Russian President Vladimir Putin shamelessly told United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during a recent phone call that he expected “clear condemnation” of what he characterized as the “anti-constitutional” operation by the Ukrainian central government in Kiev against the armed thugs whom have illegally occupied government buildings in eastern Ukraine.
Putin did not get his wish. Instead, a report issued by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on April 15th, which was based on first hand reporting by human rights monitors on the ground in Ukraine including Crimea, exposed the baselessness of the Russian propaganda.
The report analyzed events up to April 2nd, using information collected during two missions to Ukraine in March by Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonović and a team of UN human rights monitors on the ground since March 15th. It found that “while there were some attacks against the ethnic Russian community, these were neither systematic nor widespread. There are also allegations that some participants in the protests and clashes in eastern Ukraine were not from the region, and that some had come from the Russian Federation.”
Speaking to the Security Council on April 16th about the report, Mr. Šimonović said the transformation of protesters in eastern Ukraine into “quasi-paramilitary forces must be stopped.” The international community recognizes Russia’s complaints about alleged attacks against Russian-speaking citizens, and its vows to protect them, for what they really are – the pretext for direct Russian military intervention further into Ukraine, following on the heels of Russia’s illegal military occupation and annexation of Crimea.
Undeterred, Putin warned of potential military intervention if the Ukrainian government persisted in using force against the protesters in eastern Ukraine. Recalling the authorization he received from his pliant Parliament to use military force in Ukraine as he deemed necessary, Putin warned: “I really hope that I do not have to exercise this right and that we are able to solve all today’s pressing issues via political and diplomatic means.”
As if on cue, senior diplomats from the United States, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union meeting in Geneva on Thursday worked out a framework to defuse the crisis, according to Secretary of State John Kerry. The separatists in eastern Ukraine would disarm and vacate the buildings and public areas they have occupied. In return, the Ukrainian government would offer amnesty to virtually all of the separatists who disarmed. The government also “committed to going as far as they can to reach out to opponents” as part of a “comprehensive, inclusive process,” in advance of the upcoming presidential election on May 25th, according to Kerry. In a bow to Russia’s demands for turning Ukraine into a more decentralized federation, the Ukrainian government reportedly agreed to consider constitutional amendments giving eastern Ukraine more regional autonomy than it has today. Crimea reportedly did not come up as part of the discussions. Nor apparently did the continuing presence of thousands of Russian troops remaining close to the Russian-Ukrainian border.
“We worked hard and we worked in good faith in order to narrow our real differences… and find a way forward for the people of Ukraine,” Kerry said. “The parties agreed today that all sides must refrain from the use of violence, intimidation, or provocative actions.” At the same time he warned that “we will have no choice to impose further costs on Russia” if the separatists do not respond favorably by the weekend. How many times have we heard similar threats that have failed to deter Putin and his thugs from doing what they wanted?
A fair diplomatic solution that avoids the specter of civil war and further Russian military intervention would be the most desirable outcome, if it respects Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. However, we must recognize the sad truth that American weakness under President Obama has created power vacuums, emboldening bad actors such as Putin and making the world a more chaotic place. Obama created the vacuum for Russia to fill in the first place when, in 2009, he inexplicably reversed President George W. Bush’s decision to locate ballistic missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic without getting anything in return. The “reset” with Russia would follow, leading Putin to size up Obama as an all talk, no action adversary. Obama’s abandonment of red lines and vacuous warnings of serious consequences in response to prior Russian provocations and aggression only served to confirm Putin’s initial impression. In short, the inexperienced community organizer has had little chance against the former KGB officer from the first time they dealt with each other.
In Ukraine, Putin has used the threat of force and the creation of favorable conditions for pro-Russian separatists on the ground as leverage to extract significant concessions. His strategy is a variant of the maxim by Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian general and influential military theorist: “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.”
The concessions involve the Ukrainian government acceding to constitutional reforms on Russian terms. Yulia Tymoshenko, twice prime minister of Ukraine and a former political prisoner who is a candidate for president in the May 25th election, described Putin’s preferred endgame in stark terms:
Putin’s gambit is akin to the infamous Yalta Conference in 1945, where Joseph Stalin made Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt complicit in a division of Europe that enslaved half of the continent for almost a half-century. Today, Putin is seeking to make the West complicit in the dismemberment of Ukraine by negotiating a Kremlin-designed federal constitution that would create a dozen Crimeas — bite-size chunks that Russia could devour more easily later.
Referring to Putin’s past proposal for a diplomatic solution, which remains his minimum ask price to resolve the crisis, Tymoshenko suggested looking at “the Russian proposal’s fine print: Ukraine’s new federal units would have a powerful say over ‘Ukraine’s foreign-policy direction.’ That provision would enable Putin to try to coerce and manipulate Russian-speaking regions into vetoing the country’s European future.”
Hopefully, when all is said and done, a diplomatic solution that preserves Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity will take hold. But just in case diplomacy does not succeed, is it too much to hope that President Obama has a Plan B, such as imposing major sector-wide sanctions that could cripple Russia’s economy and plans to install missile defense systems in Poland, the Czech Republic and even the Baltic states to give Putin something to really worry about? Perhaps when pigs fly.
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