All the signs are that Putin, with his proprietorial approach to large stretches of the former Soviet Union, will refuse to accept the legitimacy of a Ukrainian state that has turned west to secure its future, cutting the umbilical cord that the Kremlin thinks makes it Russia’s baby.
The aim, as Ukraine’s acting president speculated on Sunday, may be to wreck Ukraine economically; to disable its functioning as a genuinely independent state.
That aim would encourage Putin to expand his influence from Crimea into eastern Ukraine, dismissing Kiev’s authority, broadly cutting the country in two, Kiev and the west versus the east and the south.
That raises the prospect of civil war. Already, in the initial skirmishing, the tactics and the methodology that made Milosevic so ascendant in the Yugoslav wars of 1991 to 1995 and Kosovo in 1998 and 1999 (although he lost them all in the end) are evident.
There is the establishing and no doubt arming of local loyal militias, the emergence of new pro-Russian leaders handpicked by the Russian security services, the use of quick referendums to lend a “democratic” veneer to pre-ordained decisions taken in Moscow, the funding of loyalist forces, the staging of “provocations” that are then amplified by outrage and the clamor for retaliation in the Kremlin-controlled media, the creation of parallel state structures, say, in Kharkov in the east — Ukraine’s second city and its capital during the Russian civil war because it was “red” and Kiev was “white.”
There are also the ethnic, confessional and cultural divisions that sunder Ukraine, between the Catholic and nationalist west and the Orthodox and often pro-Russian east, also recalling Yugoslavia.
However, these are far from insuperable problems. There is nothing inevitable about an east-west clash, given benign and careful political leadership.
However, if the state and its propaganda arm and television are resolved to magnify these underlying tensions into a casus belli, it is easily accomplished, as Milosevic proved.
If Putin opts to be the new Milosevic, the West will be staring a new division of Europe in the face.
WHAT CAN THE WEST DO?
There appears little appetite in the West for getting seriously embroiled beyond diplomacy. The responses have been slow and after the fact. The Ukrainian turmoil started in November last year with the Kiev protesters opposing a pro-Russian president to demand a European vocation.
However, the EU is split, lumbering and reactive. There is no European foreign or security policy. It is difficult to imagine Germany spilling blood for Ukraine. It is not difficult to envisage Russia spilling blood for Ukraine.
The default EU position in these crises, from Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in Africa to Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko next door to Ukraine, is to impose sanctions and travel bans on leadership cliques. However, there is too much at stake in Ukraine for that to have much impact.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has upped the ante, warning of a sanctions package that would isolate Russia economically.
That is an intriguing suggestion because the Russian economy is entirely dependent on raw materials; on oil and gas exports.