6 March 2014
With his swift seizure of Crimea, Vladimir Putin looked to be playing a strong hand in the stand-off over Ukraine’s future. But recent events have shown the brittleness of his power in the face of international condemnation and the calm determination of Ukrainians.
Marie Mendras
Professor Marie Mendras
Former Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme


Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Community 29 April 2014, Minsk, Belarus. Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Community 29 April 2014, Minsk, Belarus. Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images.


On 3 March, 14 members of the UN Security Council denounced the 15th member, Russia, in unprecedentedly strong terms for the violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and use of military intimidation. Even China followed suit.

The Russian ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, who is used to getting his way in the Security Council, was dumbfounded. With surprising confidence, Churkin had asked for the emergency discussion over Ukraine. Each of his arguments was swiftly dismissed as inacceptable with regard to international law, or in bad faith. He got his way with a shameful nyet to Security Council resolutions on Syria, but not here.

The Russian state has been facing growing criticism from many governments and multilateral organizations since it launched an armed incursion into Crimea. NATO, the OSCE, the EU and the Council of Europe have condemned Russia’s resort to military force in Crimea. Sanctions are being discussed very seriously. And the economic and financial backlash is hurting the Russian currency, treasury and major corporations. The Kremlin has stumbled on international legal norms, which it wrongly believed it could interpret in its own free manner, with the support of China.

On 4 March, President Putin chose to express himself on Ukraine, at last. He looked nervous even though he was addressing a small and carefully selected group of young journalists for a ‘discussion-like press conference’. He told an odd story of the war he had threatened everyone with, but had never intended to wage. He repeated arguments that Churkin had already lost in New York the day before. And, with his never-abating desire to rewrite recent history, he condemned both Ukraine’s independence and the Orange Revolution of 2004.

He kept changing his mind about deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s position. He first said that Yanukovich was ‘politically dead’, but later justified Russian military ‘protection’ of Crimea’s population with Yanukovich’s supposed written request to Moscow on 1 March. Such a pretext is less convincing to the US and Europe by the day, just like Yanukovych’s use of a hastily passed anti-terrorism law to attempt to justify his order to shoot at civilian protesters on the Maidan. Today, Yanukovich is a former despot on the run. The Kremlin’s propaganda has backfired.

Negotiation is now beginning to reassert itself over confrontation. The Russian and Ukrainian governments have just renewed a fragile communication line. Kyiv and Simferopol are setting up a commission to discuss a common strategy out of the military standoff, and the status of the autonomous republic of Crimea in the Ukrainian state. The war scare is not quite over, but it now looks clear that Moscow bears the responsibility for raising the stakes all the way to the brink of armed struggle, with civilians as potential victims. Most powers, together with international organizations, agree that Russia’s behaviour has been dangerous and that the new interim Ukrainian government is legitimate.

The priority, now that armed violence is abating, is quick and robust support to the Ukrainian economy and society. And, as a necessary corollary, Western governments will have to devote time to helping the Russian president save face and stay quiet behind the Kremlin walls.

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