The weakness of Putin in Ukraine

"If I want to, I can take Kiev in two weeks." These words pronounced by Putin to European Commission President Barroso and reported during last Saturday’s summit made blood run cold in the EU members veins.

Photo Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images

The Kremlin's policy in Ukraine keeps for months Europe under attack, and for many this is the demonstration of western against Russia. However, it could also be the clearest demonstration of the weakness of Putin.

If Putin took the Crimea in a few days (as it was) and really could get to Kiev in two weeks (as it might be), then why the Kremlin is embroiled in a proxy war in Donbass that has not brought any advantage so far? The Ato, the Kiev anti-terrorist operation to regain power in the eastern provinces under the control of the separatists, has scored one success after another in the last two months, since the presidency of Poroshenko and the turnover of military heads gave new impetus. Novorossija, the federation of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, has turned into a Nanorossija whose boundaries barely coincide with the outskirts of the two cities. Moreover, while the military involvement of Moscow makes every day more obvious and difficult to deny (as it had been in the Crimea with the "little green men"), beyond some victories scored in the last days, the separatist forces are a step away from defeat. Putin sent a few thousand paratroopers in a maskirovka operation on the shores of Azov sea, but he would need more than that to reverse the outcome of the conflict. The truth is probably that Russia cannot invade Ukraine.

Thousands of body bags

There are some aspects sometimes overlooked. Despite the overwhelming military superiority of Russia, the invasion of Ukraine requires the use of military resources that perhaps even Putin cannot have without being accountable to his inner circle. Certainly a few thousand paratroopers in a hidden task would not be enough. A large-scale invasion would meet stiff military resistance (like the success of ATO and the massive participation of volunteers sugest) but also a civil resistance. Ukrainians have proved in the days of Maidan a great capacity for organization and cohesion against the enemy, and even now the ATO could not properly work without the civil support, from medical volunteers to fundraisers for the army. The history of Ukraine is imbued with partisan heroism against the Soviet invader. A few days ago a source in the Interior Ministry in Kiev is reported to have said: "Let's let them try to take Mariupol, they will see trucks filled with body bags coming back." Are Russian mothers ready to give Putin other young lives, as happened in Chechnya?

There is another option. Putin may not be interested to invade Ukraine, but only to get his hands on the Donbass, or even just to keep the frozen conflict. Not mentioning the costs and benefits of the annexation of a region that is economically devastated, heavily depopulated, industrially deindustrialized and with a network infrastructure to be rebuilt, again Putin's Russia may not have the energy necessary to reach the goal. It depends on us.

Mother Teresa and Al Capone

Alexander Motyl, a professor at Rutgers University of New Jersey and author of numerous books on post-Soviet affairs, talking at Brian Whitmore’s Power Vertical, summed up the situation with a great metaphor. "It is clear that Putin prefers force to negotiations," he said. "If in a game between Mother Teresa and Al Capone, the latter sets the rules, he will win." Who makes the rules of the game? So far, Russia has definitely tried to forcibly impose its stance, but the Western response has been luckily in the other direction, and with some results. Despite what the more interventionist are repeating, European and American sanctions are getting their due, and the proof is given by counter-sanctions issued by Russia. If they were, as they say, ineffective they would not require any reaction. The international isolation in which Moscow is sinking - in spite of the propaganda - could become too high a price.

Lithuania and Poland, whose historical relations with Russia are rather conflictual, would probably have already declared war to Russia. But history doesn’t always repeat. The comparison with Germany of 1938 makes no sense because, if it is true that the Third Reich could have been stopped with force before it became a military power, avoiding a war that costed 70 million deaths, it is also true that Russia is already a military power, and nuclear one too. Nor does the comparison with 1989 and the struggle of the small Baltics against the Soviet giant: when Moscow tanks invaded to Vilnius for eight months, no one made war to the USSR and neither Europe nor NATO sent their troops.

If western countries escalate the conflict, they will find in Russia an unscrupulous player always ready to raise. But if the rules of the game are set by a Europe (and America) firmly committed to resolving the conflict without use of force, the game may be too tough even for Al Capone.

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