Putin Destabilizing Ukraine From Within

Despite the evident weakness of the Ukrainian military, it seems that something is going wrong with the Russian plans, too.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Ukrainian security force officers are deployed at a checkpoint left by pro-Russian separatists near Slaviansk April 24, 2014.
Ukrainian security force officers are deployed at a checkpoint left by pro-Russian separatists near Slaviansk April 24, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The “anti-terror” operation announced by the Ukrainian government on Thursday in the towns captured by pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country and the “exercises” of the Russian army just across the border seemed much more different from each other than the statements from Kiev and Moscow, respectively, suggest. The former was very limited in scope, while the latter appeared to be another invasion-in-the-making of Ukrainian territory.

Last week in Geneva, Russia and Ukraine agreed to de-escalate the situation and to refrain from violence. But Kiev was spurred to resume its operations against “Russian terror” in the wake of a series of civilian abductions and disappearances, mainly around the town of Slaviansk. These culminated in the discovery of the body of Vladimir Ribak, a local politician from Donetsk, apparently after he was tortured and dumped in a lake.

But despite the forceful statements, the operation consisted of the police retaking control of the Mariupol city hall from pro-Russian separatists and one short confrontation between a Ukrainian army unit and separatists at a roadblock outside Slaviansk. At least one separatist was killed in the clash. Two hours later, the Ukrainian force retreated and set up its own checkpoint a kilometer away. Helicopters dropped leaflets on the town calling on civilians to avoid from buildings held by the “terrorists,” but the anticipated attack on the town never came.

It isn’t clear why the Ukrainians are hesitating. Maybe the threats of the separatist leader in Slavyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarov, to execute hostages and transform the town into “Stalingrad” stayed Kiev’s hand. It could be the fear of Russian invasion.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said, “We have to react to the development in the situation,” warning that “if the war machine does not stop, it will lead to greater numbers of dead and wounded.” He accused NATO, which has reinforced its forces in Poland and the Baltic states, of causing an escalation. Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, accused the government in Kiev of “using the army against its population” and said there would be “consequences.”

What is unclear is what the Russians are waiting for. Its army has been massed along the border for nearly two months. Moscow could have used one of the violent events in eastern Ukraine to justify an invasion to “defend” ethnic Russians. But even after the death of the separatist yesterday, the Kremlin continued to make do with moving armored columns near the border, without crossing it.

Despite the evident weakness of the Ukrainian military, it seems that something is going wrong also with the Russian plans. Unlike the fast and efficient takeover by anonymous forces, fighters from special Russian units, of the Crimean peninsula, the armed groups now controlling government buildings in eastern Ukraine seem badly organized, despite their Russian guidance, ample weapons and reinforcements of “volunteers” from Russia. According to some reports, they also include local criminals. Moscow is hard-pressed to control them. And unlike in Crimea, the Ukrainian army is prepared on the border and while its resources are much more limited than the Russians’, for now Putin seems to avoiding all-out war.

Underlining that message, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia said that after learning from the experience of Crimea, “We will now fight with Russian troops if they invade Ukraine. The Ukrainian people and Ukrainian army are ready to do this.”

In addition, it seems that the American and European sanctions, though relatively limited in scope, are beginning to deter Putin. On Thursday U.S. President Barack Obama warned during his visit to Japan that further sanctions are “teed up.”

Meanwhile, Putin is trying to create a deterrence of his own, in part by backing international moves to restrict U.S. control of the Internet. In a meeting with journalists and bloggers in Saint Petersburg on Thursday, he said the Internet began as “a CIA project and continues to develop as such.” But the more significant threat came from spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said “Kiev’s criminal actions” put in question the legitimacy of the election to be held in Ukraine next month. At the same time, separatist leaders said they would not allow the election to take place in the town under their control. Until recently it seemed that Russia was principally trying to undermine the temporary pro-Western government in Kiev in advance of the election. Now, by questioning the election itself, even before it has taken place, Putin seems to be doing everything possible to destabilize Ukraine from within, even if for now he is not sending in his army.

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