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Brian Bonner: Putin's big mistake

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March 2, 2014, 12:25 a.m. | Op-ed — by Brian Bonner

Activists of the Russian "National Liberation Movement", one wearing a vest with a picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin, attend a rally to hand out leaflets in the industrial Ukrainian city of Donetsk on March 1, 2014. More than 10,000 people carrying Russian flags protested in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, the stronghold of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych. Protesters declared they supported "the aspirations of Crimea to rejoin Russia", referring to Ukraine's pro-Russia peninsula further south where Kiev has accused Moscow of launching an "armed invasion." AFP PHOTO/ ALEXANDER KHUDOTEPLY
© AFP

Brian Bonner

Brian Bonner has served as the chief editor of the Kyiv Post since 2008. He also held the job in 1999, three years after first arriving in Ukraine to teach journalism. Bonner is a veteran American journalist who spent most of his professional life with the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota, where he covered international, national and local news during a nearly 24-year career in which he was a staff writer and an assigning editor. For American newspapers, he has reported from abroad in Russia, Ukraine, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Laos. Bonner left the St. Paul newspaper in 2007 to become the associate director of international communications at the Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington, D.C. He also worked as a member of the core teams with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe during six election observation missions in Ukraine, Belarus, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. To contact: email bribonner@gmail.com, Facebook at www.facebook.com/brianbonner, Twitter @BSBonner, Skype at brian.bonner1959.

So now we know what Vladimir Putin really thinks about the EuroMaidan Revolution.

After several days of silence, interrupted by a fake diplomatic initiative to work with Ukraine's new rulers, the little Russian tyrant showed once again that he's a man of action.

His vanity Sochi Winter Olympics ended on Feb. 23, giving Putin time to focus his bottomless hatred on the next object of his ire: the fact that Ukraine remains an independent nation.

His disdain for Ukrainian sovereignty is legendary, with dismissive asides about how Ukraine's contribution to World War II wasn't needed and his 2008 lecture to U.S. President George W. Bush about how Ukraine isn't a real country.

This is a guy who knows how to exploit weakness where he sees it -- and there was plenty to see in Ukraine's chaotic crisis of the last three months.

At the same time Putin's soldiers were seizing Crimean strategic assets, I was predicting to an interviewer that I didn't think he would actually do it. Sure I feel silly about being wrong, but the reason is that I didn't think anybody would do something so dumb, even Putin. He must have been really worried that the new government would revoke the Russian naval base in Crimea, which is exactly what it should do.

His seizure of Crimea will get him nothing, except the enmity of most of Ukraine's 45 million people. Does he really want to rule over more people who cannot stand him? I'm tempted here to insert all the jokes about Crimea, that he can have it and maybe he can do something about the lousy summer service and dirty beaches. But nobody's in a joking mood now.

Putin's disdain for the EuroMaidan Revolution oozes in his state-controlled media. Because Russia Today was doing a live broadcast/simultaneous translation of the Russian Federation Council's "debate" over Putin's request to use military force in Ukraine on March 1, I was forced to endure the Kremlin-funded station's propaganda.

I have to admit, if I were not a critically thinking person and I had no access to other information, I might hate the EuroMaidan Revolution as much as Russia Today's "international experts" who denounced the toppling of Viktor Yanukovych's presidency as a Western-funded putsch by anti-Semitic, fascist, neo-Nazis who plan to take their revolution to Russia. (Message to anyone who works at Russia Today: How do you sleep at night after spending your days peddling such dishonesty?") 

Russia Today is Russia's version of America's Fox News, only venerating Putin is the main editorial policy. The station's entire existence shows how paranoid Putin is about any democratic movements in his neighborhood.

However, the record will likely show that Ukraine's new leaders committed at least four immediate blunders that contributed to the situation that exists today:

1. They failed to catch Yanukovych on the way to Russia. He should have been an easy catch. Now Ukraine has to live with the specter -- however remote -- that he will return someday. Fortunately, Putin has had the good sense to keep his distance from Ukraine's former president in public, even though he shouldn't be harboring a man suspected of mass murder and mass financial corruption;

2. Disbanding the hated Berkut riot police may go down in history as a blunder akin to the United States' disbanding of security forces loyal to deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. With that one move, Ukraine's new leaders threw out onto the street a hate-filled, violence-soaked and highly trained group of killers.

3. Recognizing reality. After victory, Ukraine's new leaders should have made a quick trip to Moscow to assure Putin that what he thinks about the EuroMaidan Revolution is wrong. Moreover, considering the enormous debts that Ukraine owes to Russia, as well as the deep historical, cultural and economic ties, a sovereign Ukraine still needs to understand that the two nations are inextricably linked.

4. Passing a language law that downgraded Russian from its previous status as an official language. This is really, really bad timing and pointless amid a national crisis, aside from the fact that the law ignores the reality that much of the nation still prefers to speak Russian.

Putin's grand mistake, however, may work out in Ukraine's favor soon in at least three ways.

For one, the West should come to realize, once and for all, that there's no doing business with Putin. As long as he keeps the finger off the nuclear weapon trigger, another Cold War against him is fine and will help the world if it leads Russians to get rid of him also.

Secondly, Yulia Tymoshenko is back on the case. As despised as she is by some people, the newly freed former prime minister knows how to talk to Putin and rally her nation. Look for tactics that are more Gandhi than Genghis Khan.

Thirdly, Ukraine's EuroMaidan Revolution masked a lot of divisions by the participants that now seem petty in comparison to the need to defend the nation's sovereignty from attack.

But clearly Ukraine's new interim leaders and the West, led by U.S. President Barack Obama, need to do more. Their weak rhetoric backed up by even weaker action gave Putin the opening that he needed -- and that he rammed thousands of his own soldiers through.

When I heard Obama talk about "costs" to Russia of a military intervention in Ukraine on Feb. 28, I cringed a bit because I thought he was just talking tough and saying the right words without having a real plan. Soon we will see. The time for statements of outrage are over. More actions, such as the Swiss and Austrian seizures of assets of former Ukrainian officials, are needed.

If the West is going to ride to Ukraine's rescue, now is the time to do it. Ukrainians are justifiably proud of the heroism they displayed over the last three months. But they will have to rise to a level of heroism now that perhaps they never imagined. In this struggle, democratic nations need to be at their side. This is one battle in which victory will require a united effort.

Kyiv Post chief editor Brian Bonner can be reached at bribonner@gmail.com

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