Reports from Ukraine’s security services — allowing for the usual fog of war — that known fighting elements from Moldova’s breakaway Transdniester region have been active in Eastern Ukraine are a sign of several, related, ominous developments in the recent efforts by Russian President Vladimir Putin to resurrect a Russian Empire. They are also a warning to a West still diddling with sanctions that one empire is still playing a great game, and sees modern finance is merely one weapon in its arsenal.
The disconnect here — and why troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been seen in Crimea and Odessa as well — is that the Brits and French have forgotten how empires work, and the rest of the West have more or less never really understood them in the first place.
The first rule of Empire is that one need not waste one’s own citizens to expand it when there are willing or unwilling vassals to be had. Undoubtedly, some of the men working in Eastern Ukraine are Russian by birth or by choice; but a significant number are almost certainly transplanted Moldovans, Georgians, Kazakhs, Belarussians, and so on, who for pay, for sincere beliefs, or for some combination are willing weapons in Putin’s expansionist plans. More importantly, some are undoubtedly Ukrainians wearing obvious Russian military uniforms, traitors who either for money or belief are helping to enhance Putin’s purported strength on the ground.
That in turn leads to the second rule of Empire: Perceptions create realities on the ground. The West’s perception that there was no way to stop the annexation of Ukraine made it a fait accompli. The perception that Russia is actively in Ukraine — no matter how true — magnifies the perception of its power and reach, and makes opposing responses harder to generate from a sense of futility. If Russia is everywhere, inside and out, there are few ways to stop it.
The third rule of Empire is that one need not occupy to control. Ukraine and Moldova and Georgia and the Baltics and … all know that they face the loss of important industrial and population strength. This means that Russia need not annex breakaway or problem regions to control them — or the countries in which they are located. The power of destruction is the power of control, and Vladimir Putin knows this even if the West has forgotten it.
The final relevant rule of Empire is that years pass and the world moves on. What is today’s outrage is tomorrow’s historical footnote, especially in the West. In the East, centuries-old sleights can lead to genocides. The West has already basically accepted the loss of Crimea; what’s a few Ukrainian oblasts after that? Financial sanctions will only last until a new leadership comes in, as the West has demonstrated in Syria, Iran, China, the list goes on at length. Survive the outrage, stake out your position, and wait for your enemy to crumble within.
This is the obvious game Russia plays today, and a game in which the West refuses to participate. Ukraine has begged for assistance since Viktor Yanukovych prayed for rescue from an increasingly aggressive Russia, to no avail. The stakes are growing with each provocation, and the West, especially the EU, must act before the stakes reach the stage of a full on continent-wide war — or worse, a Russian slave empire without any significant shots fired.
Today, Ukraine stands on the brink; tomorrow, Russia’s near-abroad. It is time to understand this and react with every tool in the West’s arsenal, if Kiev and the rest are to be saved.
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