Crimea Donbass International Relations Lviv Maidan Neo-Fascism Putin Regime Change Regime Transformation Revolution Right Sector Russia Ukraine Ultra-Nationalism US-Russian Relations

The West’s Overplay and Putin’s Calculus and Mis-Calculus

photo Maidanby Gordon M. Hahn

{originally published by Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, 11 March 2014,}

The picture being painted of the causes of the present Ukrainian crisis is badly distorted on both sides. The West’s caricature of reality depicts an eternal Russian imperialism and the dictator Putin seemingly doing what comes natural – invading foreign lands in order to re-establish the Soviet Union/Russian Empire. This tale ignores a history of hubristic Western policies that willfully ignored both Russian and, in the long-run, Western interests.

Since almost immediately after the Cold War, the West has been expanding NATO towards Russia’s borders with minimal effort to re-think the alliance, incorporate Russia, or take Moscow’s security interests into account. Similarly, the Clinton Administration bombed a Russian ally without a UN resolution violating Yugoslavia’s sovereignty. The West then recognized and actively organized Kosovo’s independence from the country, violating UN resolution 1244 which mandated Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity. To be sure, Russia just as brazenly followed suit and recognized and now guarantees with Russian troops the independence of South Ossetiya and Abkhazia after the 2008 Georgian-Russian South Ossetian war. That war was a product of the seemingly inexorable NATO expansion.

Directly or indirectly, the West helped prepare the 2003 Georgian Rose and 2004 Ukrainian Orange Revolutions, bringing democratic-nationalist governments to power that were openly antagonistic toward Moscow. NATO and EU expansion to Georgia and Ukraine, both on Russia’s border, was put on the agenda. Tensions within both countries over this aggravated grave inter-ethnic and/or sovereignty disputes in which Russia had a stake, given their potential for destabilizing Russian domestic inter-ethnic relations. Russia includes North Ossetiya as well as ethnic Russian and Muslim Tatar kin of those in Ukraine.

The South Ossetiyan war temporarily took NATO expansion to Georgia as well as Ukraine off the table, but EU expansion remained, with the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program and soon the offer of an association agreement to Kiev. Among other things, including basic defense and national security, EU membership means eventual NATO membership which means in the case of Ukraine, Russia’s certain loss of the Sevastopol base for its Black Sea Fleet. This is probably the most pressing reason for Putin’s effort to draw Ukraine away from the EU and into the Eurasian Economic Union and his offer of a $15 billion bond buyout and reduction in natural gas prices to entice Kiev not to sign the agreement. Then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s took the bait, and the Maidan crisis began. Both Putin and Yanukovich miscalculated when they thought the pro-European portion of the population would swallow the rejection of an agreement that Yanukovich had trumpeted for two years as Ukraine’s salvation.

Aside from indirectly if willingly financing the opposition to Yanukovich before the demonstrations broke out, Western leaders and politicians openly and brazenly took sides in the dispute. US Senator John McCain and several European parliamentarians even had no qualms about meeting with the opposition’s neo-fascist ‘Freedom’ Party leader, Oleg Tyagnibok, who is a virulent Russophobe and anti-semite. This open intervention on the background of Western calls for Moscow not interfere had to gall Putin, and Putin does not take affront very well.

Nor does he leave what he perceives as betrayal without a response, witness Crimea. To be sure, Putin clearly overstepped proportionality in his response to Maidan and the presence of some extreme nationalists in the Ukrainian revolution. Nevertheless, until February 21st Moscow and the West were working to find a compromise in Kiev, and the West still regarded Yanukovich as the legal and even legitimate Ukrainian president. But February 21st proved pivotal for Ukraine, Russia, Western-Russian relations, and European security, and the events surrounding it remain shrouded in confusion and controversy.
On that day then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and representatives of the Maidan opposition concluded an agreement under the auspices of foreign ministers of Russia, Poland, Germany and France. Under the agreement Yanukovich and the authorities were obligated to sign a law reinstating the 2004 ‘Orange Revolution’ Ukrainian constitution within 48 hours, reform the constitution by September and hold presidential elections by December. The authorities and the opposition were obliged not only to “refrain from the use of violence” but to take steps to avoid confrontation and return Kiev to normal life. Investigation into the perpetrators of the violence was to be organized immediately and involve the authorities, opposition, and the Council of Europe.

