Too Much Information   /   Spring 2015   /    Essays

Putin, Ukraine, and the Question of Realism

John M. Owen and William Inboden

Not content with annexing Crimea last spring, Russia continues to engage in what one journalist aptly called the “slow-motion dismemberment of Ukraine.”1 Ethnic Russian separatists and their Moscow patrons talk of a “Novorossya,” borrowing the imperial tsarist designation for the region they seek to control. For his part, Russian president Vladimir Putin talks peace while using force and intimidation to undermine the government in Kiev and perhaps to hive off additional territory for Novorossiya. President Putin paints his nation’s actions as a justifiable response to the popular uprising that deposed Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych in February of last year. Putin describes the coup leaders and Ukraine’s new government as a band of fascists hostile to eastern Ukraine’s ethnic Russians and backed by the European Union and the United States in their effort to diminish Russia’s influence in its immediate neighborhood.

Although it has met with sanctions and other gestures of Western disapproval, Putin’s barely covert conquest (which the US government steadfastly refuses to call an invasion) plays well among his own people, and it will likely provide the Russian president with sufficient leverage to keep Ukraine from entering the EU or NATO. More ominously, it suggests how Putin may continue to behave in Russia’s near abroad, consolidating Moscow’s influence by creating further “frozen conflicts” in Russian ethnic enclaves such as those in Moldova and Georgia or by more brazenly undermining neighboring governments and seizing their territory.

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