At the end of the Coen brothers’ classic 1996 film, Fargo, the intrepid law enforcement officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) famously addresses the less-than-competent bad guy after she’s arrested him:
And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.
One might say the same thing about the less-than-competent bad guy who is president of Russia, Vladimir Putin: And for what? What, exactly, has Putin accomplished by stoking fires in Ukraine, illegally annexing Crimea, mobilizing Russian forces on Ukraine’s border, backing thuggish separatists who’ve created ersatz “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine, bringing economic sanctions down on Russia, and destroying whatever good will Russia had built up by hosting the Sochi Winter Olympics? Well. I just don’t understand it.
There’s reason to be optimistic, of course, that the fighting in Ukraine will wind down, that an accord will be reached, and that the surprise talks between Kiev and at least some of the rebels will succeed.
But the entire crisis might have been avoided if Russia hadn’t gotten its britches in an uproar just because Ukraine—run, by the way, back in 2013 by a corrupt but mostly pro-Russian wheeler-dealer—wanted to sign an association agreement with the European Union. For most Ukrainians, linking up with the EU was a no-brainer—after all, what Ukrainian in his right mind, if that mind weren’t clouded by pro-Russian political or religious ideology, would prefer to tie Ukraine’s economy to the crumbling Russian one and its powerful economic alliance with, well, Kazakhstan? Now, after all the hubbub, the new president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko—far less pro-Russian than his predecessor, though still a wheeler-dealer and probably corrupt—says that he’ll sign an association agreement with the EU on June 27.
Of course, none of that means that the Ukraine crisis is over, just yet. For reasons that remain unclear, in terms of what he can accomplish, Putin is still apparently keeping the flame of rebellion in eastern Ukraine flickering, even secretly supplying the rebels there with a limited number of tanks and heavy weapons. The Kremlin is still making a fuss about the idea of Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, and Russia can create trouble in breakaway mini-republics in all three countries. Still, it seems obvious that every move that Putin has made has backfired, blown up in his face, and made things worse for him—except, perhaps, at home, where Putin has rallied ultranationalists, ex-CPSU types and the religious right to his side. But by creating a crisis over Ukraine, Putin has thrown a handful of monkey wrenches into relations between Russia and both Europe and the United States, allowed Washington to pressure the Europeans to increase military spending, strengthened advocates of NATO on both sides of the Atlantic, given hawks new leverage in the United States against President Obama’s more cautious foreign policy, and more. Way to go, Vlad!
As The Washington Post, in reporting the new efforts between the EU and the three eastern European nations, noted:
Russia’s moves have spurred neighbors to reorient westward even more quickly than they were contemplating. The deal-signing date for Moldova and Georgia was pushed up to June. Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, said he wanted to sign at the same time. Other countries with close ties to Russia also have become more cautious about binding themselves to their neighbor. Belarus and Kazakhstan signed a treaty in May establishing the Eurasian Union, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s signature attempt to build a Russian-led counterweight to the European Union, but it contains fewer provisions for political integration than he had initially sought.
Putin, who’s blinked and blinked again during the crisis, is sending mixed signals, and it’s unclear if and how he’ll react to the EU signings. On one hand, he’s been speaking regularly with Poroshenko—yesterday, together with the leaders of Germany and France—and he’s endorsed the idea of a cease-fire and peace talks between Kiev and the rebels. And in a symbolic act—though not a practical one—Putin has asked Russia’s parliament to withdraw its authorization for Russia to invade Ukraine. On the other hand, however, the Russians have apparently moved military units back to the Ukrainian border, after having withdrawn most of them earlier, and according to US officials Russia is allowing some heavy weapons, including tanks, to move across the border into the rebels’ hands. Worse, the rebels seem to have gotten their hands on some sophisticated antiaircraft weapons, which they’ve used to deadly effect.
So what is Putin trying to accomplish, given everything that the Ukraine crisis has cost him? Despite some fears that Russia wanted to swallow Ukraine whole, à la Crimea—never a likely outcome—it seems obvious that Putin is in part trapped by and in part fueling the almost romantic and religious ties between Russia and Ukraine. Is it to create a mini-state inside Ukraine that will weaken Kiev and give Russia leverage over the country? Is it something else? Time will tell.