This meant that Yanukovich would become a lame duck president with reduced constitutional powers; his political career likely would be over in no more ten months. In return, the parliamentary opposition parties were obliged to secure the evacuation of government and other buildings in Kiev occupied by demonstrators – mostly members of the the neo-fascist ‘Right Sector’ group led by Dmitro Yarosh – as well as city parks and Maidan and Independence Squares. The Yanukovich regime was authorized under the agreement to “use law enforcement forces exclusively for the physical protection of public buildings.”

Unfortunately, almost immediately after the agreement went into effect the radicals of ‘Right Sector’ broke the agreement by storming other buildings in Kiev, seizing power for Maidan, and forcing the Rada to illegally impeach Yanukovich with only 328 of the 338 votes required. All this took place well before the 48-hour deadline for signing the constitutional law had passed. Moreover, Yanukovich had fulfilled his first obligations under the agreement, including removing the security forces from Kiev.

Consequently, the Right Sector militants stormed government buildings, and the rest is, as they say, history. Yanukovich had been overthrown, radical nationalists began settling scores in Kiev, the Rada adopted laws sparking fears of more reprisals against the Russian-dominated east and south (repeal of laws that banned fascist symbols and gave official status to minority languages in Ukraine’s regions), and Putin sent troops to secure and even annex Crimea.

The recent audiotape of discussion between EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet about the likelihood that elements within the opposition deployed the snipers, who were firing at both demonstrators and police, becomes pivotal for determining the legitimacy of the new coalition government. After all, it was Yanukovich’s alleged deployment of snipers that sparked the overthrow and prompted Western governments to ignore the opposition’s violation of the agreement. Thus, the silence of both Ashton and Paet until the audiotape was leaked is disturbing to say the least.

Moreover, it appears the immediate driver of Putin’s military response was the opposition’s violation of the February 21 agreement which he had convinced Yanukovich to sign. According to Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski – no friend of Putin – it was a telephone discussion Yanukovich had with Putin that convinced the former to sign the agreement. Discussing the February 20 negotiations in which he participated along with Yanukovich, Russian envoy and former Russian Ambassador to the US Vladimir Lukin, and several European officials, Sikorski says: “One of the breakthroughs was when we said, ‘Well look, Mr. President, you have to declare to the opposition by when you agree for new presidential elections to be held, by when do you intend to shorten your term of office.’ He was very reluctant, as you might imagine. His attitude changed after one of the conversations, we think, with President Putin.” (

Thus, it is every likely that the demonstrators’ violation of the agreement was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The ‘camel’ had two humps for Putin. One was the immediate revolutionary crisis and the geopolitical stakes that rode on resolving the crisis. The other was the long history of real and perceived Western broken promises that Russians have experienced since the ending of the Cold War.

When the February 21 agreement was violated Putin had visions of past broken Western promises from Washington’s late Cold War promise to not to expand NATO beyond reunited Germany made to USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev to the West’s violation of the 2011 UN resolution on Libya not to use the legalized intervention to favor one side or another in the revolt against strongman Muamar Qaddafi. The latter played a role in Putin’s decision that same year to return to the Kremlin rather than let then President Dmitrii Medvedev run for a second term, since Medvedev had insisted against Putin’s will to refrain from vetoing the Western-backed UN resolution. Perhaps believing his own propaganda about U.S. and CIA plots to destroy Russia, Putin must have perceived the opposition’s inability to control the Right Sector radicals as part of an elaborate Western ruse to quickly grab Ukraine and on top of that spoil his and Russia’s triumph in successfully holding and competing in the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.

