WASHINGTON – Russian President Vladimir Putin has cast himself as the defender of Russians everywhere.
Pro-Russian separatists fighting against the Ukrainian military for control of provinces in the eastern portion of the country have been trained, financed, supported and defended by the Russian government, according to senior U.S. intelligence officials.
But the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 by the separatists has sparked concern the partnership may soon escape Putin’s control.
His stated goal in taking over Crimea earlier this year, as it was in Georgia in 2008, was to rescue Russians trapped in a country they did not want to be a part of. The act was viewed as a signal to Russians around the world — that he would be their liberator.
But geopolitical scholars, military leaders and intelligence experts seem to agree, the venture and the pro-Russian nationalism sweeping portions of Eastern Ukraine is a dangerous foray down a well-known path that ends badly.
“After the masterful, bloodless annexation of Crimea in March, I thought he was beginning to pull back,” said former CIA Director Michael Hayden during an interview at the 2014 Aspen Security Forum. But according to Hayden, “He then continued to stir up Ukraine until early May when two mobs attacked each other in Odessa and 40 pro-Russian separatists were killed,” during a fiery skirmish.
It was at that point, said Hayden, now principal of Chertoff Group, “I had the thought, Putin should be reflecting on Slobodan Milosevic.”
International Human Rights organizations estimate that more than 135,000 people were killed in the Yugoslav Wars, ethnic conflicts fought from 1991 to 1999, sparked by the late, former Yugoslavian president’s nationalism campaign.
“Here’s the lesson for Putin,” said Hayden. “Milosevic was reinforcing his domestic strength by acting as the protector of Serbs everywhere until the Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia started acting crazy and the pawns on the board started controlling the movement of the king.”
Hayden is not alone in his thinking.
“My fear is that Putin may actually light a fire that he loses control of,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, during an hour long question and answer session at the Aspen Forum, moderated by CBS 60 Minutes Correspondent Leslie Stahl.
“There’s a rising tide of nationalism in Europe right now that’s been created by in many ways these Russian activities that I find quite dangerous,” Dempsey said.
One question that has triggered debate is why Putin decided to launch this campaign.
Hayden believes it had a lot to do with the Ukrainian political crisis that exploded when former President Viktor Yanukovich packed up and fled to Russia. Hayden believes Putin felt Yanukovich’s ouster was reflected badly on him and required action.
“He’d kinda’ lost his domestic mojo after Yanukovich was overthrown in Russia.”
But others suggest Yanukovich’s ouster was the opportunity Putin had been waiting for.
Andrej Illarionov, a former top envoy of Putin, created a whirlwind of anxiety in late March, when he told a Swedish newspaper that Putin’s annexation efforts will not stop until Finland and the Baltic States were part Russia.
“As we all know, Russian troops occupied the Crimean Peninsula and later on March 18, Crimea and Sevastopol were annexed by Russia. This was the first part of the plan and there are some other targets of this plan,” which will unfold over the long-term, said Illarionov.
Illarionov’s view is similar to that of former U.S. National Security Advisor James Jones, who got to know Putin. In a recent interview, Jones said Putin “believes and he said that the worst thing that has happened in the last century was the dissolution of the Soviet empire and he will talk for a long time about why he believes that.”
Putin’s connection to the separatists and newly released U.S. intelligence that concretely shows attacks on Ukraine launched from Russian territory suggest he’s not just fanning the flames of nationalism.
World leaders and diplomats have been quietly discussing their belief that he’s using the nationalist fervor to help reset Europe’s borders to those of the Soviet Empire era.
But Dempsey warns, “My real concern is that having lit this fire in an isolated part of Eastern Europe, It may not stay in Eastern Europe. And I think that’s a real risk.”