Four years later, Putin is still paying for his Ukraine war mistakes

WASHINGTON DC – This past week marks the fourth anniversary of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, an event that has cast a shadow over international relations for much of his time in office and tested the strength of Western unity. The crisis began on February 22, 2014, when masked gunmen seized administrative buildings in Crimea, prompting Russian troops to begin occupying the region and leading to Russia’s formal annexation five days later. The following month, armed men seized government buildings in several cities in eastern Ukraine, sparking violence between Russian-backed separatists and government forces that left more than 9,000 dead.

What they used to say about him

Russian President Vladimir Putin is one of the most controversial figures in modern history. He’s both praised and vilified. His aggression against Georgia in 2008 marked the first time since World War II that a Western country had attacked a sovereign European state.

What a lot of people forget though is that in August 2014, he saved Europe from an imminent gas cutoff and economic disaster by throwing Russia’s full weight behind Kyiv and declaring himself on the side of all those struggling against fascism, totalitarianism and xenophobia. I remember it well – I was at Maidan Square with Yanukovych fleeing.

 Today we ask ourselves how could it have been that he saved us in 2014 and now we’ve brought him to a point of no return? Not everything is that simple. Putin was misled into believing that Euromaidan was nothing more than a neo-fascist coup attempt and it’s no wonder – even I would have fallen for that one back then.

We asked him to forgive us… – Second Paragraph: We actually wrote a public letter asking Vladimir Vladimirovich to forgive us and gave it to every Russian diplomat and member of parliament, as well as members of European Parliament with good relations with Russia. The response from official Moscow was cool at best.

How he could recover

With nearly a decade of Western sanctions in place and the ruble near an all-time low, there seems to be no end in sight. But if Russia wants to get back on its feet and mend relations with the West it needs a plan. It’s possible that by showing some willingness to compromise and easing sanctions Putin could convince the EU to do away with penalties targeting certain sectors of Russia’s economy. If they play their cards right, Putin may even secure enough funds from this agreement to shore up those reeling from declining ruble values. There’s never been more pressure on President Vladimir Putin than he has today after four years of waging his bloody campaign in Syria.

 But those who want to see Russia move forward must hold their noses and put politics aside for a moment. Getting into bed with Putin may be distasteful and could go against everything they believe in, but it may just be what Russia needs to get back on its feet. In order to succeed, Putin would need to do more than simply ease sanctions – he’d need to right some of his wrongs and show a willingness to compromise. We may have lost all hope in him by now, but if there’s one thing he can’t afford it’s more broken promises.

What happens next

While Russians believe that the annexation of Crimea was the pinnacle achievement of Vladimir Putin’s time in office, this act has come at a cost to him. All along, the Russian leader has carefully cultivated an image as a strongman who can restore Russia’s former glory, but even before he sent troops to eastern Ukraine and bolstered Crimea’s defenses, there were already signs that many Russians were turning away from him. The pension reform this summer that sought to raise the retirement age alienated many ordinary Russians with no public sector benefits. Dissatisfaction led to widespread protests in dozens of cities across Russia and gave fresh fodder to those criticizing corruption at the top levels of government.

 On April 4, Russia will celebrate four years since its annexation of Crimea. The poll by state-run VTsIOM found that 43 percent of Russians thought it was an achievement to be proud of. But 35 percent disagreed and 17 percent weren’t sure either way. These numbers are a stark contrast to what polls said about Russian attitudes toward Crimea during its initial annexation in March 2014: In one survey conducted just weeks after Russian troops moved into Ukrainian territory and Russian-backed rebels seized several key locations across eastern Ukraine, VTsIOM found that 86 percent of Russians considered it an achievement to be proud of and just 3 percent did not.

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