April 14, 2014 6:25 pm

Putin’s insidious tactics in Ukraine

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West must respond if Kremlin persists in provocations

For the past three weeks Vladimir Putin has massed some 40,000 troops on his country’s border with Ukraine. Nato commanders have repeatedly warned that a deployment on this scale means the Kremlin leader could be about to invade the east of the country, which has large Russian-speaking communities.

Given the way Mr Putin brutally annexed Crimea last month, the possibility of such an invasion cannot be excluded. But for the time being the Russian leader appears to be looking to see if he can destabilise Ukraine with tactics that are more insidious – and which might leave the west fumbling for a response.

One week ago pro-Russian militants seized government buildings in three eastern Ukrainian cities, saying they were seeking autonomy from the new government in Kiev. Then last weekend, unidentified masked gunmen attacked government offices across the region in an attempt to fuel support for the pro-Moscow militants.

The Kremlin has repeatedly insisted in the past two days that these gunmen are not part of Russia’s military. But Moscow used unidentified special forces to foment the unrest in Crimea that led to the territory’s subsequent annexation by Russia. Such tactics are undoubtedly being repeated by Mr Putin in this new phase of the crisis – and the US is right to have declared this out loud.

Not for the first time in the Ukrainian saga, western leaders are trying to establish what Mr Putin’s endgame really is. There is no doubt that he wants to undermine the government in Kiev permanently in order to halt any future move by Ukraine into the EU or Nato. To achieve this Mr Putin wants to break Ukraine up into autonomous regions, some of which might look to Moscow rather than to Kiev for authority.

But while he may seek this goal, the Russian president almost certainly knows that a full-scale invasion of eastern Ukraine would be militarily challenging and would trigger wide-ranging economic sanctions from the west. So, for now, he appears to be trying to achieve the “federalisation” of Ukraine by stealth.

Mr Putin’s tactics present challenges both for the interim government in Kiev and for the west. First, the authorities in Ukraine must avoid being provoked into mounting a crackdown on the Russian-speaking populations in the east. Kiev must try to disarm the militias that have entered its territory, but a violent response is precisely what the Kremlin desires. If that were to happen, Russia would be better placed to make the case for a more sweeping military intervention.

Second, the US and its allies need to begin detailing what their response should be to Mr Putin if these provocations continue. So far the message from the west has been that an invasion of eastern Ukraine by Russia would trigger a new set of sanctions affecting core sectors of the Russian economy. But the US and EU need to spell out how they will respond if Mr Putin goes on trying to destabilise the country by stealth. At some point such actions must trigger new sanctions from western governments.

This issue is particularly relevant as far as the EU is concerned. Throughout the Ukraine crisis the Obama administration has been willing to punish Russia over its actions. But EU member states, some of which remain highly reliant on Moscow for energy needs, remain divided over what to do.

European governments and business leaders need to accept that this must change. Russia’s Achilles heel throughout this crisis has been its economy. If Mr Putin persists in his attempt to destabilise Ukraine, European leaders need to be prepared to apply punishment – even if this means inflicting some pain on their own economies.

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