In a three-hour refueling layover in Ukraine on Sunday US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson scored a little-noticed judo flip on that judo master, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Suddenly the big question is no longer last week’s worry in the West about whether US President Donald Trump might reach a strongman deal with Putin that would sacrifice Ukrainians to Moscow’s dominance in return for a vague promise of Russian restraint in, say, Syria. Instead, for Putin the big question this week is (once again) his dread that Ukrainians’ enthusiasm for Western democracy and rule of law might infect his own Russian subjects.
As a Newsweek headline put it, “Despite Cosy Trump-Putin Summit, Tillerson Zaps Russia, Backs Ukraine.”
In other words, Putin’s own strength of will and military brashness when he started his undeclared war on Ukraine in 2014 by annexing Crimea has now become a vulnerability in 2017. The West, which has recently been reeling under Putin’s spoiler attacks on Europe’s 70-year-old regime of peace and integration, is starting to rediscover its own resilience. And Putin is rediscovering the fundamental weakness of Russia’s economy and politics that is exposed by the Ukrainian defection from centuries of East Slav fraternity, with Russians the elder and Ukrainians the younger brothers.
Certainly Putin has already noticed that jingoist pride in seizing neighbors’ land is losing some of its mobilizing power inside Russia. Alexei Navalny’s nascent campaign to run against Putin in Russia’s next presidential election is gaining in strength, and while Navalny by no means opposes Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, the growing popularity of an independent challenger to Putin would have been unthinkable during the euphoria of Crimean annexation in 2014.
Putin, an old KGB hand who will never understand the self-organizing power of Ukraine’s vibrant civil society, may believe his own propaganda and attribute this result to manipulation by Ukrainian and Western secret services. He does not grasp that he himself was the one who united Ukrainians in a historically unprecedented anti-Russian identity by warring on them over the past three years, at a cost of more than 10,000 dead and 1.8 million Ukrainian refugees. By now even Russian- speaking Ukrainians in the eastern part of the counry who long mistrusted western Ukrainians, are converging with their compatriots for an overall 57 percent who hold “cold” or “very cold” feelings toward Russia.
Tillerson achieved his over-the-shoulder flip by making four points in Kiev. First, he said flatly that Washington will not lift the financial sanctions it imposed on crucial Western investment in Russia after Moscow annexed Crimea until Russia returns the land it grabbed from Ukraine.
Second, he signaled that the US is finally bringing its muscle to the desultory “Minsk” peace talks on the “separatist” eastern Donbas that is in fact controlled by 5000-to-10,000 rotating Russian troops — and that Moscow must take the first step in stopping violations of the Minsk ceasefire agreements of 2014 and 2015 there. In Berlin this new American engagement is welcome after President Barack Obama basically outsourced Ukraine policy over the past three years to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Third, Tillerson brought to Kiev with him Kurt Volker, his freshly minted US Special Envoy for Peace Negotiations in Ukraine, to stay close to the situation on the ground. Volker is a protégé of Sen. John McCain, and, like McCain, publicly endorsed delivering defensive weapons to Kiev in 2014 and campaigned against letting Putin “[call] NATO’s bluff.” Given the present public mood of disengagement from world leadership in the US, Volker won’t be calling for NATO action against Russia, but he will surely revive the debate about providing high-tech defensive weapons to Ukraine’s surprisingly robust army.
Fourth, Tillerson is now reviving the alliance between the West’s financiers of the pro-Western regime in Kiev and the embattled young reformers in Ukraine’s parliament, media, and civil society. In the absence of existing democratic institutions, this is the only engine that can make reforms go deep enough to break out of the business-political collusion that has not yet been rooted out in Ukraine. In this copact the reformers provide the local intelligence; the West withholds money if reforms continue to be blocked. Tillerson publicly warned President Petro Poroshenko and other oligarchs that if they continue to balk on purging the couts of corrupt judges and ensuring rule of law, Western investors will not put their money into Ukraine.
Pointedly, even before he met with Poroshenko, Tillerson met first with young reformers, including Mustafa Nayyem, the Afghani Ukrainian who started the Maidan demonsrations four years ago that toppled the old regime.
Tillerson’s gamble could, of course, be halted by one contrary 3 a.m. tweet from his boss. But until that happens, the Secretary of State is creating a new fait accompli on the ground in Ukraine that is no doubt catching the Kremlin’s attention.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and author.