Pakistan reborn?

Confounding all predictions, the Pakistani people have clearly demonstrated that they want to choose

It has not been a good year for Pakistan. President Musharraf's sacking of the chief justice last spring, the lawyers' protests that rumbled on throughout the summer and the bloody storming of the Red Mosque in June, followed by a wave of hideous suicide bombings, all gave the impression of a country stumbling from bloody crisis to bloody crisis. By the autumn it had grown even worse. The military defeats suffered by the Pakistani army at the hands of pro-Taliban rebels in Waziristan, the declaration of a state of emergency and, finally, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto led many to predict that Pakistan was stumbling towards full-scale civil war and possibly even disintegration.

All this has of course been grist for the mill for the Pakistan-bashers. Martin Amis, typical of the current rash of instant experts on Islam, wrote recently: "We may wonder how the Islamists feel when they compare India to Pakistan, one a burgeoning democratic superpower, the other barely distinguishable from a failed state." In the run-up to the elections, the Washington Post, among many other commentators, was predicting that the poll would lead to a major international crisis.

That the election went ahead with no more violence and ballot-rigging than is considered customary in south Asian polls, and that a new government will apparently come to power peacefully, unopposed by Musharraf or the army, should now give pause for thought and a calmer reassessment of the country that many have long written off as a basket case.

Certainly, there is no question that during the past few years, and more pressingly since the death of Benazir Bhutto on 27 December last year, Pakistan has been struggling with an existential crisis. At the heart of this lay the central question: what sort of country did Pakistanis want? Did they want a western-style liberal democracy, as envisaged by Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah? An Islamic republic like Mullah Omar's Afghanistan? Or a military-ruled junta of the sort created by Generals Ayub Khan, Zia and Musharraf, and which has ruled Pakistan for 34 of its 60 years of existence?

That question now seems to have been resolved, at least temporarily. Like most other people given the option, Pakistanis clearly want the ability to choose their own rulers, and to determine their own future. The country I saw over the past few days on a long road trip from Lahore in the Punjab down through rural Sindh to Karachi was not a failed state, nor anything even approaching the "most dangerous country in the world".

It is true that frequent shortages of electricity made the country feel a bit like Britain during the winter of discontent, and I was told at one point that I should not continue along certain roads near the Bhutto stronghold of Larkana as there were dacoits (highwaymen) ambushing people after dark. But by and large, the countryside I passed through was calm, and not obviously less prosperous-looking than its subcontinental neighbour. It was certainly a far cry from the terminal lawlessness and instability of post-occupation Iraq or Afghanistan.

The infrastructure of the country is still in many ways better than that of India, and Pakistan still has the best airports and road network in the region. As for the economy, it may be in difficulties, with fast-rising inflation and shortages of gas, electricity and flour; but over the past few years the Pakistani economy has been growing almost as strongly as that of India. You can see the effects everywhere: in 2003 the country had fewer than three million cellphone users; today there are almost 50 million. Car ownership has been increasing at roughly 40 per cent a year since 2001; foreign direct investment has risen from $322m in 2001 to $3.5bn in 2006.

Pakistan is clearly not a country on the verge of civil war. Certainly it is a country at the crossroads, with huge economic and educational problems, hideous inequalities and serious unresolved questions about its future. There is much confusion and disillusion. There is also serious civil unrest, suicide bombings and an insurgency spilling out of the tribal areas on the Afghan border. But judging by the conversations I had, it is also a resilient country that now appears to recognise democracy as its best hope. On my recent travels I found an almost unanimous consensus that the mullahs should keep to their mosques and the military should return to their barracks, like their Indian counterpart. Much violence and unrest no doubt lie ahead. But Pakistan is not about to fall apart.

* * *

Elections in south Asia are treated by the people of the region as operating on a quite different basis from those in the west. In Pakistan, as in India, elections are not primarily about ideology or manifesto promises; instead, they are really about power and patronage.

