It is always tempting, in the field of foreign affairs, to suppose we are led by dupes and fools while our opponents enjoy – or endure – leaders of boundless cunning. We are over-matched; they are playing three-dimensional chess. We are weak, they are strong. We are easily distracted, they are single-minded. We compromise, they are implacable. It is easy to over-estimate the opposition while under-estimating our own capabilities.
Sometimes this has unfortunate consequences. Saddam Hussein, for instance, had to be hiding something. The Iraqi dictator – notoriously full of dark cunning – would not be so stupid as to pretend to have WMD programmes he did not in fact possess. The less evidence there was for them the more that proved he must be hiding something. That we did not know what he was up to demonstrated he was up to something. He was not, after all, a stupid man. As it turned out, we mis-overestimated Saddam.
Perhaps – only perhaps for one cannot be wholly certain about such matters – we are mis-overestimating Vladimir Putin too.
It may seem as though Putin has the advantage right now. His troops are occupying the Crimea and they will not easily be dislodged. He retains the capacity to make mischief in eastern Ukraine too. Russian troops stand ready to “protect” Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Kharkiv, Donetsk, Odessa and elsewhere. And what, precisely, can we do to stop them? The Russians, not the west and certainly not the new government in Kiev, will dictate the facts on the ground. Putin does not care what the rest of the world thinks and this sets him free to act as he pleases. We are weak; he is strong. He knows what he wants; we do not.
But this is a battle for Ukraine, not a test of will between Putin and “the west”. Putin can have – and keep – the Crimea. He may even be able to take a couple of eastern provinces that, historically and culturally, were part of Russia. But he cannot, not now, take Ukraine. Not without starting a real war that even Vladimir Putin does not want.
Moscow, assisted by the blundering Yanukovych, has over-reached itself and in so doing is losing the prize it coveted in the first place. No government in Kiev can submit to Moscow now. Putin has pushed his near abroad further abroad. Russia is forcing Ukraine to make a choice it might prefer not to make. Should Kiev look east or west? By invading the Crimea and threatening eastern Ukraine Putin makes that choice for Kiev. It cannot return to Moscow centre. It must instead, albeit with some trepidation, look west.
That is, Putin is losing hearts and souls. Ukraine may remain a divided country but Russia is helping legitimise the new Ukrainian government. Helping, too, Ukrainians make up their minds. If they were conflicted a few weeks ago they are a little less conflicted now.
Moreover, Putin’s hopes for his Eurasian Economic Union are ruined now. He has Belarus and Kazakhstan in his pocket and little Armenia may have little choice but to join. But that’s it. Ukraine is the prize and the only one really worth having. Without Ukraine Putin’s pet project is, if not meaningless, severely devalued. The other former Soviet republics are like so many toes; Ukraine is an entire leg.
And Putin has lost that leg. Or at any rate, at least half of it. Moscow’s best hope scenario now is only half as promising as that posited just a year ago. It bears remembering that since Putin’s demands proved too much for Yanukovych they will be unacceptable to any other plausible government that may take power in Kiev. Putin’s hand is weaker than it seems.
Perhaps this will change. Perhaps Russian escalation – or the threat of escalation – will have an effect. Perhaps it will bully Kiev back into the near abroad. But the odds seem against that happening. The old – by which I mean Soviet – rules do not apply as once they did.
A real shooting war would, of course, be a disaster for everyone but most especially for Russia because it is hard to see how such a conflict could help Russia achieve its own long-term strategic goals. At least, not at an acceptable price.
Maybe this argument will look stupid (and soon!) but, as matters stand, I think there’s a simple answer to the question Who lost Ukraine? and that answer is Vladimir Putin.