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The clock is ticking for Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. He has missed his best chance of victory.

7 March 2014

11:37 AM

7 March 2014

11:37 AM

Tick tock. Tick tock. Time is running out in the Ukraine. Time passes and cements the “facts on the ground”. Russia controls the Crimea and, one way or another, we should probably expect the province’s referendum to endorse a return to Moscow Centre. Whether Crimea’s plebiscite can or will be conducted honestly is a different matter but that, in the end, is not the most important issue.

Indeed the fate and future of Crimea is, if hardly an irrelevance, a question of secondary importance. It is not the major front in this struggle. Russia’s actions in the Crimea are plainly illegal and unjustified but they were supposed to be the catalyst for action elsewhere.

As John O’Sullivan says in his admirable article for this week’s magazine, what has not happened is even more important than what has occurred. Eastern Ukraine has not risen. At least not yet. There has been no insurrection, no repudiation of the new government in Kiev. No great clamour for partition.

These facts on the ground are being cemented too. With each passing day it becomes more, not less, difficult for Russia to force a confrontation in eastern Ukraine. The stakes increase with each day of relative calm; the costs of such a confrontation become ever clearer and ever greater.

Calm, even of a relative and tense kind, is Russia’s enemy. Perhaps Moscow will gain the Crimea but only, at least for now, at the expense of its own long-term ambitions in its near abroad. Indeed Moscow’s aggression may prove counter-productive, effectively ensuring Russia cannot achieve its own goals. Heckuva job, Vladimir.


If the east were to rise, best it rose quickly. But it has not risen and time is not on Russia’s side. Each day that passes without a fresh confrontation is time Moscow loses – time, too, that it can scarcely afford to lose. Time is Moscow’s enemy and Kiev’s friend. Even in the spring. If Russia was to bring Ukraine back into the fold it needed to do so quickly by winning a swift victory in decisive, indisputable, fashion.

The longer the status quo holds in unoccupied Ukraine, the harder it becomes for Russia to justify fresh encroachments upon Ukrainian sovereignty. Time buys room for the new government in Kiev to consolidate its position and time, too, for the EU, the United States and other interested parties to calculate their response to Moscow’s provocation.

And the west has more options available than is sometimes thought. Some pain can be inflicted upon Russia. Enough certainly to increase the costs and consequences of fresh aggression. Enough to make Putin think carefully. That the Russian president says US-Russian relations should not be damaged by this crisis suggests he is aware of the implied costs of fresh adventurism. Indeed, you could even say it shows Putin on the defensive.

In any case, more jaw jaw cools temperatures and bringing the situation back to a boil will prove more difficult than you might imagine. In any fresh action, Russia’s claims to have acted reasonably and proportionately will be even more threadbare than their self-proclaimed right to act in the Crimea.

Perhaps Kiev will blunder. Perhaps the Americans and the EU will over-reach themselves too. Perhaps a spark will set eastern Ukraine ablaze. But Putin is in a bind right now, albeit one of his own construction. It is Moscow, not Kiev that needs to find a face-saving way out of this crisis.

Be that as it may, it seems quite possible – in as much as one can be certain of anything in this kind of drama – that Moscow’s best opportunity to ruin Ukraine has already passed. And Ukraine has not been ruined. Indeed it may be that Moscow has inadvertently created conditions for greater unity within Ukraine than would otherwise or have previously been the case.

Despite what some people seem to think, Ukraine is a real place, a real country and possesses a real and distinct sensibility. Russia is reminding Ukrainians of those facts.

So, yes, tick tock, tick tock. The clock is running and time is not on Vladimir Putin’s side.

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Show comments
  • Baron

    Will you let this through? It’s from a Russian independent newspaper, it shows how state borders have changed in the last 1000 years. One can stop the video at any time.

  • John_Page

    Let’s see what happens when Russia turns off the gas

    • the viceroy’s gin

      …then they’ll starve.

  • Baron

    Alex, can Baron ask you for a favour? Why was he censored last night, no incitement to violence, no swear word, no attack on you, no nothing that should have stopped the posting.