For most voters, elections are about choosing candidates who can outbid their rivals by making a string of local promises that the electors hope they will honour once they get into office. Typically, a parliamentary candidate will go to a village and make promises or give money to one of the village elders, who will then distribute it among his bradari, or clan, which will then vote for the candidate en bloc. To win an election, the most important thing is to win over the elder of the most powerful clan in each village. As well as money, the elder might ask for various favours: a new tarmac road to the village or gas connections for his cousins. All this costs the candidate a considerable sum of money, which it is understood he must then recoup through corruption when he gets into office; this is why corruption is rarely an important election issue in Pakistan: instead, it is believed to be be an indispensable part of the system.

According to the conventional wisdom in Pakistan, only one thing can overrule loyalty to a clan, and that is loyalty to a zamindar (feudal landowner). Democracy has never thrived in Pakistan in part because landowning has historically been the social base from which politicians emerge, especially in rural areas. Benazir Bhutto was from a feudal family in Sindh; so is Asif Zardari, her husband and current co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), as also is Makhdoom Amin Fahim, the most likely candidate for prime minister. The educated middle class - which in India gained control in 1947 - and even more so the rural peasantry, are still largely excluded from Pakistan's political process. There are no Pakistani equivalents of Indian peasant leaders such as Laloo Prasad Yadav, the village cowherd-turned-former chief minister of Bihar, or Mayawati, the Dalit (untouchable) leader and current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

Instead, in many of the more backward parts of Pakistan, the local feudal landowner could usually expect his people to vote for his chosen candidate. As the writer Ahmed Rashid put it, "In some constituencies if the feudals put up their dog as a candidate, that dog would get elected with 99 per cent of the vote."

Such loyalty could be enforced. Many of the biggest zamindars are said to have private prisons, and most of them have private armies. In the more remote and lawless areas there is also the possibility that the zamindars and their thugs will bribe or threaten polling agents, then simply stuff the ballot boxes with thousands of votes for themselves.

Yet this is now clearly beginning to change, and this change has been give huge impetus by the national polls. The election results show that the old stranglehold on Pakistani politics that used to reduce national polls to a kind of elective feudalism may finally be beginning to break down. In Jhang district of the rural Punjab, for example, as many as ten of the 11 winning candidates are from middle-class backgrounds: sons of revenue officers, senior policemen, functionaries in the civil bureaucracy and so on, rather than the usual zamindars.

The Punjab is the richest and most developed part of rural Pakistan; but even in backward Sindh there are signs of change, too. Khairpur, on the banks of the Indus, is the heartland of exactly the sort of unreformed local landowners who epitomise the stereotype painted by metropolitan Pakistani sophisticates when they roll their eyes and talk about "the feudals". Yet even here, members of the local middle class have just stood successfully for election against the local zamindars.

Nafisa Shah is the impeccably middle-class daughter of a local lawyer promoted in the PPP by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s; she is currently at Oxford doing a PhD in honour killings. She was standing in the same constituency as Sadruddin Shah, who is often held up as the epitome of feudal excess, and who went electioneering with five pick-up trucks full of his private militia, armed with pump-action shotguns.

As you drive along the bypass his face, complete with Dick Dastardly moustache, sneers down from hoardings placed every 50 yards along the road. In the past week the local press had been full of stories of his men shooting at crowds of little boys shouting pro-Benazir slogans. Shah was standing, as usual, for no fewer than three different seats; this time, however, to the amazement of locals, the PhD student and her PPP allies have all but wiped out Shah and his fellow candidates of the PML-Functional, so that Shah himself won only in his own home town.

