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Putin's daring abroad masks high risks at home

Date

Helen Womack

Sign of the times: Vladimir Putin is depicted as Hitler at a demonstration in Kiev on Sunday.

Sign of the times: Vladimir Putin is depicted as Hitler at a demonstration in Kiev on Sunday. Photo: AFP

Moscow: As Russia tightens its grip on Crimea and threatens other regions of Ukraine, it seems Western leaders can do little but wring their hands over the Kremlin’s neo-Soviet handling of its own “back yard”.

But President Vladimir Putin’s military response to the pro-European uprising in Kiev is a high-stakes gamble that could have massive repercussions for Russia itself and the man who has ruled without fair elections since 2000.

Analysts are comparing Russia’s intervention in Ukraine with the dirty little war it fought with Georgia in 2008, but on a geopolitical scale the current stand-off is much more serious. Civil war in Ukraine or war between Ukraine and Russia would make the conflicts in Yugoslavia in the 1990s pale and plunge the world into a new Cold War.

In The Moscow Times on Monday, commentator Victor Davidoff spoke of “Putin’s Crimean Anschluss”, comparing the Russian leader’s move into Ukraine to Hitler’s annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland prior to World War II. And all the West had done was to appease Putin, he said, noting that after Russia had prised the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, it had been rewarded with membership of the World Trade Organisation.

This time the West will punish Russia with all the isolating sanctions in its arsenal, while almost certainly stopping short of military confrontation. Putin may, for a time, seem to get his way. But the question is how will history - and Russia itself - punish a leader whom citizens have not freely chosen, if the path proves ultimately disastrous for the Motherland?

With the oil-dependent economy struggling, an adventure in Ukraine is something Russia can ill afford. In an understated commentary, the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti noted Putin had consulted only his military and not his economic advisers when he asked the upper house of parliament to approve sending troops to Crimea.

After Ukraine’s peaceful Orange Revolution in 2004,  Putin did all in his power to prevent the “democratic plague” from spreading to Russia, including setting up a youth movement called Nashi, compared by some to the Hitler Youth. This time, after the bloodshed in Kiev, he will be firmer still.  

In the short term – and with no need to show a human face for the Sochi Olympics any more – he will crack down hard on the domestic opposition. Indeed, the anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, freed in court and allowed to run for Moscow mayor last year, has already been placed under house arrest without access to the internet. And Gleb Fetisov, another billionaire dissident in the mould of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has been arrested for backing the opposition.

But more and more Russians - especially the young, well-travelled and internet-savvy - are starting to tire of the Putin regime and, if they were ever to rise up, any clashes in Moscow would dwarf the unrest in the Ukrainian capital.

To seasoned observers of Eastern Europe, the shootings in Kiev, followed by the discoveries of ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s obscene wealth, are reminiscent of the overthrow of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. It is a page of history that Putin should perhaps consider re-reading.

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