    Can anyone give the poorly educated Slav an explanation? The banging about the lack of freedom of expression in the Putin’s den sounds more than hollow, why cannot those doing the censoring see it.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      …oh they see it, but these lumps are paid to censor thought they disagree with.

  • Ron Todd

    The regional power maneuvers a puppet ruler into power in one of their neighbours. When the puppet is ousted he has to act even if he is still trying to suppress dissent in another neighbour he has effectively taken over. He can watch while different factions fight for power. Or he can claim that as those on either side of the border speak the same language and often have interests on both sides and were once united he has a right or a duty to intervene. Edward 1 of England invaded Scotland I am not sure what Putin’s ultimate goal is.

  • Bohun

    If anyone ever had any illusion about true intations of our ex KGB con they are clear USSR 2.0 hear I come. What could possibly go wrong? Probably everything. Is in it strange how Russian special forces have problems shooting at Russian serving in Ukrainian army defending Ukrainian army bases (just read this sentence again).
    It is his last move in true KGB style: generate hatred, spread misinformation and you get to rule with fear and paranoia for few more years.

    Congratulations you might get but it will be very lonely out there. Plus Ukrainians have not even fired a shot yet.

  • arrotoxieta

    Time runs against Putin? I doubt it. Seriously. Time runs against people in Kiev, first and foremost. Their country is bankrupt and the number one creditor is Russia. They do not control vast parts of the country. Putin does not need to invade eastern Ukraine, or the south, he can raise local militias there, if and when it will be necessary. But in the meantime, the Ukraine is destabilised and paralised. That means, we will not see elections soon, nor the legitimation of the current government in Kiev, given that it would be easy so sabotage elections in most of the country. Not to mention that the various Svoboda and the like may LOSE the elections, as they did last time, when Yanukovic won. Putin has all the time in the world.

  • pp22pp

    I don’t know what to believe, but I no longer have any faith in our own media. What I have seen has been unedifying. We have done everything possible to pick a fight with Vlad and I don’t know why.

    1). Pussie Riot. If they are the best dissidents we can find in modern Russia, then we really are desperate. Solzhenitsyn they are not, and if I did what they did with a piece of frozen chicken in Sainsbury’s, I would get arrested, too.

    2). Gay rights. Russia’s record on gay rights is better than the whole of Africa the Middle East. Again, if that’s the best we can do, then Russia can’t be that bad.

    3). The Sochi Olympics. The Western Press did their very best to portray the games as an organisational catastrophe from day one. One Olympic ring not forming at the opening ceremony does not sound like much of a catastrophe to me.

    4). Syria – we are supporting Al-Qaida just because Putin is their enemy.

    5). Ukraine. There can be no doubt that the West was behind the overthrow of Yanukovich. The Nuland tape proves that. I have no doubt the Russians could induce insurrection in the Donbas if they wanted to. It would be easy. It says everything for them and nothing for us that they have chosen not to. They are the ones who are behaving with restraint, not us. Tymoshenko, the gas queen, is no angel herself.

    What is the motivation behind this irrational behaviour?

    • arrotoxieta

      Excellent summary of the situation.

  • littlegreyrabbit

    “And Ukraine has not been ruined”
    Well, not yet. Wait till we apply IMF Shock Therapy to it.

    What an insane article. Where does this crazy ideation of Putin come from? Putin is simply expressing widely held Russian opinion at Western Ukraine disenfranchising (for the 2nd time in a decade) the electoral choices of Eastern Ukraine. Putin and Russia’s moves have been entirely reactive as we have aggressively moved into his patch.
    But the end result of Alex Massie and his opinion forming ilk has been the usual zero sum game for everyone.
    What a complete waste of time and newsprint ink the whole brouhaha has been. Still, the last time the Anglophone world and the EU tried the trick of snipers shooting into crowds in Sarajevo in 1992 it resulted in a civil war with a few hundred thousand dead. It looks like we are getting off lightly this time.

