Learning From Stalin?

Why Vladimir Putin – perhaps – has not invaded eastern Ukraine yet

IP Journal  August 13, 2014

by Elizabeth Pond

If the Russian army has not invaded Ukraine by the time you read this, here are two contrary explanations for the non-event that are circulating in the East Slav world. Let’s call them the common sense and the James Bond theses.

The first says that invading Ukraine would be disastrous for Russia itself because of the all-too-predictable economic and social consequences – and that this consideration is, or should be, constraining Moscow. The second alleges, sensationally, that Russia was accidentally thwarted in its plot to shoot down an Aeroflot (sic) airliner over eastern Ukraine three weeks ago, blame Kiev for this appalling slaughter of Russian civilians, and launch an invasion the next night in retaliation.

Sergei Karaganov, dean of Moscow’s School of World Economics and International Affairs, champions the rational cost-benefit analysis that Moscow should eschew invading Ukraine and igniting a war of choice (or of invention) that would only hurt Russia in the long run.

By contrast, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, head of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), advances a scenario that would have made even Ian Fleming blush. This holds that Moscow actually intended on July 17 to shoot down an Aeroflot airliner that was carrying Moscow vacationers to Cyprus at an altitude separated by 600 meters from the fated MH17. The inexperience of the crew manning the powerful “Buk” missile that brought down the plane (on current evidence), along with possible confusion about the team’s exact location on unfamiliar Ukrainian territory on that night, led to the apparent mistaken hit on the wrong target. This, in Nalyvaichenko’s account, foiled the planned casus belli and invasion.

Karaganov, without ever mentioning Russian President Vladimir Putin or any role he might play in this issue, argues that the real proponents of a Russian invasion of Ukraine are the American neo-cons. They want to lure Moscow into getting bogged down in Ukraine in 2014 just as the Soviet Union was debilitated by its war in Afghanistan 1979-89. That earlier misadventure culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Karaganov refers in passing to the risk from tougher sanctions by the West that an invasion would bring.

Primarily, however, he wants to caution Russia against “snatching defeat from the jaws of its victory” in annexing Crimea last March and thus blocking Ukraine from any future NATO membership because of this new border dispute. In his concern about self-inflicted economic and social damage from any Russian invasion of Ukraine he is joined by a minority of Russian intellectuals like economist Vladislav Inozemtsev – a regular contributor to IP JOURNAL – and Moscow Levada Center sociologist Aleksey Levinson, and also by some 18 Russian officers and officials who were abruptly sacked by Putin on August 7 in what has been reported as a purge of subordinates who have voiced misgivings about invading Ukraine.

Karaganov’s cost-benefit reasoning is familiar enough to Westerners. Nalyvaichenko’s bizarre hypothesis is utterly unfamiliar, as it clearly presumes that the supreme leader of Russia might in cold blood approve a plan that entailed the murder of some 180 citizens of his own country as a pretext for invasion. So preposterous is this scenario that the mainstream Western press did not report on the allegation for days after Nalyvaichenko’s low-key August 7 press conference, as Forbes magazine commentator Paul Roderick Gregory acknowledged when he broke the story on August 11.

Gregory says the jury is still out, but there is enough circumstantial evidence to justify the Kiev government’s decision to pass the clues on to international investigators of the MH17 shootdown for further examination. These start with the convergence of the north-south flight path of Aeroflot 2074 with that of the fated west-east MH17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17. They continue with the initial triumphant posting on the internet by Russian-led rebels in Ukraine that they had shot down a Ukrainian military plane and their swift abandonment of this claim as they puzzled over the bodies of women and children they found on the site. They include as well Western intelligence tracking of a “Buk” missile system being driven from Russia to the firing site in Ukraine shortly before the shootdown and driven back to Russia shortly thereafter.

For Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist and political scientist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, the charge that the Kremlin might deliberately gun down its own civilians to stage a casus belli is at least sufficiently plausible to warrant comparison with a ploy used by Stalin against tiny Finland in 1939. Aslund writes that the origins of the 100-day Soviet-Finnish war are “eerily similar to the events in Ukraine. Initially, Stalin demanded parts of Finland’s territory. Then the Soviets organized a border incident. Their forces bombed their own border guard post, killing four Soviet soldiers, while blaming the Finns. … Stalin used this incident as an excuse to withdraw from a non-aggression pact with Finland, just as Putin has cancelled Russia’s 1997 Friendship Treaty with Ukraine.”

Aslund, an economic adviser to several post-Soviet countries in the 1990s and arguably the West’s most knowledgeable expert on Russian-Ukrainian economic and political relations ever since, is primarily interested in reminding Putin of Stalin’s negative experience in 1939-40 with Moscow’s  neighbor. Stalin invaded Finland, formed a puppet Finnish Democratic Republic like today’s Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics – and within three months lost 127,000 Soviet soldiers to the Finns, who fought with no allies and lost 23,000 of their own in that bitterly cold winter.

“Despite deploying 800,000 troops in the end, Stalin failed to conquer Finland,” Aslund continues. “Rather than sacrifice more Russians and aggravate his embarrassment, he yielded to the brave Finns and settled” for “only 11 percent of Finland’s territory in the Moscow Peace Treaty on March 13, 1940. … Finland maintained independence.” Aslund concludes by advising Putin today to “take his cue from Stalin in this case. Sometimes it is better to lose face.”

As of this writing, a convoy of 280 Russian trucks that the Red Cross has not inspected is making its way toward the Ukrainian border with the announced mission of bringing humanitarian aid to refugees from the fighting in eastern Ukraine. The West suspects that spetsnaz special forces may be hiding among the bags of kasha and is issuing stern warnings to Putin not to escalate its destabilization of Ukraine.

It is not yet clear whether the warnings against a Russian invasion of Ukraine, wherever they come from, interest Vladimir Putin.

ELIZABETH POND, a Berlin-based journalist, is the author of “The Rebirth of Europe.“ She has covered Ukraine for over 30 years.


© Elizabeth Pond


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