The democratic election of Petro Poroshenko is a good sign that Ukraine is on the path toward real reform, but so far there is no reason to believe that Putin and his agents in eastern Ukraine will respect the elections and cease their efforts to destabilize Ukraine’s delicate political balance.
Just days before the election, Alexandr Dugin, a Russian political theorist with many fans in the Kremlin (Putin reputedly among them), wrote a blog post titled “The Birth of New Russia” describing his vision for the region in southeastern Ukraine currently wracked by separatist violence.
In his post, Dugin rails against the “Jewish oligarchs,” “pro-American liberals,” and “Catholics, Protestants, and Schismatics” who he imagines are conspiring to oppress ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
Bizarrely, he describes separatist forces as engaged in “war with liberal Nazis.”
Dugin declares that “The battle for New Russia [southeastern Ukraine] as a special historical-political entity with fundamental meaning is the next phase of the geopolitical drama of Ukraine.”
With this statement Dugin reveals the Kremlin’s phased strategy to keep Ukraine chained to Russia and unable to pursue its democratically demonstrated desire for European integration.
Or as he calls it, the “geopolitical drama of Ukraine.”
Phase one was backing Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s ousted president who enriched himself and his family while dozens of Maidan protesters were being killed by the SWAT-like Berkut special police unit.
Phase two, after Yanukovych was forced to flee the country and Berkut dismantled, was the invasion of Crimea.
The use of overt military force marks this phase as the most flagrantly disrespectful of international law and norms.
Phase three was the purposeful disruption of Ukrainian democracy in the run-up to the May 25 presidential elections.
This included the sham referendums in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk, as well as preventing as much as 14% of Ukraine’s population from voting for president.
Though Putin claimed not to be in control of the militias that burned ballot boxes and turned voters away at gunpoint, the Kremlin’s meddling was obvious.
The “next phase,” as Dugin has informed us, is the “battle for New Russia,” a tsarist term that Putin has resurrected to refer to the parts of Ukraine where most Russian-speakers live.
This battle extends beyond diplomacy to actual warfare, and since the elections roughly fifty people have died in combat including a Ukrainian general whose helicopter was shot down by separatists using a Russian-made anti-aircraft system.
It is clear from the actions of pro-Russian militias and the rhetoric of the Kremlin’s ideologues that Russia’s sights remain set on eastern Ukraine.
If the Ukrainian military deploys overwhelming force to squash separatists, Putin will simply move on to a subsequent phase of his plan to control Ukraine, perhaps resuming his threats to cut off gas supplies as winter looms.
It is tempting to think that the election of Poroshenko has turned the tide against Putin.
Indeed, simply holding a free election at Putin’s doorstep has been a scathing repudiation of his quasi-authoritarian regime.
But until strong leadership from the West convinces Russia to back off, Putin will continue to execute his plan to keep Ukraine fractious, unstable, and at the mercy of the Kremlin.