Even the most benign feudal lords suffered astonishing reverses. Mian Najibuddin Owaisi was not just the popular feudal lord of the village of Khanqah Sharif in the southern Punjab, he was also the sajjada nasheen, the descendant of the local Sufi saint, and so regarded as a holy man as well as the local landowner. But recently Najibuddin made the ill-timed switch from supporting Nawaz Sharif's PML-N to the pro-Musharraf Q-league. Talking to the people in the bazaar before the election, his followers announced that they did not like Musharraf, but they would still vote for their landlord:

"Prices are rising," said Haji Sadiq, the cloth salesman, sitting amid bolts of textiles. "There is less and less electricity and gas."

"And what was done to Benazir was quite wrong," agreed his friend Salman.

"But Najib Sahib is our protector," said the haji. "Whatever party he chooses, we will vote for him. Even the Q-league."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because with him in power we have someone we can call if we are in trouble with the police, or need someone to speak to the adminstration," he said.

"When we really need him he looks after us."

"We vote according to local issues only. Who cares about parties?"

Because of Najibuddin's personal popularity, his vote stood up better than many other pro-Musharraf feudals and he polled 38,000 votes. But he still lost, to an independent candidate from a non-feudal, middle-class background named Amir Waran, who took 59,000 votes and ousted the Owaisi family from control of the constituency for the first time since they entered politics in the elections of 1975.

* * *

If the power of Pakistan's feudals is beginning to be whittled away, in the aftermath of these unexpectedly peaceful elections there remain two armed forces that can still affect the future of democracy in the country.

Though the religious parties were routed in the election, especially in the North-West Frontier where the ruling religious MMA alliance was wiped out by the secular ANP, their gun-wielding brothers in Waziristan are not in retreat. In recent months these militants have won a series of notable military victories over the Pakistani army, and spread their revolt within the settled areas of Pakistan proper.

The two assassination attempts on Benazir - the second one horribly successful - and the three recent attacks on Musharraf are just the tip of the iceberg. Every bit as alarming is the degree to which the jihadis now control much of the north-west of Pakistan, and the Swat Valley is still smouldering as government troops and jihadis loyal to the insurgent leader Maulana Fazllullah - aka "Mullah Radio" vie for control. At the moment, the government seems to have won back the area, but the insurgent leaders have all escaped and it remains to be seen how far the new government can stem this growing rebellion.

The second force that has shown a remarkable ability to ignore, or even reverse, the democratic decisions of the Pakistani people is of course the army. Even though Musharraf's political ally the PML-Q has been heavily defeated, leaving him vulnerable to impeachment by the new parliament, the Pakistani army is still formidably powerful. Normally countries have an army; in Pakistan, as in Burma, the army has a country. In her recent book Military, Inc, the political scientist Ayesha Siddiqa attempted to put figures on the degree to which the army controls Pakistan irrespective of who is in power.

Siddiqa estimated, for example, that the army now controls business assets of roughly $20bn and a third of all heavy manufacturing in the country; it also owns 12 million acres of public land and up to 7 per cent of Pakistan's private assets. Five giant conglomerates, known as "welfare foundations", run thousands of businesses, ranging from street-corner petrol pumps and sprawling industrial plants to cement and dredging to the manufacture of cornflakes.

As one human rights activist put it to me, "The army is into every business in this country. Except hairdressing." The army has administrative assets, too. According to Siddiqa, military personnel have "taken over all and every department in the bureaucracy - even the civil service academy is now headed by a major general, while the National School of Public Policy is run by a lieutenant general. The military have completely taken over not just the bureaucracy but every arm of the executive."

But, for all this power, Musharraf has now comprehensively lost the support of his people - a dramatic change from the situation even three years ago when a surprisingly wide cross-section of the country seemed prepared to tolerate military rule. The new army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, who took over when Musharraf stepped down from his military role last year, seems to recognise this and has issued statements about his wish to pull the army back from civilian life, ordering his soldiers to stay out of politics and give up jobs in the bureaucracy.

Though turnout in the election was low, partly due to fear of suicide bombings, almost everyone I talked to was sure that democracy was the best answer to Pakistan's problems, and believed that neither an Islamic state nor a military junta would serve their needs so well. The disintegration of the country, something being discussed widely only a week ago, now seems a distant prospect. Rumours of Pakistan's demise, it seems, have been much exaggerated.

