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Putin Doesn't Need to Invade Ukraine to Destabilize It, But He Just Might Anyway

AFP/Getty Images

Until about three weeks ago, Viktor Nikolaenko ran the politics division in the Donetsk city government. When I went to see him in February, just days after deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country, the city in eastern Ukraine was calm. There was a small scrum of guys in track suits and pensioners waving Soviet flags guarding the statue of Lenin, and some special ops officers with shields guarding city hall, but that was all. At the time, Nikolaenko, a member of Yanukovych's party, was not happy with what had happened in Kiev. He called it a revolution that had undone the results of a democratic election and the day before there had been rumors that Ukrainian nationalist thugs were headed toward Donetsk with bats. But the threat didn't materialize and life went on. "Donetsk is going about its daily life," he told me. "In all 45 districts, the mayors are still in place. The region was and is stable." 

But then the pro-Russian rioting started, with young men trying to take over city hall. One of them even scaled the walls and planted a Russian flag on the roof. (He turned out to be Russian, a notorious Kremlin activist.) It was nothing compared to what was happening in Crimea, but it was worrying. Nikolaenko, who'd worked in this field for years, tried to talk to the locals among the separatists. He knew them, after all. But Kiev sent in oligarch Serhiy Taruta to rule the town—much as it was pressing other oligarchs into service across the country—and Taruta brought in his own staff, people Nikolaenko felt didn't know how to deal with the ebb and flow of separatist protests. "They treat the symptoms not the disease," he told me by phone the other day. Between the local government and the secessionists,  "There was no mutual desire to talk. But the question is who is responsible to open talks. Personally, I think it’s the government. It's responsible for not escalating the conflict. People are just speaking their minds, so you need to convince them."

Taruta's people didn't agree and the new government in Kiev seemed to be ignoring the southeast so Nikolaenko turned in his resignation on March 21. Things were dying down around then anyway.

Then, this weekend, violence flared again, in Donetsk, in Luhansk, in Kharkiv, all cities in the allegedly Russian-speaking east of Ukraine. Protesters took over government buildings and declared their cities to be republics whose independence they demanded. Aside from the Soviet grannies, the protesters looked just like the "extremists" that had toppled the government in Kiev: black leather jackets, masks, bats. ("It's the same as the Maidan, but backwards," says Fyodr Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. "It's strange to think that if an instrument is used one way that it won’t be used in the other way.")

Nikolaenko believes this was not an accident. "The protests were peaceful before. I don’t believe that in one day across the entire east and south of Ukraine, the same protest breaks out," he says. "Since the revolution, the situation in Donbass did not change for the worse. In fact, it got better." The government in Kiev said it would, for example, reexamine the controversial repeal of a language law that would have made Russian an official language in places where it was widely spoken—repealing the law had been one major irritant. "Then all of a sudden, an armed resistance rises. I’ve been in politics too long to believe in such a coincidence. The synchronization is obvious."

Indeed, the protesters in Kharkiv were so local that they mistook the opera theater for city hall. 

"Russian involvement is there," says Lukyanov. "It's moral, political, and maybe even financial. It would be strange if it weren’t there." Why? What is Russia angling for here? "Russia needs this to not get an anti-Russian Ukraine under its belly," Lukyanov explains. "Because if it’s going to be consolidated, it’s going to be consolidated as an anti-Russian Ukraine," in part because Russia took Crimea, in part because, he says, this has been the animating philosophy of the successful post-Soviet states. Russia, in other words, needs not just to destabilize the new government in Kiev, but to make sure the country never joins the E.U. or NATO, and that it remains weak and pliable, if not an outright vassal state. 

There are many ways to get to this point. One way is to blackmail, by massing your forces at the border. Another is by having them invade. Another is by making sure the pro-Russian protests never die down, and even turn violent, making it difficult to hold presidential elections smoothly (and legitimately) on May 26. Yet another is by pursuing a diplomatic route, pushing the U.S., rather than Ukraine itself, to change Ukraine's constitution and make Kiev turn political power over to the country's regions—something that, ironically, Russia has long eschewed at home.

