Can Putin stop the war?
In a scramble to cover up for their own lack of policy on how to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, Western political leaders keep repeating, ‘Putin can stop the war!’ writes Professor Stefan Hedlund.
Since the Russian president refuses to do so, he must be evil. And with that in mind, the media goes to town portraying him as a ‘Pariah!’
Or he is simply not behaving rationally? US President Barack Obama recently stated, ‘Sometimes people don’t always act rationally.’ His comment shows just how shallow and misguided the Western reading of the crisis is.
The logic is that sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union will make it more costly for the Kremlin to maintain its support for the rebels. It will be forced to recompute and to change its business strategy. To the Wall Street brokers that surround Mr Obama, this would come across as perfectly rational.
Absolving the West from any share in the blame is all very convenient. But is there really any truth in the assertion that Vladimir Putin can stop the war? Would it really be possible for him to stand idly by while the Ukrainian army burns out the rebellion, killing thousands in the process, and then moves on to arrest or kill all the Russian security officials that have been acting as the rebels’ leaders?
As anyone with even remote understanding of Russia will tell you, reality is not that simple. Russians have a deep emotional attachment to Ukraine. They also have a very different view of what caused the crisis. They overwhelmingly believe that their country is on the right path, as shown in numerous opion polls. And they overwhelmingly support Mr Putin.
His most recent approval rate was 87 per cent, something Mr Obama cannot even dream of. Two-thirds of Russians say the country is heading in the right direction, and 85 per cent believe Kiev is mostly, or wholly, to blame.
Meanwhile, appreciation of the West has plummeted. Between January and June, the percentage professing dislike for America rose from 44 to 74, and those in favour dropped from 43 to 18. Negative feelings about the EU have also risen, from 20 per cent before the crisis to 60 per cent today.
There are two important lessons to be drawn from these numbers.
The first, and the most damning, is that the official Russian version of who is to blame has some merit. The US administration in particular has made a determined effort to promote regime change in Ukraine, to dictate who would be in the new government, and to ensure that Russia was denied any influence. Russian propaganda has made much of this.
The second is that if an overwhelming majority of the Russian people feels that their leader in Moscow is on the right path, why would others expect him to move against their will - just because the outside world says so?
Most would probably agree that a genuine solution must entail offering some form of ‘side road’ that allows the Kremlin to divert and withdraw without appearing to have surrendered.
This was true in February 2014 and it is true today. The only difference is that the damage caused by the refusal to negotiate is mindboggling. And it is far from over yet.