Vladimir Putin has suggested that a referendum by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, hitherto scheduled for May 11, should be postponed (Kyiv Post, May 7). This suggestion is already winning the Russian president praise in Moscow and the West; but it is, in fact, the latest example of his propensity to be too clever by half.
Given the probability that his suggestion will eventually be accepted on the ground, Putin’s words, like his April 17 statement that Russian military force had allowed Moscow to annex Crimea (https://eng.kremlin.ru/transcripts/7034), confirms what most Ukrainian and Western observers concluded long ago: the pro-Russian movement in eastern Ukraine, something not much in evidence before the start of this year, is an enterprise created, promoted and directed by Moscow.
That is something Putin has repeatedly denied, and many in Russia and some in the West have been prepared to accept his denials at face value for at least three reasons. First, it is certainly true that Russia has not sent massive military units across the Ukrainian border, and thus Russia’s subversion of Ukraine does not fit the classic definition of invasion. Therefore, some in both Russia and the West falsely conclude that there has not been any involvement by the Russian Federation at all. Putin’s latest statement—just like his earlier comments about Crimea—undercut those conclusions.
Second, all too many in Russia and the West have uncritically accepted Moscow’s insistence that Russian ethnic identity is strong in Ukraine and elsewhere, that those who speak Russian share a common political view, and that, therefore, it is entirely plausible that ethnic Russians or Russian speakers should want to become independent of Kyiv and even to join the Russian Federation.
But all three of these assumptions are without foundation. Russian ethnic identity is far weaker than many in Russia and the West assume. That is why some 3 million people in Ukraine who earlier declared themselves to be Russian when such declarations gave them special status in Soviet times have since re-identified as Ukrainians—a process that has occurred elsewhere as well (https://www.osw.waw.pl/sites/default/files/prace_40_en.pdf, pp. 16–17).
Moreover, the notion that those who speak Russian have a common political view is nonsensical upon examination. In Soviet times, almost all residents of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were forced to learn Russian; but that did not make them ethnic Russians. The willingness to accept the contrary is especially great among some genuinely ethnic Russians and among people in immigrant societies like the United States where language change often is closely tied to identity change. Moscow’s use of the terms “ethnic Russians,” “Russian speakers,” and “pro-Russians”—three distinct if overlapping groups—has only further muddied the waters, especially since much Western coverage does not distinguish among these, because the Russians do not.
And good polling data exists showing that residents of the oblasts of eastern Ukraine overwhelmingly—in most cases by four to one, or even more—want to remain in Ukraine rather than join the Russian Federation. But as evidence this week has shown, Moscow and its local proxies did not respect this reality in Crimea. New data demonstrates that fewer than one Crimean in six actually supported union with the Russian Federation, and not the 97 percent that Putin and many others have claimed or accepted (https://khpg.org/index.php?id=1398284516). Ironically, Moscow would certainly never have accepted such outcomes elsewhere in Russia. Again, Putin’s call for a postponement of such a referendum highlights exactly the opposite of what he is doing and intends.
And third, Putin can count on an eager audience in some Western capitals because what he has said is certain to be viewed, as The Guardian put it on May 7, as “a tactical retreat,” which is “likely to delay the imposition of a harsher round of economic penalties.” Indeed, it seems probable that some Western leaders will rush to triumphantly argue that the sanctions regime so far has been responsible for this outcome.
But that is simply wrong. Putin is engaged in the classic Leninist approach of two steps forward and one step back: He has absorbed Crimea and destabilized Ukraine and now will receive credit in some circles for being a peacemaker. He has made it more difficult for the West to come up with a united position because it is certain that some capitals will say this is not the time to push forward. Yet, he has left all his options on the table, not agreeing to any substantive change on Ukraine or anywhere else.
The only step forward is that Putin has now implicitly acknowledged as true something he has been claiming is false: Russia is militarily engaged in eastern Ukraine, and the Russian movements there are Moscow’s creation rather than an autonomous expression of the feelings of the population. Given the disjunction here and elsewhere between what Putin says and what he does, no one in the West should take great comfort from the Kremlin leader’s latest remark.