By Patricia H Kushlis
Whoever convinced Vladimir Putin that it would be a cup of afternoon tea by the samovar to send arms and irregulars into Ukraine in the name of "protecting" the greater Russian speaking population and then to hive off the country's east because its population would welcome them with rose petals and vodka should be off the Kremlin payroll. True, the takeover of Crimea had been all too easy and Russia's war with Georgia was a thing of the past. Eastern Ukraine, however, is turning out to be a different story.
A dangerous card game
It's not that the Russian special forces sent there were not battle hardened fighters – it’s clear from their backgrounds and swagger that they had had considerable experience on various killing fields at home and in the neighborhood apparently acting under Moscow's tutelage - if not command.
Presumably the decision to send them across the porous borders was only made after Ukrainians had had enough of the corrupt Viktor Yanukovich. Yanukovich who fled in the dark of night over the Russian border to save his skin had quietly done Moscow's bidding all the while living in secret splendor on an estate outside of Kiev. (Why is it that corrupt East European autocrats tend to prefer villas surrounded by fields and forests stocked with game and complete with zoos full of exotic animals?)
Yet the pursuit of one country's ultra-nationalist goals - whether on the cheap or otherwise - sets an entire region on edge. Especially when the mantra is the reestablishment of the Russian (or any other) Empire based on the all too friendly embrace of native speakers living outside the country’s borders.
Playing the nationalist card is popular for leaders, particularly those in trouble at home. This has been true for decades if not centuries. The problem comes when it's time to put that genie back into the bottle. The trick is how to stay in power without losing even greater credibility than before the divisive adventurism designed to shore up popularity among the home folk began.
Nationalism is after all about ethnicity which usually translates as linguistic, cultural and religious sameness. It has its purposes when used to protect the homeland from attack or internal disaster but when unleashed abroad it becomes a dangerous game with far reaching ramifications and unintended consequences.
In the real world, however, there is no ethnically pure country. Would someone please remind the Kremlin that this includes Russia itself. 81 percent of the Russian population is ethnically Russian. This leaves another 19 percent who are not. At least some living on this huge territory that stretches across 14 time zones would prefer to go their own way given the choice. At the very least, even Russian speakers living far from Moscow itch for the greater autonomy they had pre-Putin, when their governors were elected; not imposed from the center.