  • thomas

    I write this, having to my right hand side three windows, to which I can right now this instant look out of…….it’s a beauty, to be able to experience right now: to be able to see all the trees, of all their varying lengths – not in fact, being able to discern the precise details, of all these trees, of all this mass, of nature, yet still.
    To over, and to be able to over and over, experience, despite how easy it is, to think nothing of and to take for granted, such a thing……..this enjoyment, and this contemplation of nature.
    Over, and over………something, which is incomparably beautiful, and which is so more deserving, than all of life’s so many presented opportunities, and yet which is completely free.
    The trees; the night sky – the stars, of that night sky; a radiating sun’s glittering, though a mesh of tree branches, and leaves……all of this, always for free, and always there, for any one of us, to choose to indulge in and in so many ways enjoy.
    Yet, as is made evident, by all of what life has to show me, day by day…..whatsoever, such is not the case.
    This is a plea…….the wars, the regular economies, the rating agencies, the ‘jobs’ society, etc etc:
    This, all can be abandoned, in favour of the unknown, yet nevertheless quite so telling power and refuge of nature.

  • the viceroy’s gin

    Who is this yelping idiot you Speccie teenagers have sent up to post unreadable drivel about Ukraine? I can’t even make it through the titles of this nonsense, let alone actually read it .

  • BarkingAtTreehuggers

    Questiontime exposed the full scale hypocrisy.
    It is Briatin that depends on Russian coal imports. No coal and ‘the lights go out’.
    game over.

    • Span Ows

      Nice graph, who would have thought that Colombia played such a large part in keeping the UK going! That said I am always a little wary of some figures especially when their website says “We are grateful for the funding and support provided by the European Climate Foundation.”

  • allymax bruce

    Alex Massie, I have to say, I enjoyed reading this article; thanks.
    For the most part, you are just-about-on-the-button. And, I luv the ‘theme’ Tick-tock, Tick tock; it is emblematic of time zone differences, and, the Modern ideals of warfare strategy that exist between East & West; again, well done Alex.
    I think you, Alex, like myself, already know this stooshie has been ‘agreed’ to finish early; let’s move-on; Yes?

  • swatnan

    Last time I looked Putin was having a whale of a time at Sochi.
    Crimea belomngs to Russia in the same way that Gibralter belongs to Spain.

  • CraigStrachan

    Has anyone asked Alex Salmond his position on the Crimea indyref? (They do seem to be getting it out the way a lot quicker than in Scotland).

  • CharlietheChump

    As you say John O’Sullivan’s excellent article covered the ground perfectly, a great improvement on recent inclusions in the Speccie.
    So why do we need your repetition in this blog?
    Also, what if this is in fact not about actually occupying Ukraine but just a practice run for further expansion of Mother Russia, testing the West – with wholly predictable results?

    • the viceroy’s gin

      The Russians cannot support a major offensive military operation. They could years ago, but not now. If they slowly bleed over into foreign territory and absorb it, well shame on the dopes who live there, for letting them.

  • al_frick

    How can you say that Moscow is on the losing end the longer this drags on? They already won. It is now a question of how much he has won and at what price. Look at the Georgian conflict. He absorbs two provinces of that country, zero price to pay, and Obama even does a photo op with him and a stupid “reset” button. Same here.

    • andagain

      Because Russia may end up gaining Crimea at the cost of losing Ukraine. What does russia get out of that – the possession of bases that it already possessed?

      • Michael Mckeown

        Sovereignty over a base it currently rents.

        • andagain

          It already had power over that base. I should think thay have already made that quite obvious. What difference is a fancy word supposed to make?

  • London Calling

    Tick Tock, Tick Tock………Is there a white rabbit running around with a large watch shouting “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date, no time to say hello goodbye, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late…………Alice in wonderland playing chess with the west……….a referendum in Crimea plays into Russian hands………cheque-mate……:)

  • Tony_E

    Putin has already won – he now holds the Crimea (which in some respects was probably all he actually wanted for the moment). He has the warm water port inside Russian territory – the soon to be held referendum (at gunpoint of course, the way Putin usually does business), will simply confirm what we already see.

