In the midst of the theater set up by Vladimir Putin to dramatically put February 21, 2022 in the spotlight in post-Cold War history, one detail caught our attention.
In his speech with considerations about the crisis, former president Dmitri Medvedev drew a parallel between the current situation and the one he lived in the Kremlin in 2008, when he warmed up his chair until 2012 for the return of Putin, then accommodated as prime minister.
He couldn’t be more right, and that suggests a very high-risk situation going forward.
The current crisis refers, of course, to the unfinished situation of the civil war that began after Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, to prevent the country’s entry into Western structures after the overthrow of the government that served him in Kiev.
But the current development seems to say more to the short five-day war the Kremlin waged in tiny Georgia in August 2008. At that time, the Russian “manu militari” was first used to try to curb western expansion over former communist satellites of the soviet empire.
In 2004, against unwritten promises, NATO encompassed three former Soviet republics and a handful of former Moscow puppet countries — in all, there are 14, whose withdrawal of offensive weapons from the alliance is one of the central points of the unenforceable ultimatum. issued by Putin in this 2022.
Like Ukraine, Georgia had two ethnically Russian-majority areas, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A mix of Russian pressure and the voluntarism of then-President Mikheil Saakashvili set his country on a collision course with Moscow.
The result was intervention by the Russians, who had mobilized tens of thousands of soldiers for a nearby military exercise. Sound familiar? It is no accident that the West has been in alarm since it saw the first of more than 150,000 troops moving around Ukraine’s borders.
The war was bad militarily for Putin, who saw his aviation humiliated in performance, but even by gravity, he won. Soon after the conflict, status quo resolved, the Kremlin tried to recognize the two entities as independent countries — as did some Russian allies.
In 2014, the story was similar in objective (stopping the West), but different in method. Crimea has been a Russian region for centuries, having been given to Ukraine on a whim by the Soviet leadership in 1954. Russian action to support separatists who staged a referendum ruled illegal by the United Nations was more subtle, in the form of infiltrated forces. —the proverbial “little green men”, with no flag in the armband.
It worked out. The second stage, the civil war, initially ignited Russian nationalist dreams of building the New Russia, an area that would unite the Rostov region with Crimea, passing through the Donbass.
The difficulties in the field and the very fact that absorbing that less homogeneous region would be a Herculean and priceless task kept Putin relatively distant, supporting the rebels in a non-decisive way.
What interested him was the freezing of the conflict and Ukraine’s status as a near-failed state, which in practice prevented it from entering both NATO and the European Union. In early 2021, fueled by the retaking of areas occupied by Armenians in the 1990s by Azerbaijan, Kiev attempted to threaten the Donbass militarily.
Putin bared his teeth in a swift mobilization, courtesy of the effective military reform that the near-fiasco of 2008 secured for his armed forces. But what was not clear was the “test-drive” character of that moment last April.
Moscow’s relationship with the separatists has always been somewhat turbulent, but now they have got what they wanted. By sending troops at their behest, as would obviously be the case, Putin takes a risky step further.
If he stays within the current border lines and militarizes the terrain, however, without claiming Ukrainian land from the former Lugansk and Donetsk provinces, he will have the opportunity to establish a victory for his strategic project without firing a shot.
Putin is counting on the US in aggressive mode, but refusing to talk about war on grounds of world conflict between nuclear powers. His forcible redrawing of the security reality in Eastern Europe is at hand, but much can still go wrong.