"It’s clear that it’s a rather obvious form of blackmail," says Masha Lipman, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center. "Russia completely obviously provoked this horror, then a couple of days pass and Lavrov calls Kerry and tells him what kind of constitution Ukraine needs." 

Lukyanov says the upcoming talks—on which Russia is imposing some very specific and odd conditions, like that the Orthodox Church be left alone and that Ukrainian presidential candidates participate in the talks—are just another prong of the blackmail strategy. "Either we discuss new conditions of existence: Ukraine continues to exist but doesn’t join NATO, then okay, we’ll leave it alone," he says of the Kremlin's mentality. "If you say don’t get involved, it’s a sovereign state, well, okay, we’ll show you just how sovereign it is and that it can’t control its own territory." And Russia has shown over the last month that it doesn't need to fire a shot to show the world that Ukraine is a failed state. 

"It’s all openly cynical," Lukyanov says, "but what can you do? That’s just how it is." 

Invasion, which is on everyone's mind right now, is but one tactic and it is clearly one Putin, a man who likes to keep all options open for as long as possible, hasn't taken off the table just yet. And some observers say there may still be more innovation down the line. "The Russian government has barely dipped into its array of instruments that might destabilize the government in Ukraine and aggravate the region," says Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment and a Russia specialist in the Clinton administration. "We’re just at the beginning of this drama, and it's going to show just how much of a spoiler Russia can be."

The problem with invasion is not that it can't easily be done, but that the costs for Putin would be huge. Crimea was isolated and largely Russian, and people in Russia as well as in Crimea viewed the island's allocation to post-Soviet Ukraine as a historical mistake. Ukraine is more complex. If you invade it, what do you do with it? And how do you decide when to stop? Where does eastern Ukraine end and central Ukraine begin? And how would Russians in Russia feel seeing their boys come home in coffins, killed not by Muslim Chechens but by fellow Christian Slavs, fighting a country to whom one-third of Russians have some familial connection? 

But what if Ukraine makes good on its ultimatum, issued today, giving protesters 48 hours to clear out of government buildings? If they crack down and there are deaths among the Russian speakers Putin claims he is protecting, says Lukyanov, "I can't imagine how Russia won't get involved."

As I've pointed out, such rationale doesn't always work when predicting Putin's actions. It works until Putin upends it, and then Western and Russian analysts alike are left scrambling to marshal a logical framework for whatever action Putin has decided to take. "Putin really doesn't like it when people know what he is going to do," Lipman points out. He likes acting on his own terms, and he especially likes surprising people. Invading Georgia, returning for a third term, freeing Mikhail Khodorkovsky, not cracking down on the protests, then quashing them: take your pick. "Everything is possible," Lipman says. "That's what Putin is all about."

This knowledge of Putin's unpredictability has the Moscow chattering class tied up in self-annihilating knots. Every night, they go to bed, expecting to wake up to news of tanks in the streets of Donetsk, and yet every morning the news doesn't happen. "There are more and more articles about how he won’t invade because of this feeling that it still hasn’t happened yet," Lipman says. But then does that mean he will invade? Will he then invade as soon we start writing long analyses about how he won't invade? 

Political observers both in Russia and the West are once again reduced not to analyzing data or strategy, but to reading the tea leaves and psychoanalyzing a man whose psyche bends toward unpredictability. And this, says Lipman, is Putin's victory over the West. It's not just that Crimea showed that Putin can do whatever he pleases without the U.S. or Europe being able to do anything about it; it's that all they can do is react. "Before, it was Russia reacting to Western policies: NATO expansion, intervention in Syria," Lipman explains. "Now everyone else has to wait and watch to see what Putin is going to do."

Putin's promise to Russians—the core, in his mind, of his mission—is to restore the geopolitical greatness Russia lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, 23 years later, Russia is once again calling the shots. Putin delivered.

