Incoherent or Masterfully Erratic? Putin’s Six Contradictions in Ukraine

Russia’s involvement in Ukraine has been riddled with contradictions, including statements, actions, alleged motivations, and poll results that jar with one another. For example, officials first denied involvement in Crimea while justifying involvement in Crimea; then Putin admitted troops were involved. Putin said Russian troops would withdraw from Ukraine’s border but had until then denied there was a troop buildup at the border. And so on. It’s difficult to make sense of these things. Maybe it is part of Putin’s strategy to be unpredictable; or maybe the Russian strategy really isn’t as coherent as it appears (viewed this way, Russia’s success would have more to do with Ukrainian weakness than Russian aptitude).

Anyhow, here are Six Contradictions regarding Russian intervention in Ukraine:

  1. Celebrations in Sochi and Soldiers in Crimea: The juxtaposition between an international ceremony celebrating peaceful competition among states and an invasion upending the international order as we know it could hardly be more striking. As Henry Kissinger points out in an interview with Fareed Zakaria, “He [Putin] spent $60 billion on the Olympics. They had opening and closing ceremonies, trying to show Russia as a normal progressive state. So it isn’t possible that he, three days later, would voluntarily start an assault on Ukraine.” Rather than being a long-conceived assault, the Crimean takeover was much more likely to have been an “emergency response” to events in Ukraine pushing it away from Russian orbit.
  2. Why intervene? In the 1990s Russia signed a treaty affirming the integrity of Ukrainian sovereignty throughout its borders in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons. To justify breaking this promise, Russian officials have pointed to two things: 1) Protecting Russian speakers from “ultra-nationalist” violence, a problem deemed “overblown” by Putin’s own human rights advisory council, which urged against the deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine. 2) A letter written to the Russian minister to the UN by deposed Ukrainian President Yanukovych, who was recommended to the ICC by the Ukrainian Parliament on charges of mass murder and crimes against humanity. A day before writing the letter, on Feb 28 2014, Yanukovych told reporters he had no intention of inviting Russia to intervene. In April, he told reporters that he regrets that decision and will press Putin to return Crimea to Russia.
  3. Whose troops? On March 5, Russia’s foreign minister and defense minister called various reports and evidence of Russian troops in Crimea “complete nonsense” and “provocation.” Russia’s state-owned RT network blamed the mainstream media for fabrication and maintained that gunmen in Crimea were local self-defense forces. Putin contended the same. Then, on April 17th, he admitted that Russian troops had deployed to Crimea after all. (What I think is really odd about this is that Russia was simultaneously providing reasons for why it was right to intervene while denying it had intervened).
  4. Pull back of non-existent troops on border? In early May, Putin announced that the 40,000 Russian troops deployed to the border with Ukraine would pull back, though a NATO official said nothing had changed. Until then, Russia had denied any buildup was occurring, even in the face of satellite images provided by NATO showing helicopters, troops, tanks, and artillery on the border.
  5. Crimea poll numbers fudged: Business Insider puts it succinctly: “Official Kremlin results: 97% for annexation, turnout of 83%, and 82% of all Crimeans voting in favor. Putin’s Human Rights Council Report: 50-60% for annexation, turnout 30-50%, and 15-30% of all Crimeans voting in favor.”
  6. Donetsk and Luhansk polls: Separatists report that 80% of voters in Donetsk and 96% in Luhansk supported independence. There are a variety of reasons to think these numbers are bogus. Here is one of them: Independent polls paint a far different picture of opinion in these regions: According to the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, about 60% of those in Luhansk and 70% in Donetsk disagreed with the statement that Ukraine violated the rights of Russian speakers. Less than 30% wanted their country to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, and less than 20% in these regions supported Russian troops in Ukraine. Most people in Donetsk and Luhansk wanted greater decentralization or a federation within the Ukrainian state. Very few said they supported armed groups seizing buildings or endorsed taking up arms to fight for unification with Russia. Other independent polls echo these results – for example, just 37% of Ukrainians in the Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv regions support an alliance with Russia, compared to 49% who supported an alliance with the EU, according to a CNN poll. According to Pew, “A majority of east Ukraine also wants to be one country (70%), including nearly six-in-ten Russian-only speakers (58%).” Meanwhile, Russian-backed separatists push for joining Russia, in clear contrast to all the evidence of independent pollsters.