William Dalrymple's latest book, "The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty (Delhi, 1857)", published by Bloomsbury, won the 2007 Duff Cooper Prize for History

Timeline to the vote

6 October 2007 General Musharraf wins most votes in presidential election. The Supreme Court says no winner can be announced formally until it rules whether the general was eligible to stand while he was still army chief

18 October Exiled former premier Benazir Bhutto returns to Pakistan

3 November Musharraf declares emergency rule - caretaker government is sworn in

9 November Bhutto placed briefly under house arrest

28 November Musharraf resigns as army chief. Sworn in as president for second term

29 November Chief election commissioner announces elections are to be held on 8 January

15 December State of emergency lifted

27 December Benazir Bhutto is assassinated at rally near Rawalpindi

2 January 2008 Elections postponed till 18 February

18 February Parliamentary elections. Low turnout amid fears of violence

19 February Musharraf's party concedes defeat

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn

LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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How Vladimir Putin lost Ukraine

Putin’s war cost Russia its centuries-long shared identity with its neighbour. Now, Kyiv risks betraying the spirit of the Maidan revolution.

When the Russian inquest finally comes, the answer will be clear. It was President Vladimir Putin who lost Ukraine – after a millennium of shared east Slav identity. When the Ukrainian inquest into who lost the ­Euromaidan’s “Revolution of Dignity” finally comes, the answer, on the present evidence, will also be clear. It was an elite core of politicians and oligarchs who first worked a miracle in fighting Russia’s military Goliath to a stalemate – only to revert to kleptocratic business as usual when the acute threat eased.

Ukrainians’ consolidation of a distinct national identity after centuries of being regarded as a fuzzy subset of the dominant Russians – and after a quarter-century of independence – began in February 2014. It sounds banal to say that when one nation attacks a neighbour, especially if the two have regarded each other as brothers for a thousand years, the victims feel aggrieved and pull together against the attacker. But this is what happened when Putin launched his undeclared war on Ukraine, sent hooded “little green men” to take over Crimea’s regional parliament by intimidation, and then annexed the peninsula. The mutation of this early tactical success into strategic failure is best traced by reviewing the players and the dynamics as Ukraine held off Russia and crystallised its singular new identity.

On the Russian side only one actor matters: Putin. When the old Soviet Union split apart in 1991, its kleptocracy was replicated in its two biggest east Slav successor states. By 2015 Russia ranked a joint 119th out of 167 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Ukraine was 130th. A Wild East capitalism prevailed, in which emergent oligarchs carved up the state’s wealth through murky privatisation deals. But there was one main political difference between the two countries. Putin quickly restored the primacy of politicians over Russian tycoons after he became president. In Ukraine, oligarchs were able to use their new wealth to dominate politics.

When Putin suddenly broke out from Europe’s seven-decade peace order in February 2014, Western policymakers asked the diminished number of Kremlinologists in their midst why he was acting this way. Some, such as Dmitry Gorenburg, an associate at Harvard’s Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies and a military analyst, pointed to fear as the Russian president’s root instinct. Putin has shown little interest in economics; he has not worried about looming inflation or capital flight, or Russia’s distorting reliance on oil and gas revenues. What he was afraid of, it seemed, was unchecked democratic contagion: as transmitted from Poles in the 1980s to restive East Germans and then Czechs in 1989, to Ukrainians in the mid-2000s, and even on to Muscovites in 2011/12 before Putin managed to stop their street protests.

