Grigory Ryzhakov – Russian Writer

The Crimea of Discord. Reading Putin’s Mind


The Black Sea area over the Crimean flag

While the whole world is waiting for Putin’s next move in Ukraine, I’m contemplating about his motivations.

After enjoying the diplomatic success and outplaying the White House in Syria and triumphantly hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin was at the height of his popularity in Russia and probably outside Russia too. Why did he decide to go into such mess now? Is this euphoria making him feel invincible and act inadequately or is this the Kremlin’s strategic decision? I think it’s the latter.

WHAT HAPPENED: Several months ago, the people of Ukraine had run out of patience with Mr Yanukovych who busied himself during his presidency by stealing as much money as possible, leaving the country on the brink of the financial disaster. Yanukovych’s sudden refusal to go down the Eurointegration route was the final drop. Maidan reignited with the new strength, which ended up in the horrible bloodshed in Kiev and ousting Yanukovych last month. The new interim government announced that the country is in wrecks and it will need huge international financial help. That’s when Putin decided to make his move.

Russia claims that the new government in Kiev is ultra-nationalist/fascist and there’s a threat to the ethnic Russian minority living in Ukraine. Certains Maidan’s leaders had indeed slipped several ‘russophobic’ remarks including variations on banning or limiting the status of the Russian language in Ukraine. A nationalist organisation Right Sector and the party Svoboda were indeed a big power on Maidan but their political support amongst Ukrainians seems to be greatly overestimated. Still, their presence in Kiev is used as the main excuse by the Kremlin not to recognise the new Ukrainian interim government.

So, officially the Kremlin ‘invaded’ Crimea to protect Russian Crimeans from Kiev’s violent nationalists. It’s very possible that Putin will continue using the same excuse by introducing his military contingent further into the mainland Eastern Ukraine.

THE REAL REASON behind the Crimean move is geopolitics. For many years Yanukovych collaborated with the Kremlin to anchor the Ukraine firmly into the Russian political harbour. With the new government in Kiev, aiming to join the EU, the Kremlin is losing its power. Moreover, there is a fear that Kiev may even revenge Moscow by kicking out the Black Sea Fleet from Crimea. The fear is not entirely groundless. Ukraine desperately needs money to avoid slipping into further economical dump-hole and the Kremlin thinks that Kiev might offer Nato or US to build up their presence in the Ukraine, right under the Kremlin’s nose. That would be not just a dangerous thing but also very humiliating for Putin. By allowing Ukraine to slip into hands of EU, Putin would show his weakness. And then the events of Bolotnaya and Sakharova may repeat again with possibly a different outcome for him. So, he decides to make his move on Crimea.

PUTIN’S STRATEGY could be to destabilise the situation in Ukraine until Ukrainians install a new pro-Russian leader. Yulia Tymoshenko could very be a consensus candidate  tolerated by both Maidan and the Kremlin. Yet, she’s not so impressed with Putin’s idea of Crimea’s annexation.

By ripping Crimea off Kiev’s pie, Putin would protect the Russian presence in the Black Sea and his fleet. He would get further support from the patriotic bulk of the commoners in Russia and reduce the threat of new revolutions in Moscow. He would also get in the history textbooks as the ruler who brought Crimea back to Russia.

PUTIN’S TACTICS is one he learned from the US politicians – say one thing, do something completely different. Putin claims that Russian troops are peacekeepers in Ukraine. In reality, regardless whether it is good or bad, his troops are there to stop Ukraine sailing towards Europe, and if Kiev disobeys, to nip off Crimea.

PUTIN’S RISKS – The West knows very well that the only mean to scare the Kremlin is money. So the West threatens to freeze the Kremlin’s assets, cancel Russian visas, kick Russia out of G8 and other organisations. The risks are more than real as in the last couple of days the Russian currency, rouble, started plummeting as fast as shares of Russian companies. The Russian commoner will suffer as his savings devalue and the costs of living go up as a result of inflation. This is the only thing the people wouldn’t forgive Putin. They may not care about Ukrainians but they don’t like being robbed even if Putin’s reason is protection of Russian geopolitical interests.

WHAT WOULD PUTIN DO? He would try to ensure Crimea’s vote for its independence without escalating the violence. Most Russians won’t tolerate open aggression against Ukraine, and this could quickly lead to the new Russian revolution. So, the Kremlin would very likely imitate the intent of invasion but will try to force its agenda sneakily by nurturing the pro-Russian mood in Ukraine. An open aggression would be Putin’s political suicide.

COMPLICATIONS – as we have found out yesterday from her phone call to Obama, Merkel thinks that Putin ’lives in a different reality’. I doubt that he’s insane but he could greatly underestimate risks of the invasion, which could led to deaths of innocent people, both Russian and Ukrainian. Another possible complication is that both US and EU have their geopolitical interests in Ukraine and some forces in the West may provoke the Russian aggression. Indeed, Victoria Nuland has recently admitted that the US spent $5 billion on ’democratization’ (which the Kremlin interprets as ’destabilisation’) of Ukraine. Naturally, the Kremlin doesn’t fancy the interim government approved in the White House. I can only hope this Washington-Moscow chess game won’t result in another war.

SOLUTION: in my opinion, to make the politicians, especially Putin, tread carefully, the general public in Russia, Ukraine and the West should make a BIIIIIIIIG NOISE about it. We need to make things clear – the violence won’t be tolerated. The people should demand Yanukovych’s arrest and trial at the Hague’s international tribunal.

Politicians may play their games but they shouldn’t forget that it is the XXI-st century and human lives are not an exchangeable currency anymore. I know this sounds naive considering what’s been happening in Syria. But nonetheless, in case of the Kremlin using its military power further, it would be a disaster to respond the same way. This would lead to many deaths.
Ukrainians and Russians are brother nations and our people should disobey any orders, from the Kremlin or wherever, to fight each other. Haven’t people suffered enough, wasn’t there enough blood shed already? I hope we are better than this.

Let the peace win.

N.B. This was my personal subjective opinion. I’m not trying to persuade anyone in anything, just giving some food for thought.


Your brilliant thoughts