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Devil's advocate

Putin and Crimea: not as premeditated as some pundits suggest.
By Christopher P. Winner
Published: 2014-03-06

he dogs of war and the words of war can chase each other's tails. That was certainly the case in August 1914, when London dailies whipped up a rhetorical frenzy on par with the fierceness of the war to come, and which they helped generate. Crisis induces rhetoric. It always has. Passion's clockwork is unreasonable by nature.

That said, let us momentarily backtrack, and also oversimplify.

In December 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych — elected in 2010 after several previous terms as prime minister — formally announced what all knew already: that he would turn away from his country's European Union path and cozy up instead to Russia, the country he favored, and which was also in a position to provide energy supplies and economic assistance.

That decision, seen as a betrayal and a sell-out by the country's pro-European urban population, massed in Kiev, set off the latest in a wave of fierce street demonstrations, some resulting in casualties.

The protests diminished, and then ceased altogether, over Christmas, when Yanukovych announced the deal he'd reached with his manipulative Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Russia would slash natural gas prices and provide billions in economic aid to keep Ukraine solvent. The pact displeased, even horrified, EU supporters, who sensed Putin had pre-empted their Western push with what amounted to a payoff.

Kiev demonstrators decided to carry protest to its logical conclusion.

At the same time, the deal made sense on paper. So much so that the Kiev protest movement was briefly neutered and forced to regroup. That it did, until February.

Early that month, a new wave of anti-Yanukovych (and de facto anti-Russian) demonstrations began, these met more forcibly. Yanukovych, determined to avoid a repeat of December, ordered police to fight back, which they did ferociously. Fistfights turned into gun battles, transforming parts of the Ukrainian capital into capsules of conflagration. The uncompromising intensity of fighting was made evident by the mounting death toll.

Suddenly, both the West and Moscow were again on alert. While the former supported the spirit of the protests, it feared reprisals, bloodshed, and worried — rightly — about lack of coherent organization among the dissenters. Moscow, convinced the worst had passed, was again confronted with a Ukrainian presidency in obvious peril. Yanukovych, the man with whom they'd signed a vast deal, was again on the ropes. Worse still, at least from the Russian perspective, the protestors, regardless of provenance, were de facto pro-Western, which potentially endangered all of Russia's Ukrainian interests, including its Black Sea enclave.

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