While clever, his long game must not be allowed to succeed.
Russia holds a weak hand in Ukraine, and it knows it. Yet a deal must be organised that recognises Russia’s attachments to the region. Such a deal should create parameters for internationally validated local elections in 2016. If some autonomy in the two breakaway oblasts is necessary, Moscow must promise to respect this. Only then should Europe and the US remove the sanctions.
This will not be an easy deal for any side. Forced into talking to a bellicose Mr Putin is distasteful, and what he is doing in Ukraine will probably happen elsewhere. But threatening transatlantic unity is much worse. The idea of the nation state is under stress, yet letting it be ripped up in Ukraine for a few energy pipelines or the pretence of “security” will have far reaching and deadly consequences.