Why won’t Russia’s Vladimir Putin let Ukraine go? He might not be able to, according to a former head of Britain’s MI6 external intelligence agency, Alex Younger.
In an interview Tuesday with the BBC, Younger said he cannot see how the Russian leader can back down as fears mount that Putin is poised to order a Russian invasion of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic.
Younger said the Russian president was “playing poker rather than chess” to create options for himself. But Younger added, “At the moment I cannot see a scenario where he can back down in a way that satisfies the expectations that he has created.”
He added, “It feels dangerous and it's clearly getting more dangerous. It's hard to see a safe landing zone given the expectations that President Putin has created.”
British officials Tuesday said elements of a “Russian military advance force” are already active inside Ukraine. “We are becoming aware of a significant number of individuals that are assessed to be associated with Russian military advance force operations and currently located in Ukraine,” said James Heappey, Britain’s armed forces minister.
His remarks coincided with Ukraine’s SBU security service saying in a statement it had broken up a group of saboteurs preparing a series of destabilizing attacks along Ukraine's borders. The SBU said the saboteurs intended to target infrastructure “coordinated by Russian special services.”
Last week, the Pentagon accused Russia of preparing false flag attacks. “It has pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct what we call a false flag operation, an operation designed to look like an attack on them or Russian-speaking people in Ukraine as an excuse to go in,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington.
Russian officials deny any plans to invade Ukraine, despite their building up military forces along their neighbor’s borders, where Ukraine’s defense ministry estimates 127,000 troops have been deployed. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has dismissed accusations that Russia plans to stage an offensive, describing the charges as “hysteria.”
But as tensions soar in eastern Europe, some Western diplomats and analysts fear the geopolitical confrontation is approaching a point where it might be impossible to avoid conflict and Putin may have backed himself into a position where he has no off-ramp, if he is not to lose face.
Putin has long appeared set on challenging the outcome of the Cold War and eager to re-establish a Russian sphere of influence in eastern Europe. Maintaining influence over Ukraine and halting the country from joining NATO are crucial elements of that project.
“Vladimir Putin sees the current security architecture as both unacceptable and dangerous to Russia. It is unacceptable because it manifests a series of tightening military, political, and economic relationships between Ukraine and the West, and Putin sees the West as fundamentally hostile to Russia,” according to Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage of the German Marshall Fund, a Washington-based research group.
“What Putin wants is to unwind the tightening military, political, and economic relationships between Ukraine and the West. He realizes that this aim cannot be accomplished through persuasion alone,” they add.
Ukraine’s drift toward the West has long frustrated the Russian leader. In 2008, Putin told then-U.S. President George W. Bush, “You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country.” He has not shifted his view since. After annexing Crimea, and as separatist agitation encouraged by the Kremlin in eastern Ukraine intensified, Putin said, “Russians and Ukrainians are one people. Kyiv is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Russia is our common source, and we cannot live without each other.”
Last year the Russian leader wrote a 5,000-word tract, titled, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” in which he argued Ukraine can only be sovereign in partnership with Russia and has been weakened by the West's efforts to undermine Slav unity. One historian described the essay as a “call to arms.”
The rallying cry predates that essay, though. Back in November 2014 in Donetsk, newly arrived pro-Moscow fighters from Russia’s Caucasus region, mainly Chechens and Ossetians, were in no doubt as to why they were in Ukraine’s Donbas region, recently seized by a rag-tag collection of insurrectionists, separatists and unemployed youngsters.
As far as they were concerned, they were defending Mother Russia from NATO and reclaiming Ukraine. A bearded 28-year-old ethnic Ossetian, a bear of a man with a gnarled left ear and veteran of Russia’s 2008 five-day war against Georgia, told this correspondent, “Two of my grandparents were killed here in Ukraine during the Second World War fighting against the fascists, and I have to finish their work.”
He and his Ossetian comrades, seasoned combat fighters, claimed to be on leave from the Russian military. They said the Maidan uprising that toppled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of President Putin, nearly a decade ago, was the handiwork of NATO, the Americans and Europeans and all part of a plot against Russia.
“NATO bullied us in Georgia and now they are doing the same again here, and we have to stop them. This is the land of my ancestors, and I have to participate. If you don’t stop fascists, they grow, and when we have finished here in the Donbas, we will then go to Kyiv.”
The march on Kyiv never happened and the conflict remained limited to the Donbas, claiming from its outset more than 15,000 lives. Some fear Putin, who famously dubbed the collapse of the Soviet empire “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” might seriously be weighing an assault on Ukraine’s capital.
The Chechens, Ossetians and ethnic Russians arrived in large numbers in late 2014 to stiffen and organize local separatists and help them organize a pushback against a Ukrainian counter-offensive. They were parroting what they had heard from the Kremlin since Putin first took office in 1999, but which has led to a crescendo since 2008 that Russia is besieged by determined adversaries and was robbed when the Soviet Union collapsed, with the biggest theft being Ukraine.
That view, though, glides past the history of the breakup of the Soviet Union. It collapsed itself in the wake of a failed KGB coup to unseat Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev when Russia’s Boris Yeltsin and his counterparts in Ukraine and Belarus announced after meeting in December 1991: “the USSR as a subject of international law and geopolitical reality has ceased to exist.”
Western leaders had no hand in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, say authoritative historians, and it prompted the alarm of Western leaders, who worried about what would happen to the Soviet nuclear arsenal, which was spread out across Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Nonetheless, Putin “looks more determined than ever” to turn the clock back, says Frederick Kempe, president of the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based research group. He sees Putin as an opportunist testing the West but with a clear direction.
“The problem isn’t the nature of Putin’s next move but rather the troubling trajectory behind it, one that has included Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, its 2014 annexation of Crimea,” he says.