For Putin, the Ukrainian revolt is deeply troubling. Russia will suffer the ‘loss of Ukraine’ overall; something he sought to prevent by inducing Yanukovich to abort the EU association agreement. Kiev’s turn West could mean problems for Russia’s gas exports which go through Ukrainian pipelines to Europe. Ukraine’s turn West would mean its joining NATO and not renewing the agreement that allows Moscow to base its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol in the Crimea. The Maidan revolutionary regime does not accept the Kharkiv Accord on lengthening the Russia’s lease of the Sevastopol naval base. This means Russia will be forced to withdraw all of its military from Crimea by 2017 and lose its lone warm water port. Moreover, the new Ukrainian authorities also did not recognize Yanukovych’s law on Ukraine’s non-aligned, neutral status. Thus, Ukraine is almost certain to renew talks on joining NATO and a Membership Action Plan. NATO clearly stated at its 2008 Bucharest Summit that both Ukraine and Georgia will eventually join NATO. The new Ukrainian leaders’ neo-fascist allies could oppress or engage in violence against ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea, and Putin would be forced to start a war with NATO or rely on the West to protect Crimea’s ethnic Russians.

Even more fundamentally, the present victory of the Maidan revolution represents a resurrection of the color revolutions that Putin has been fighting since 2004. The close ties between Russia and Ukraine and the emergence of more anti-Putin opposition in recent years compared to Ukraine’s 2004 Orange revolution 1.0, meant that Ukraine today is Russia tomorrow as far as the Kremlin is concerned. Putin cannot let the present revolution stand without at least getting something in return – the Crimea, for example. Otherwise, the Maidan revolt means Putin loses on two domestic fronts. His traditionalist constituency and the radical nationalist and communist oppositions will be disappointed by the ‘loss of Ukraine.’ His democratic opposition will be encouraged and perhaps motivated to action by the example of Maidan and the likely reactionary wave that the loss of Ukraine will spark among the traditionalists, nationalists and communists.

But the bottom line of Putin’s calculus in recent months has been the following. An Ukrainian association agreement will lead to EU membership, which will lead to NATO membership, which will lead to Russia’s loss of its Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol, Crimea and Russia’s entire western border lined by NATO countries. Since NATO rules do not allow a country to join the alliance if it has sovereignty or self-determination dispute, Putin’s occupation of Ukraine and support for ethnic Russians’ growing separatism in eastern Ukraine effectively blocks Kiev’s NATO aspiration.

The pivotal turning point that February 21 marks is truly disconcerting. The spiraling out of control of the Maidan revolution and now the Russia-Western struggle over Ukraine is the early 21st century’s version of the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand by a Bosnian separatist. It has sparked rash military responses and multiple military mobilizations that almost inadvertently but inexorably brought World War I.

In similar fashion, President Putin’s calculus contains no small degree of miscalculation. He has overreacted to events, going several bridges too far, regardless of the hubristic Western policies regarding Russia and Ukraine and some provocative and dangerous elements within the Maidan revolutionary government and Western meddling in Russia’s sphere of influence.

There is simply no justification for Putin’s military occupation of the Crimea. If Putin’s goal was to protect ethnic Russian populations in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea under potential threat from Ukrainian Svoboda Party and Right Sector neo-fascists, he had other less aggressive and risky options to employ first. First, he could delivered a major address to issue warnings and publicly lobbied the West, G8 and the UN and the OSCE to undertake missions and other measures to protect all Ukrainian citizens from the radical elements within Maidan. It is President Putin himself has insisted repeatedly over the years that the U.S. and the West run roughshod over UN principles of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states in the international system, pointing to Kosovo, Lybia, and most recently in Syria. Second, he could have placed the Black Sea Fleet’s troops on a heightened state of alert and issued a public warning that if radical nationalists moved to the east and south in numbers, then Russia would mobilize additional forces to the base and, if necessary take action to defend Crimeans, especially ethnic Russians. Putting the threat to use force and deploy forces is always preferable to immediate escalation to deployment, which risks exacerbating the situation rather than containing it. He also should have engaged moderate elements in the new Ukrainian regime in order to pressure them to isolate the extremists while holding back as an incentive the next tranche of the total $13 billion bailout assistance that Russia offered to Kiev before the revolt and Ukraine’s bankrupt economy needs so desperately.

