Sleight of Hand

We all know the trick. The magician gets you to look at his hand, the coin disappears only to reappear later somewhere you least expect it.

For days we agonised over the contents of the ‘humanitarian’ convey about to enter the Ukraine. All our eyes were on it, guns or food?  Guns or food?  And then the master craftsman, the genius of deception, moves (or didn’t) his forces into the very south of the Ukraine, opening another front in this ever more volatile war.

Putin is a bit of a genius. One has to admire his ability to deceive, to distract, and now to deploy.  For months he has peppered special forces into the Ukraine, and the west has been pretty silent.  Initially it was a big gamble, Putin calculated that the West, especially America, would be pretty silent.

Why would he think this?  Well, president Bashar-al-assad managed to get away with murder (literally) this time last year.  Despite talks of ‘a line in the sand’, nothing of consequence really happened.  Bashar-al-Assad is still in power, no-one has ever stood trial for the chemical attack outside Damascus last year.

For months now Putin has been behind a steady stream of Russian troops and equipment into the Ukraine.  A friend of mine is originally from one of the areas currently in the middle of the fighting.  His mother still lives there, and provides some very interesting information.

They live about 30 KM from the Russian border, and at about 4 AM many mornings the tanks and equipment begin to pass.  Local people do not know any of the pro-Russian fighters. Recently, a trolleybus was run over by a tank.  Another day she saw a bus swerve into a bush so as to avoid an armoured column.  And the tanks in that column were all freshly painted.

At this stage it’s hard to guess what Putin’s end game is.  But it is certain that he’s not going to back down.  Hard to believe, but for the first time in a long time, a Russian/Soviet leader has uttered the threat of nuclear weapons.

God help us all.

In the meantime the master-illusionist has his home audience dazzled and eating out of his hand.  One of the big newspapers in Russia is Pravda.  Look at it’s homepage and you will see articles such as ‘Ukraine prepares to steal Russian Gas Legally’,USA or United Totalitarian Police States‘, or (cruelly) ‘James Foley Execution Video Hoax?’

And what will the West do to oppose him?  Against a fast-moving army, our politicians spend days talking about sanctions.  More needs to be done, lest more people die as pawns in his game.

<Note: Pravda accessed online 30/08/2014>

Russia vows no Invasion?

Apparently the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov has promised that Russia has no intention of sending troops into Ukraine.


I’d be inclined to take that one with a grain of salt.  You see, Mr. Lavrov may be speaking English, but it’s not as we know it.

When the first signs of troops started spreading around strategic installations in the Crimea they were wearing no insignia.  Moscow went as far as to deny its having any troops in the Crimea (apart from those on Russian bases there).

Those troops were, helpfully, a ‘local militia’ who just happened to be very organised, disciplined and pro-Russian.

Russia then offered all help to the Crimea as the Russian ethnic group there was under attack.  Next came the political maneuverings, create a new parliament while the militia guards it, elect a new president, and vote for a referendum to take place 10 days later.  10 days.

Only after the referendum was passed by the incredible majority of 95.6% (Wiki here), did the Russian parliament ratify the result and move in.  By this time, according to Russian Law, the Crimea was Russian territory.

So, you see, Russia never invaded the Crimea.  It was, by their logic, all voluntary, all above board.

So, when Mr. Lavrov says Russia has no intention of invading, I’d be inclined to take that one with a pinch of salt.

Why Putin will win at home

Only the terminally uninterested in the world around them are currently unaware of what’s happening in the Ukraine at the moment.  Following the ousting of President Yanukovych last week Russia has moved troops into the Crimea, and now the world is on a brink wondering how far this game will go.

How did thing get to this point? And what does Putin stand to gain?

The Rise of Putin

I lived in Russia from late 1998 to 2000, and for part of that time, Boris Yeltsin was president.  When he first became president, Yeltsin was a hero.  he, after all, was the man who stood on a tank to defend democracy.  However, later in his Presidency Russia defaulted on foreign debt, and the currency crashed by a factor of 4 in August 2008.  Things were grim.  Yeltsin, by now was a joke. The man who would dance on stage with a girl-band; fail to get off a plane in Shannon; the man who lost respect on the world stage.

Yeltsin on the tank outside the Russian ParlimentYeltsin onstage


How people imagined Yeltsin's tomb would be

Enter Vladimir Putin.

Yeltsin appointed Putin as his Prime Minister in August 1999.  On 31st December 1999 Yeltsin resigned unexpectedly, leaving Putin as acting president.

So, Putin takes power at a time when Russia was in a bad way.  At the time many states there were receiving emergency food aid from the United States.  Bribery & corruption were rampant, the head of the country had been a joke.

The economy was a shambles.  For example, the wage for teachers at the time was about 200 roubles per week, or about €6.  To add insult to that injury teachers wages were often months overdue.

Add to all of this the belief of many Russians that ‘Russia Needs A Strong Leader’.  When I was there you would see the occasional march in memory of Stalin.  They conveniently forget that Stalin managed to kill more Russians than Hitler did. 

In his time in power Putin has changed a lot for normal Russians.  Wages there are pretty good now.  People have access to the benefits of having a good economy.  People have pride in their country.  Also, they have a president who potrays the image of the Real Russian Man.  he swims in ice, he practices Judo, he’s sober.

It’s Never That Simple, Really.

Under Putin democracy has suffered.  He has been in effective control since 2000.  He now controls the media, and that brings a lot of power.  Think about it.  State only media in your own language.  People don’t go so much for the foreign news outlets because of the language barrier.

So Russian people only get an approved version of what’s happening.  Anywhere.

Many of Putin’s actions can be understood if you look at his view of what Russia is.  His dream is of a strong and proud Russia.  And I think that for him ‘Respect‘ can equate to ‘Fear of’.  So:

  • Russia standing up for President Bashir in Syria?  Russia gains by having a friendly regime in the area, as well as being seen as a player on the world stage.
  • Russia having the most expensive Olympics ever?  Pride on the world stage.
  • Russia banning homosexuality?  Doesn’t fit into Putin’s image of a proud & pure Russia.

How does this relate to The Ukraine?

When the Ukraine tried to forge closer ties with Europe last year this offended Putin’s vision. He wanted an alliance centred around Russia.  Here was a country with a large Russian speaking population turning their backs on Mother Russia. Cue the Russian Speaking President Yanukovych from near the Russian border.  The president cut the move towards Europe and went for the Russian offer of cheap gas.

This led to the protests that eventually led to his overthrow last week.

In Russia the people get a different story to what we get in the West.

  • Ethnic Russians are being attacked
  • There was a revolution
  • Our bases in the Crimea are under threat
  • There is chaos on our doorstep and we must move to stabilise the situation

And the West?

Well.  There’s not a lot really that the West can do.  Nobody wants to see an all-out war between Russia and the West.  Even sanctions will have limited effect.  Yes, the G8 members may boycott Sochi.  Yes, the paralympics could even be boycotted.  Yes there could be all sorts of diplomatic messages sent.

Putin will ignore the lot.  And why? Because he chooses what the people at home will be told.

When this is over, however it ends, Putin believes he will have strengthened the image of a strong and proud Russia.  And that is just the message that the Russian people will hear.  Will they believe it?  Absolutely.  After all, this  is the man who has brought them more wealth and stability.