January 19, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

Devil's advocate

By Christopher P. Winner
Published: 2014-03-06

This was the moment of truth.

Yanukovych was under siege, with only two possible responses, neither attractive. The first was to mobilize the army to neutralize the protests — or attempt to, a move that would produce even wider bloodshed. But Yanukovych did not give such an order. The second was to backtrack further, but Yanukovych had run out of concessions. He'd ordered a cabinet reshuffle, dismissed key officials, and promised snap national elections. Had the lethal street fighting not pushed the dissenters well beyond the point of no return, these moves would most probably have been sufficient to restore barebones democratic order. But democracy was already off the rails. The more militant protestors, bloodied but unbowed, sensed the kill. The emotional street surge intensified and soon the palace was surrounded, leading to Yanukovych's flight.

From that moment on, all bets were off, as they remain now.

Based on this incendiary evolution, a critical question deserves asking: would Putin's Russia have moved to seize Crimea, dominated by ethnic Russians, had the situation in Kiev appeared more balanced, or potentially balanceable? Would Putin have mobilized his longstanding Crimea base and rallied supporters to protect his vision of the "realm" had he still been dealing with some semblance of rational leadership in Kiev, even with former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko — no enemy of Russia — as an interim figure?

The answer is no. He would not have. It was not in his plans, and the worst kind of public relations, particularly after the successful Sochi Winter Olympics.

So long as Yanukovych remained in power, or even faced with the prospect of a change in Kiev leadership (including the temporary and hypothetical re-elevation of Tymoshenko), Putin would not have taken what is and remains a risky step. Instead, what he saw before him, and what others saw also, was profound instability in a border nation. It was then and only then that he decided to respond based on his own set of rules, since those in play seemed either suspended or invalid.

He did not invade Ukraine in the hardcore way that word usually suggests. Instead, he moved, illegally but logically, to secure a vital military base in a region largely friendly to his efforts and his cause. There was no frontal attack, no looting, pillaging, bombing or gunfire. His "aggression," as the West now bills it, was hostile to Ukrainian sovereignty, yes, but otherwise relatively benign.

The non-attack attack was not a long-awaited "evil empire" move presaging the first of similarly staged efforts intended win back Russia's territorial empire. Those days are gone and such an enterprise is now impossible. Nor was it pre-emptive, premeditated act lying in wait for an event-related trigger. Had that been the case, Russian ground troops would already be involved (and may yet come into play, a self-fulfilling prophesy, given the escalating rhetoric on both sides).

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