Putin’s Masquerades

Jerusalem Post, 18/2

Past Russian practices of deception and intimidation may offer clues as to the direction of events in Ukraine

History moves in curious patterns. The countdown to the current fraught moment in Ukraine may be accurately identified.  It began nine years ago, on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, in Kiev, in the winter of 2013/14.  Ukraine, independent since 1991, chose irrevocably at that time to link its fortunes to those of the west.

What began as a small protest against the suspension of an EU association agreement turned into a stark challenge to the then prevailing pro-Russian power structure in the country.  I reported from Kiev and from the Maidan in December, 2013.   The issues now at stake on the border were apparent then, both in the organization of the Maidan protest itself, and in the response of its enemies.  Patterns of activity then visible may offer clues to the current direction of events. 

The Maidan was chaotic, shambolic and without real leadership. But spending time there, it rapidly became apparent that it was also a genuine gathering of civil society.  It brought together those forces in Ukrainian society whose aspirations were towards western style democratic practice, and away from the despotic traditions to the east.  There were nationalist and chauvinist forces present on the square, of course. But the prevailing spirit was one of volunteerism, open and tireless debate and grassroots civil organization. 

The nature of the opposing forces was also apparent.  The ‘political technologists’ that specialize in disinformation,  in Russia’s famous ‘maskirovka’ (masquerade, or war by deception), that conjure up political movements and moments out of the air using money, muscle and deception, were busy in Kiev that winter.  Coalminers from the Donbass, paid by the hour,  were bussed in by the Yanukovich government. They organized their own rival ‘demonstration’ across town, in Marinsky Park.  The Berkut security forces working with these men hunted down and terrorized activists by night.    The strategy was an odd combination of uncompromising brutality combined with subtle masquerade. The intended effect – to produce disorientation in the adversary.

The Maidan was victorious. Yanukovich lost control of the situation and of the security forces in February , 2014, and fled to Moscow.  As is common, successful revolution was followed rapidly by war.  The fighting in the east in 2014/15, and on a lower intensity ever since, was testimony to Moscow’s refusal to accept the verdict.  The appearance of hitherto unknown ‘separatist’ movements in Donetsk and Luhansk at that time, meanwhile, loudly demanding autonomy for their regions, was an indication that masquerade remained the preferred Russian partner to the application of force.   

It is now clear  that  the stalemate that has prevailed since 2015 was not Vladimir Putin’s last word on the matter.  As now seems apparent, Moscow is determined to decisively and conclusively reverse the western direction that has tentatively prevailed in Ukraine since the Maidan.  Domination of Ukraine’s foreign policy options and a decisive say in its internal political arrangements are the goal. The objective is the effective neutering of Ukrainian independence.  

Why now? What precipitated this sudden escalation? Ukraine’s western trajectory has been apparent since the Maidan’s victory in 2014.  But under President Volodymyr Zelensky, the pace and intensity has increased.  Zelensky arrested a close associate and ally of Putin’s – Victor Medvechuk, early in his period of incumbency.  He has closed down three pro-Putin TV channels. A law signed by his predecessor requiring all national print media to be published in Ukrainian came into effect on Zelensky’s watch.

Ukrainian civil society and its armed forces, meanwhile, have grown steadily stronger, more confident and better organized since 2014/15.  Ukraine is seeking to move on from the period of close Russian influence in its public life.  The breakaway ‘republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk, far from constituting ongoing tools of pressure for Moscow, have come increasingly to resemble sealed off areas of dysfunction. 

Moscow has apparently concluded that any chance of a slow, incremental and undramatic recouping of influence is now closed. It has therefore decided to escalate.  The core aim is to achieve a guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO.  Moscow also seeks the implementation of the 2015 Minsk II protocols, which will grant the breakaway regions autonomy and allow Russia to re-insert its clients in the east of the country back into Ukrainian politics.

The desire to reverse the direction of events in Ukraine and force Kiev back under its influence, however, is only half the story.  Putin, it appears, has chosen to make Ukraine the arena for the deciding of a larger issue – namely, the future security architecture of central and eastern Europe. Hence, Moscow is demanding a commitment that no further member states be admitted to NATO, that military forces and infrastructure be removed from the territory of member states that have joined since May 1997, and that the US pledge also  not to develop bilateral defense ties with Ukraine and Georgia.  These demands were presented to the US in two draft defense treaties, in December of last year.  They constitute, in essence, a call for the reversal of the security balance in central and eastern Europe to the situation which pertained immediately following the dissolution of the USSR. 

These larger demands place the Ukraine situation in its proper context.  The desire to reimpose control on Ukraine forms an element in a project of revanchism.  Putin is trying to re-constitute the reach of the old Soviet Union deep into Europe. 

So what happens next? Russian military deployments along the northern, eastern and southern (maritime) borders of Ukraine are clearly intended to keep Kiev and the west guessing. A number of operations, or a combination of them, despite the unverified reports of ‘withdrawals’ of the last 48 hours, remain feasible.  Most dramatically, Moscow might seek to make a rapid push for Kiev, using forces assembled in Belarus.  A push south west from the Donbass enclave to unite this Russian area of control with the Crimea is also feasible.  Less likely but also possible would be an amphibious operation to conquer Odessa and cut off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea.  Alternatively, Russia could simply begin a standoff artillery and aerial bombardment of targets in Ukraine, intended to force concessions from the leadership in Kiev. Or, of course, such a bombardment could be used to precede  any of  the other three options outlined, or a combination thereof. 

Interestingly, however, both Russian and Ukrainian analysts that I spoke to this week were much less convinced regarding the likelihood of imminent invasion than were the western media and apparently the US Administration. 

The notion that Putin must either rapidly deploy the force he has assembled on the borders or stand it down is inaccurate. As Michael Kofman, a Russia analyst at Center for a New American Security wrote in late January, ‘’The Russian military is deploying a large force slowly, and deliberately, with equipment that can be parked in the field for months.’ Neither financial constraints, nor public pressure will cause the Russian leader to make haste.   

Many of those closely analysing the situation question whether the forces assembled, sizeable as they are, would be anywhere near sufficient to carry out the conquest and subsequent holding of cities and large areas of territory. 

It is therefore distinctly possible that  Russian leader still intends to achieve his goals in the hybrid 21st century fashion, using a build-up of military force to apply pressure and produce panic in his enemies, causing the west to abandon firm commitments to the government in Kiev out of fear of war, and then leaving that government with no choice but to abandon its western trajectory.   The political technologists, operating their puppets on the Ukrainian political stage, would then return to work.  That is, the methods of subversion and political and psychological warfare that failed to break the Maidan may not have been entirely abandoned now for conventional military options.  Rather, the same combination of brute force and subtle masquerade appears to now be in play. 

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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