    With that he holds Ukraine’s opportunity for natural gas exploration in the coastal waters around the Crimea, thereby ensuring their absolute dependence on Russia for energy supply (and Germany’s too as the EU is burying it’s head in the sand over shale).

    He will now stay his hand I suspect, not wanting to push the EU too far into looking for alternative sources to Russian gas in their own territories, because that would be the point at which Russian authority would wane – the point at which Putin no longer had his foot on the German windpipe. So he will eventually come to an arrangement with the rest of the Ukraine to reduce debts, which will de-escalate the situation and we will return largely to business as usual just as we did the last time Putin expanded Russia’s borders in Ossetia. We are too weak now to do anything else.

    • allymax bruce

      And, you were doing so well, right up until your last 4 lines; why do you have to ‘conclude’? Can’t you just give your comment on the situation, without a compromise?

    • andagain

      He will now stay his hand I suspect, not wanting to push the EU too far
      into looking for alternative sources to Russian gas in their own

      He may not WANT to do that, but he has just done that.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        Not a chance. The global warmingist envirowhackos would never allow that. They are brother Vlad’s best allies.

  • Rockin Ron

    I agree Putin is danger of over-playing his hand but, in the end it will come down to the energy markets. We must also not forget the influence of religion. The Orthodox have a different way of looking at these things. Regarding the Ukraine crisis, I am not sure we should be making light of the situation — we are talking about a potential World War III here. Did you know ‘Ukraine’ literally means “borderland”? Given that and the striking similarities with Hitler and the Sudetenland/Anschluss/Peter
    the Great/ Stalin and the Tartars/Genghis Khan, we should always be wary about unleashing ethno-nationalist forces. In today’s global multi-polar word, it’s simplistic to think in terms of East versus West. We have to remember that Sevastopol is of great strategic importance for Putin, especially given the ongoing Syria crisis. We may have forgotten about it, but basically what we are seeing in Ukraine is the
    return of geography.

    • Mike Purves

      But one must not forget the South.

    • gerontius

      This is pretty damned convincing Ron.
      You’re obviously an expert.
      Mayble you could expand this into an article?

  • colliemum

    “Eastern Ukraine has not risen. At least not yet. There has been no insurrection, no repudiation of the new government in Kiev. No great clamour for partition.”

    Oh really?

    Well, I suppose if one plays it down as a little bit of ‘unrest’, nothing to worry about, just a few people doing a bit of shouting, then one could say so – for obvious reasons.

    Also for obvious reasons, we mustn’t look at reports like this one:

    because that’s all only Putin propaganda.

    After all, what “The West’ reports is the unvarnished truth – never mind the chunks they leave out because it’ll make that new, illegitimate government in Kiev look bad.

    After all, the nice, shiny new ‘government’ in Kiev has so much to do it can’t even find the time to deny what the Estonian Minister said to Baroness “gosh” Ashton about the snipers, never mind investigate.

    And of course it’s totally natural that that lovely new, anti-corruption Kiev ‘government’ installs one of their oligarchs as new governor of the Donets region.

    Btw – remember the outcry in the national MSM here about a photo alleging a UKIP member used the ‘hitler gruss’, in a pub? What about this then:

    He’s now only the PM of the Ukraine, and our politicians are falling over each other to be nice to him.
    Tick tock for Putin?
    Rather tick tock tick tock for our politicians here, and their willing helpers in the MSM.

  • Michael Mckeown

    A democratically elected government was overthrown in a coup so surely that is illegal and unconstitutional and Putin sending in his troops at the request of the real president of Ukraine and the prime minister of Crimea being a completely lawful act.

    “Moscow’s best opportunity to ruin Ukraine has already passed. And Ukraine has not been ruined.”

    Ukraine is now partitioned and occupied by Russia and the ‘west’ are going to do nothing at all so it seems to me based on that observation that Ukraine is in fact ruined and it was ruined by the Ukraine people not Russia.

