After having gobbled up and digested Crimea, Vladimir Putin appears ready for the next course; the establishment of a separate state in southeast Ukraine.
The fiction that such a state would be independent of Moscow’s control fools no one. But appearances must be kept up to satisfy a western public that has no stomach for a military confrontation with Russia. Ergo, watch Putin as he pulls a client state out of his hat. Nothin’ up his sleeve. Presto!
Talks should be held immediately “and not just on technical issues but on the political organization of society and statehood in southeastern Ukraine”, Putin said in an interview with Channel 1 state television, his hair tousled by wind on the shore of a lake.
Moscow, for its part, he said, could not stand aside while people were being shot “almost at point blank”.
Putin’s use of the word “statehood” was interpreted in Western media as implying backing for the rebel demand of independence, something Moscow has so far stopped short of publicly endorsing.
However, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was no new endorsement from Moscow for rebel independence. Asked if “New Russia”, a term pro-Moscow rebels use for their territory, should still be part of Ukraine, Peskov said: “Of course.”
“Only Ukraine can reach an agreement with New Russia, taking into account the interests of New Russia, and this is the only way to reach a political settlement.”
Rebels have rallied behind the term “New Russia” since Putin first used it in a public appearance in April. Putin called it a tsarist-era term for land that now forms southern and eastern Ukraine. Ukrainians consider the term deeply offensive and say it reveals Moscow’s imperial designs on their territory.
Moscow has long called for Kiev to hold direct political talks with the rebels. Kiev says it is willing to have talks on more rights for the south and east, but will not talk directly to armed fighters it describes as “international terrorists” and Russian puppets that can only be reined in by Moscow.
The deputy leader of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, Andrei Purgin, said he was due to participate in talks in the Belarus capital Minsk on Monday. Past talks by a “contact group” involving Moscow, Kiev and the rebels have covered technical issues such as access to the crash site of a Malaysian airliner shot down in July, but not political questions.
This is a bad dream. I know it’s sort of useless to contemplate a counterfactual scenario, but if any other president of the post war era was sitting in the Oval Office now, would any Russian leader dare be this brazen? Putin has taken the mettle of his rival in Washington — and the capitals of old Europe — and has determined he can do just about anything he wishes.
He has completely flummoxed NATO, outmaneuvered Kiev, and made the US look weak and inconsequential. He is doing it by employing tactics of 19th century imperialists and by being on the “wrong side of history” — exactly what John Kerry believes is ineffective.
The only side history cares about is the winning one. And unless Barack Obama can figure out a way to confront Putin without starting World War III, the Russian president is likely to get exactly what he wants, either by imposing his will militarily or bullying Kiev into giving him southeast Ukraine.