This analysis is plausible. In 1989, as a young officer of the Soviet Committee for State Security, Putin was serving with the KGB’s Dresden outpost. He saw the Berlin Wall fall – overnight, under the press of East Berliners who mistakenly thought it had been officially opened. He later faulted the then Soviet Communist Party chief, Mikhail Gorbachev, for failing to intervene militarily when the wall crumbled, or when protesters stormed the Stasi headquarters across the street from his office to halt the incineration of incriminating files by East Germany’s adjunct of the KGB. He watched Moscow’s 20 top divisions, which encircled Berlin for half a century after the glorious Soviet victory over Hitler in 1945, retreat ingloriously a thousand miles to the east.

Putin further witnessed the swift break­away of Moscow’s external empire, in the stampede of the freed central Europeans, from Estonia to Romania, to join the European Union and Nato, and the 1991 break-up of Moscow’s internal Soviet empire. He called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. And as late as 2008 – 17 years after more than 92 per cent of Ukrainian citizens, including the 21 per cent ethnic Russian minority, had voted for independence – he told President George W Bush, “You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country.”

***

Most agonising of all, in his first term as Russia’s president in the 21st century, Putin had to listen to American triumphalism about the series of pro-democracy “colour revolutions” in the streets of ex-communist Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. For him, as a career secret policeman, these revolutions represented no broad social yearning for “dignity”, as the Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa first phrased it. Rather, it was an inexplicable victory by American CIA manipulations – in what was Moscow’s own sphere of influence, by right – over the manipulations of Russia’s FSB, successor to the Soviet KGB.

The uprising that aroused the most angst in the Kremlin was the Orange Revolution on Kyiv’s main square, or maidan, where protesters demanded and won a repeat of the 2004 election after blatant vote-rigging in favour of the then prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian heir apparent to the Ukrainian presidency. It was bad enough for Moscow when the west Slavs in Poland and Czechoslovakia instantly ditched their Slavic identity for a European one in the 1990s: Poland uprooted systemic corruption, built robust democratic and judicial institutions, and went from having a poverty rate that matched Ukraine’s to a per capita GDP three times the size of its neighbour’s today. It was devastating when the Little Russians, too, began to do so, rejecting Yanukovych and Russia’s network of control in the rerun of the vote in 2004.

In the event, Putin need not have worried. The Orange Revolution self-destructed in the fratricide between its two top leaders, who forfeited leadership to Yanukovych in the reasonably fair 2010 election.

On the Ukrainian side of the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, four figures stand out. The two chief rivals are the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko (worth $979m, and number six on Novoye Vremya magazine’s 2015 list of the richest Ukrainians), and the then governor of Dnipropet­rovsk in central Ukraine, Ihor Kolomoyskyi (number two on the list, at $1.9bn).

Poroshenko was a second-tier oligarch who had served briefly as foreign minister in the Orange Revolution government and as minister for trade and economic development under Yanukovych in 2012. He helped fund the pro-Europe, anti-corruption protest against Yanukovych’s authoritarian rule from the movement’s spontaneous inception in November 2013, and his TV news outlet Channel 5 gave full coverage to the three-month agora and its estimated one million participants.

After Yanukovych finally sent his special police to suppress the protest by killing dozens of the demonstrators in late February, the Ukrainian president’s own Party of Regions deserted him. He absconded to Russia overnight with an estimated personal fortune of $12bn, amassed in four years in office. Parliament, by a majority that suddenly included the Party of Regions, appointed an interim president and government and set presidential elections for May 2014. The “Chocolate King”, as Poroshenko was nicknamed for his confectionery empire, was duly elected president of the new Ukraine with a 54 per cent majority.

Kolomoyskyi, who also holds Israeli and Cypriot citizenship, was called back to Ukraine from his Swiss residence by the improvised government just as Russia was annexing Crimea. He was appointed governor of his own regional stronghold of Dnipropetrovsk with a mandate to mount a defence against the Russia-stoked secession brewing in neighbouring eastern Ukraine. Kolomoyskyi was famed for his hostile takeovers of rival banks as well as oil, media and other firms. He quickly raised and underwrote several militias among the 40 to 50 volunteer battalions that sprang up to fight against westward spread of the start-up separatist Donetsk (DPR) and Luhansk (LPR) People’s Republics. These battalions were instrumental in holding the line against separatist/Russian forces and giving the Ukrainian state time to rebuild the army that Yanukovych had bled of its budget.

