Occasionally, people claim that Vladimir Putin is a geopolitical player of extraordinary competence and success. The jury is still out on that, if history is anything to go by.
By far the most important relationship was with Ukraine. Coming from a common origin in the old Rus formed around Kiev a thousand years ago, the two nations had developed different identities but still retained strong bonds. And the two economies were highly integrated. In Kiev, speaking Russian was as natural as speaking Ukrainian. It was the determination of Ukraine, more than anything else, that sealed the fate of the Soviet Union in December 1991. The Kiev-Moscow relationship was to define the new geopolitical situation in the wider Eastern European space.
But when Putin came to power, things went very wrong.
On the political front, the Kremlin intervened heavily in Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election, in favor of candidate Viktor Yanukovych, only to trigger the Orange Revolution. Victor Yushchenko, the winner of the election, was deeply suspicious of the obvious plots by Russia.
Putin also mishandled Ukraine economically, when he decided that his Eurasian Economic Union should be based on a customs union and that Ukraine must become a part of it. He engaged in an all-out effort to stop Ukraine from going forward with its desire for a free-trade agreement with the European Union.
All means short of war were deployed. A heavy propaganda offensive in Ukraine was combined with brutal economic measures, cutting trade links in a way that also harmed Russia — all aimed at forcing Ukraine to change course. In public, Putin’s advisers warned Ukraine of “catastrophic consequences.” As Ukraine’s economy went downhill, Yanukovych, in a desperate attempt to lower the Russian gas bill, twisted and delayed the E.U. agreement and clandestinely promised to enter the customs union.
The Maidan popular movement thus began. Yanukovych, urged on by Putin, quelled the uprising with brutal violence, which left more than 100 dead in the streets of Kiev. The end was a disaster for both leaders.
Yanukovych fled his country in early 2014, and Putin retaliated by invading and annexing Crimea. He also launched the attempt to carve a “Novorossiya” out of the southern parts of Ukraine. The Kremlin believed all of this would be easy. Heavy TV propaganda, little green men, an infusion of nationalist hotheads, heavy arms deliveries, money — it should have been a piece of cake!
But it all failed. In the fall of 2014, Putin had to send his regular army battalion groups into Ukraine to save the effort from total collapse. He already stumbled into the disaster of a Russian army unit reportedly shooting down the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 during the summer.
Today, Kremlin-backed separatists control about 7 percent of Ukraine’s territory, needing billions of rubles in financial support. Sanctions have been slapped on key parts of the Russian economy. About 10,000 people have lost their lives; perhaps 3 million will be forced to leave their homes.
Ukraine has recovered from the near-disaster of its financial situation in early 2014, consolidated its democracy, embarked on more sustained reforms than ever before and, of course, gone ahead with the association and free-trade agreement with the E.U. Meanwhile, the Eurasian Economic Union lingers on, plagued by disputes, and is seen as of fading relevance to its members.
As for Putin, he has been forced to learn a lesson that should be clear from history — invading countries is not a good way to make friends. A Ukraine that has always been somewhat fractured is now united in resisting Russia. A new generation of Ukrainians are growing up with Russia as an enemy rather than as a friend.
Putin would certainly liked to be remembered by history as the leader who took Crimea back. That remains to be seen — the Crimea case is open.
But Putin has lost everything else. NATO troops are deploying in the three Baltic states and Poland. Defense expenditures are rising throughout Europe. Georgia has just gained visa-free access to the E.U. Even Belarus is starting to be restless.
And the great nation of Ukraine will never be back with the Kremlin. I would not be surprised if the historians of the future saw this as an even greater geopolitical disaster than the demise of the Soviet Union. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was, sooner or later, unavoidable. But the Ukraine disaster was completely avoidable — it was man-made in the Kremlin.
Vladimir Putin the brilliant geopolitical player. Sure …