    • McRobbie

      The democratically elected ukraine government continues..its just the corrupt president who has been deselected by the democratically elected ukraine government and has ran with his billions of stolen roubles in the bank to his sponsors..russia. Yes russia has indeed got what it wants in taking over the crimea, but the chances of it getting what its greed desires…ukraine in total , has lessened by the wise and balanced attitude of the democratically elected ukrainian government and its interim president. Putin may just decide that it’s legal to invade all of ukraine, as he has already insisted he can do..his word appears to be law, But he is exposed as a megalomaniac seeking more and more power… he loves to bare his chest and now he has bared his soul.

      • Michael Mckeown

        Sorry but the Ukraine constitution does not permit the president and government to be replaced the way they were.

    • Unenlightened_Commentary

      Even Yanukovich’s own party acknowledge that his ousting was legitimate so the Kremlin line that it was a coup is risible.

      • Michael Mckeown

        It was a coup, have you not been watching the news?

        • andagain

          If the Ukrainian army had overthrown the government that would have been a coup. It didn’t, so there wasn’t one.

          There was a popular uprising, which is not at all the same thing.

          • Michael Mckeown

            Removing a government by force is a coup, it matters not if the military did it or the citezens acting as terrorists.

            • andagain

              Removing a government by force is a rebellion, not necessarily a coup. That is why no one talks about the American Coup of Independence. A popular uprising is NOT the same thing as a coup.

  • Jez

    Good afternoon Massie Moo.

    Although you may not be able receive information and just transmit gospel airtight facts that cannot be up for scrutiny, please watch this film.

    It’s a guy called Kissinger. Not up to the experience and weight you bring to the mix especially on Foreign affairs but give him a chance.

    There’s a thing about ego’s in there that’s absolutely brilliant (admittedly not you) maybe a few Journo’s that think they’re bigger than the news (BBC QT last night maybe) could take a few pointers.

  • FF42

    It’s hard to know what Putin actually wants and whether he really has any long term ambitions. I think securing Crimea is likely to be at the top of a list. Arguably he has achieved that.

    • NogbadTheBad

      Indeed. Regardless of whether he makes any more mischief elsewhere, Putin is likely to get (& win) a plebiscite on the return of Crimea, without firing a shot. That will go down well at home – so what if a few international toes have been trodden on.

    • Unenlightened_Commentary

      Crimea was pretty secure in any case. It looks more like a tantrum on Putin’s part with no well thought through plan.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        Actually, he’s thought it through far more thoroughly than the EUSSR and the US. It’s cost him nearly nothing, to do what he’s done so far, and the EUSSR and US will likely have him profiting from it, even, after he and his cronies steal much of the cash the dupes pour into their soon-to-be welfare state clients.

  • Tom Allalone

    Crimea will vote to join Russia and Russia will get Sevastapol. If it weren’t for the fact that Alex Massie has never been wrong about anything, I might be thinking that was a result for Putin and even, just possibly, his main objective

    • Ben Kelly

      On such matters his opinion is no more worthy than yours or mine. He sometimes makes valid comments on Scotland but is generally a conventional thinker and a bore.

  • D Whiggery

    “It is not the major front in this struggle. Russia’s actions in the Crimea are plainly illegal and unjustified but they were supposed to be the catalyst for action elsewhere.”

    I don’t think so, why would Russia want to annex Eastern Ukraine, there’s a bit of gas but not much else. I think they just wanted to secure their military bases in the event that Ukraine moves to EU/NATO membership which is clearly their intention.

    • Kennybhoy

      “Sounds like some people are searching for any little victory in this, real or imagined.”


      • WalterPaulKomarnicki

        no winners anywhere in this eerie stalemate, only losers, small and large…

    • andagain

      I think they just wanted to secure their naval base in the event that
      Ukraine moves to EU/NATO membership which is clearly their intention.

      It was the goal of some Ukrainians. Not all. Putin may well have gained something he already possessed at the cost of turning the Crimea into a totem of Ukrainian nationalism.