Two oligarchs who did not cast their lot in with post-Euromaidan Ukraine were Rinat Akhmetov (at $4.5bn still the richest Ukrainian, even after losing more than half of his wealth over the past year) and Dmytro Firtash, whose net worth has fallen to $1bn. Both had been leading supporters of Yanukovych and his party, and since his departure they have hedged their bets between Kyiv and Moscow. Their recent losses have resulted partly from a redistribution of their wealth to other oligarchs.

Akhmetov, the son of a coal miner who rose to become the “godfather” of the Donetsk clan – and the owner of Shakhtar Donetsk football club – has his coal and iron base in the war-ravaged Don Basin (Donbas) and relies on Moscow’s goodwill there. Firtash, who under President Yanukovych controlled the lucrative distribution of Russian gas through Ukrainian pipelines to Europe, is also dependent on Russia. In spring 2014, he asked the Russian oligarch Vasily Anisimov to pay a record Austrian bail of €125m ($141m) in cash to get him out of jail. Under the bail terms, Firtash is barred from leaving Austria as he awaits the final legal decision on a US extradition request on charges of international bribery. Yet from Vienna he still wields his political clout, funds several Ukrainian parties across the political spectrum and, it is widely reported, brokered a division of power between Poroshenko and Vitaly Klitschko in the run-up to the May 2014 presidential election, in which Klitschko stood down as a candidate. (The former world heavyweight boxing champion is now mayor of Kyiv.)

***

Putin no doubt saw his annexation of Crimea – and his follow-on campaign to reconquer Catherine the Great’s “Novorossiya”, comprising the eastern 40 per cent of today’s Ukraine – as compensation for the abrupt downfall of his acolyte Yanukovych, and thus the end of Russia’s rightful suzerainty over all of Ukraine. Europeans, Americans and Ukrainians, on the contrary, saw the first formal takeover of a neighbour’s land in Europe since the Second World War as Putin’s return to a 19th-century concept of “might makes right”, as well as a violation of international law and treaties Moscow had signed to respect Ukrainian borders.

The West was cautious in reacting. It baulked at getting sucked into another intervention in a theatre of complicated logistics and little geopolitical interest. It knew as well as Putin did that Moscow enjoys escalation dominance in its home region by virtue of geography, its claim to a vital interest in Ukraine that the West lacks, and the Russian president’s willpower in a world of European peace and US exhaustion. It had no desire to put Putin’s repeated brandishing of his nuclear weapons to the test over a second-order confrontation. The West therefore responded by imposing financial rather than military sanctions, which Putin prematurely scorned as a pinprick.

In addition, Putin misread Ukraine’s military resilience. Easy success in Crimea – and strong domestic approval of his boasts that he was restoring Russia’s greatness in the world – emboldened him to probe further in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s ragtag army had put up no resistance in Crimea, for three reasons. First, years of embezzlement of defence budgets had left it with only 6,000 combat-ready soldiers and with two-decade-old weapons. Second, it was subverted by the many Ukrainian officers who were loyal to Moscow rather than Kyiv. Finally, there was Ukrainians’ sheer disbelief – despite Stalin’s mass starvation of Ukrainian peasants in the 1930s – that Russians would actually shoot at their proclaimed younger brothers.