One strange by-product of Russia's tactics is the Kremlin's deftness in completely reappropriating certain terms, of inverting and perverting them. Just look at the images of the protests in Luhansk and Kharkiv, and you'd be forgiven for thinking you were looking at images of Kiev's EuroMaidan. Yet the former were whipped up by Russia, whereas the latter was a largely grassroots movement. As a result, because the hand of Moscow is so obvious in east Ukraine's protests, the independence of the protesters in Kiev comes under suspicion: were they too organized externally, perhaps in the West? More simply, it gives the two movements equal moral weight, which Russian journalist Oleg Kashin called a "mocking parody of the Maidan."

Or take, for example, the argument for federalizing Ukraine. Ukraine, like Russia, is at least on paper a highly centralized state. There are no gubernatorial elections. Regions like Donetsk send most of their tax revenue to Kiev and wait to get a small portion of it back. This breeds discontent in these regions. There is a feeling in Donetsk, for example, that it feeds the Western part of the country that so looks down on it. (This isn't quite true because the coal industry here is heavily subsidized by Kiev.)

The idea of federalization—devolving power to local governments—is a controversial one in Ukraine, but it was widely, hotly debated when the revolution forced Yanukovych from power. And it's not a bad idea for a country with a palpable regional split. "There's too much centralization," Kirill Cherkashin, a political scientist in Donetsk told me back in February, pointing out that 80 percent of Donetsk taxes are sent to Kiev. "So you have a situation in which either the west [of Ukraine] rules and the east is unhappy, or the reverse. You have to hand over power to the regions."

Then, suddenly, you have Sergei Lavrov pushing the idea of federalizing Ukraine to John Kerry, demanding that the Ukrainian constitution is rewritten as a federalist one before any elections, and, suddenly, federalization is a hugely suspect scheme—both to the West, and, more importantly, to Ukrainians. It's hard to imagine that Lavrov or Putin really care about local government or the unique needs of Ukrainian regions—just look at the tight grip Russia has on its own regions—so what is it really about? Taking power away from the government in Kiev, and making one half of Ukraine (and all its industry) highly susceptible to Moscow's influence. Perhaps it's even a way to set these regions on a path to secession, and eventually integration into Russia. 

It's Soviet tactics at their best, as when Lavrov, in an op-ed in the Guardian, accused the West of whipping up regional tensions in Ukraine and bringing the country to the brink of civil war. Really, though, it's a flourish that goes back to Gogol, of making language and ideas disintegrate before your disbelieving eyes.

As events in Donetsk rush on, Nikolaenko, the former Donetsk political officer, watches from afar and wishes things were being done differently. Though he notes that the pro-Russia protests in Donetsk have topped out at 4,000 people, "there’s a real fear in the south and east, a real distrust of Kiev," he says, and Kiev only seems to be making the situation worse. The same people who are cracking down on Donetsk separatists are the ones trying to negotiate with them. Since Yanukovych fled, on February 22, no one from the new government in Kiev came to visit Donetsk or Luhansk or Kharkiv, or any of the places where we're now seeing protests. The only people who came, Nikolaenko notes, are people from the security apparatus. "It's a real question," he says. "Why didn't they find time for eastern Ukraine?" 

In recent days, Yulia Tymoshenko as well as other officials of the provisional government began a feverish tour of the east, but it's not enough. "It needs to be intensive, detail-oriented work, day in and day out," Nikolaenko says. Now that he's in Kiev consulting several clients running for the city parliament, though, he can see why the provisional government isn't doing more to listen and bring in the east. "There's so much work to be done here," he says. "You have to deal with the security organs, with the elections, with figuring out what to do with all the weapons in the streets. There are still miles to go."

He still says regional tensions are greatly overstated. He drives around town with Donetsk plates and no one seems to care. The city is nice, the work is good. "The Maidan is still there, but it doesn't affect the daily life of Kievans much," Nikolaenko says. "They've vowed to stay there until the elections." That's his horizon, too, and his country's. "The situation won’t calm down until May 25," he told me. "If the presidential elections happen legitimately, if all regions have precincts, if lists of voters are okay, if the Central Election Commission can ensure a calm election process that is then ratified by the international community, everything will be fine. If not, it's hard to tell what will happen."