Instead of such a carefully calibrated carrot and stick approach, President Putin lept over several interim stages of political and military escalation, choosing immediately, if stealthily to violate the sovereignty of a neighboring state in the heart of a Europe. The fact that the West’s policy of NATO expansion without Russia is in part to blame for the fact that Europe and Ukraine never became whole after the Cold War does not and cannot justify Putin’s aggressive move. Instead of using the crisis to expose the overreach and division of Europe inherent in NATO expansion without Russia, Putin himself overreached in Europe and in graver fashion than NATO perhaps ever has. This only strengthens the Western impulse to expand NATO to Ukraine, further polarizing Western-Russian relations.

Putin’s hasty actions strongly suggest that certain as yet unclear ambitions might be driving his Crimean gambit. Although this still remains unclear, the most obvious one is that he is using the crisis to undermine Ukraine’s hold on Crimea and make it a protectorate of Russia. More ominously, he may see the crisis as an opportunity to lop off eastern Ukraine; something he may need in order to mitigate his ‘loss of Ukraine’ in the eyes of Russian hawks. Putin similarly overreached in the wake of the August 2008 Georgian-Russian war in South Ossetiya when he recognized the latter’s and Abkhazia’s independence, though in that case he had some justification, given then Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s Putin-like gambit to invade South Ossetiya.

However, the brinksmanship, hubris and outright aggression of seizing the Crimea and/or eastern Ukraine without cause must be rejected and will have enormous consequences for Russia, the West, and Eurasia. Putin has argued that Maidan posed the risk of civil war and violence against ethnic Russians in Ukraine, and if the latter were to occur he would have justification in acting perhaps as he is now. But as things stand now, Putin’s robust move into the Crimea is at least as destabilizing as was Maidan. Indeed, Putin’s imposition of a new parliamentary and government leadership there exceeds the level of interference in a country’s internal affairs involved in any Western organization of a second ‘color revolution’ in Kiev.

What should the U.S. response be? The U.S. should not take draconian steps that would inordinately escalate the crisis – even necessary responses will have that effect – and we must leave the door open for Putin to back down without losing face. Specifically, the West should first pull out of the June G8 summit in Sochi and expel Russia from the group until Putin withdraws his troops from Crimea. Second, the latter also should be implemented in the G20, though this may be more difficult given the membership of Russia’s BRICS partners and other countries that might balk at such a move. Third, the Russia-NATO Council should be shelved unless Putin pulls out of Crimea. Fourth, an international conference on Ukraine and other security issues in Europe that would include Moscow should be convened on the condition that Putin agrees to withdraw Russian troops to their pre-Maidan posture. Fifth, a red line needs to be drawn that once crossed would trigger new measures, including withdrawal of the conference offer, economic sanctions, freezing of Russian officials’ foreign bank accounts and, in lieu of a full withdrawal from Ukraine, the complete isolation of Russia from the West. But there should be no mobilization or re-deployments of NATO or any Western country’s military as long as the status quo stands.

The red line would be Russian troops firing on anyone in the Crimea or moving out of the Crimea into any other part of Ukraine. Putin has already crossed one red line – the borders of a sovereign state, whose sovereignty and territorial integrity Moscow pledged to protect in two international treaties.

These steps above could be implemented in a staggered fashion accompanied by successive deadlines and should be announced with calm regret and the hope that Putin will stop, think, and sit down for talks. They should not be issued as a challenge to Putin, as the tone of President Obama’s initial statement surely was. This will only push Putin into a corner, and he will overreact even more foolishly to the detriment of all.

At the same time, allowing Putin to cross another red line in Europe without serious repercussions will be disastrous for the West, Ukraine, and Russia herself. In the famous words of Russia’s pre-revolutionary Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, often quoted by Putin himself: “Give us twenty years of peace at home and abroad, and you will not recognize Russia.” Putin’s recent distrust of the West and military adventurism will deprive Russia of the peace and stability it so desperately needs today and threatens his long-troubled country yet again with times of war and revolution.


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