War, Yes? War, No? The Ukraine Standoff as Diplomatic Mashup

It is getting difficult to tell where events are headed in Ukraine. As a Bloomberg News headline puts it: “Putin Says No Immediate Need to Invade Eastern Ukraine, Leaves Threat Dangling.” Two documents that have surfaced in the past couple days from Russia and the U.S., while by no means definitive, strongly suggest a lack of common ground. Or, as the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs put it in a tweet that didn’t translate gracefully1:

On the one hand is a remarkable U.S. State Department release structured like a BuzzFeed item. Its title is to the point: “PRESIDENT PUTIN’S FICTION: 10 FALSE CLAIMS ABOUT UKRAINE.”

On the other is an essay of equal subtlety by Kremlin adviser Sergei Markov. He almost certainly did not write the headline that appears above his words in the Moscow Times, but it reflects the thrust of his words: “WHY THERE WILL BE WAR IN UKRAINE.”

Markov does not speak for Putin, and he has been known to stake out positions at the outer limits of hard-line posturing, but he’s a smart man who has a fine grasp of the Kremlin’s thinking and direction. (Though his views, as evidenced by a recent appearance on the Daily Show, do not always play well in the West2). It’s interesting that this sort of piece, at this sort of diplomatic moment, would appear in an English-language publication.

If the State Department is now in the business of listicles, then let us mash them up. Beginning with sections from Markov’s piece, followed by the U.S. State Department:

Markov: The current crisis is not about Crimea. It is about the rights of Russian-speakers throughout Ukraine whom the Kremlin wants to protect from violence and discrimination.

State: Outside of Russian press and Russian state television, there are no credible reports of any ethnic Russians being under threat … there has been no surge in crime, no looting, and no retribution against political opponents.

Markov: A minority executed a violent coup that removed the democratically elected and legitimate president of Ukraine. … The extremists who seized power in Kiev want to see a bloodbath.

State: Ukraine’s interim government has acted with restraint and sought dialogue. Russian troops, on the other hand, have moved beyond their bases to seize political objectives and infrastructure in Crimea.

Markov: The Kremlin believes that the current Ukrainian leadership will manipulate the elections planned for May 25 to install a single leader or coalition government functioning much as former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili did in Tbilisi.3 … After that, Kiev may evict Russia’s Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol4 and purge Crimea of any Russian influence. Ukraine could easily become a radicalized, anti-Russian state, at which point Kiev will fabricate a pretext to justify taking subversive action against Moscow5.

State: The interim government of Ukraine is a government of the people, which will shepherd the country toward democratic elections on May 25th—elections that will allow all Ukrainians to have a voice in the future of their country.

Markov: Independent election observers must play an active role in ensuring that the elections are free and fair. There is a real danger that they will be manipulated by the neo-Nazi militants who de facto seized power in a coup.

State: As Russia spins a false narrative to justify its illegal actions in Ukraine, the world has not seen such startling Russian fiction since Dostoyevsky wrote, “The formula ‘two plus two equals five’ is not without its attractions.”

Markov: If these democratic and peaceful solutions to the crisis in Ukraine are rejected by the opposition forces that have seized power in Kiev, I am afraid that Russia will have no other choice but to revert to military means. If the junta leaders want to avoid war, they need to adopt Moscow’s peaceful and democratic proposals and adhere to them.

State: Strong evidence suggests that members of Russian security services are at the heart of the highly organized anti-Ukraine forces in Crimea. While these units wear uniforms without insignia, they drive vehicles with Russian military license plates and freely identify themselves as Russian security forces when asked by the international media and the Ukrainian military. Moreover, these individuals are armed with weapons not generally available to civilians.

Markov: Putin made the right decision: He did not to wait for that attack and took preventative measures. Many in the West say the Kremlin’s reactions were paranoiac, but Germany’s Jews also thought the same of leaving the country in 1934. Most of them chose to believe they were safe and remained in Germany even after Hitler came to power.

In my mind, they’re all shouting by this point and maybe throwing things. Or just staring very hard in that way officials sometimes do, suggesting that there are going to be some less-polished words in public. Again, see the State release here and Markov here.

All of which brings up a question asked in the Washington Post today by none other than Henry Kissinger: “But do we know where we are going?” He offered a suggestion. “Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West,” Kissinger wrote.

1. That’s the back of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s head on the left and, looking at the camera, in the opposite direction, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

2. Click here

3. Putin hates Mikheil Saakashvili. Is that the right word? Yes. Saakashvili came to power after Georgia’s Rose Revolution, which like Ukraine’s Orange Revolution was seen by Moscow’s leadership as a Western-backed conspiracy to encircle Russia. See footnote 5.

4. Crimea, where Sevastopol is located, was given to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 at a time when it was all a part of the Soviet Union anyway. (A nice rundown on the background is here.) The lease for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol was a major bone of contention between Moscow and Ukraine’s previous pro-Western leader Viktor Yushchenko, who came to power after the Orange Revolution.

5. To let Markov continue for a moment longer, he seems to have no doubt that what’s happening in Ukraine could ultimately target the Kremlin: “In addition, Russia’s opposition movement will surely want to use the successful experience and technology of the Euromaidan protests and, with the help and financial support of the West, try to carry out their own revolution in Moscow. The goal: to remove President Vladimir Putin from power and install a puppet leadership that will sell Russia’s strategic interests out to the West in the same way former President Boris Yeltsin did in the 1990s.”

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