Putin expected an equally cost-free operation in the Donbas. He seemed to believe his own propaganda that disgruntled Russian-speaking citizens of eastern Ukraine were Russians manqués and would rush to rebel against Kyiv, if only the charge were led by a few Russian commandos. Eastern Ukraine was, after all, the part of the country in which identity was most blurred; easterners paid little attention to differences between Ukrainians and Russians in everyday life, and most had cousins in both Russia and western Ukraine. In a way, the region was the ideal test of Putin’s construct of a unifying goal to fill the vacuum left after futurist communist ideology evaporated. The campaign was first presented as Putin’s dream of a Eurasian Union, but that was dropped once it became clear that Ukraine would not be a part of it. Thereafter it was repackaged as gathering in fellow ethnics left outside the “Russian world” by the Soviet collapse, and then as retaking the tsarist Novorossiya.

At first, the Russian-backed secessionists took quick control over roughly two-thirds of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, or provinces. Putin, however, overestimated the warrior zeal of the easterners and the usual gripes of any province about the meagre payouts it gets from central government. In the early days, the local people warmed to the promises of higher pensions made by the separatists. And grandmothers visibly enjoyed acting as civilian shields by surrounding local administration buildings that were occupied by separatists and preventing Ukrainian soldiers from reclaiming the offices. But as the novelty wore off and the hardship of war increased, Moscow and the secessionists it sponsored increasingly had to rely on a motley band of mercenaries and Donbas criminal gangs that did well in firefights only when they were assisted by Russian “volunteers” and armed with the heavy weapons the Russians were shuttling across the border.

In purely military terms, Putin probably could have escalated in the spring of 2014 from the kind of limited, disguised and therefore deniable warfare that the West calls “hybrid”, replacing the hooded “little green men” with regular Russian soldiers in marked uniforms in an all-out invasion of the Novorossiya oblasts. That was certainly the Russian president’s threat in massing 80,000 troops on the northern, eastern and southern borders of Ukraine and exercising them on high alert.

As late as September 2014 Putin boasted to President Poroshenko that if he so desired, “Russian troops could be in Kyiv within two days – and also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw, or Bucharest.” But he did not invade when Ukraine’s provisional government was still shaky – and still reeling under the Russian show of force.

Three reasons for Putin’s decision not to order an invasion in spring 2014 might be inferred. The first was a tactical reduction of his bellicosity at a time when the European Union was still debating financial sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea. The second was the weakness of the novice Ukrainian government, which could foreseeably have collapsed and left Kyiv with a political vacuum the Russians could fill without firing a shot. The third was perhaps a premonition in the Russian army that it was being overstretched and that an occupation of its neighbour, given Ukraine’s strong military tradition, might turn into a quagmire of messy guerrilla warfare.

Putin’s military threats to Ukraine were counterproductive and stoked Ukrainian anger. In May 2014 a Pew survey found that 77 per cent of Ukrainians, including 70 per cent of those living in eastern Ukraine outside the Donbas war zone, thought that their country should remain united instead of breaking up. And in early July, even before the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines MH17 civilian jet by a Russian-made Buk missile fired from insurgent territory, Pew reported that 60 per cent of Ukrainians had a general negative view of Russia. It was a sharp reversal from 2011, when 84 per cent of Ukrainians had viewed Russia positively.

The Euromaidan spirit drew in ever more Ukrainians who had been politically passive. Volunteers flocked to enlist in the army, in the revived National Guard and in the private militias raised and paid for by Kolomoyskyi and other oligarchs. Civilian volunteers cooked and delivered food to recruits. Techies designed and built their own surveillance drones from scratch to observe border areas that Ukraine no longer controlled.

Ukrainian veterans who had once formed the backbone of the Soviet army’s rough equivalent of Western non-commissioned officers, together with local Afgantsy – veterans of the Soviet army’s doomed expedition in Afghanistan in the 1980s – gave the rookies accelerated basic training. Weapons factories in Ukraine that had once supplied the Soviet army managed to repair 20-year-old tanks and build new ones even as the battles raged. And morale was vastly better on the side of Ukrainian defenders against a threat to their very existence than it was among opportunistic rebel mercenaries and criminal gangs. By mid-August 2014, Ukrainian troops had recaptured most of the rebel territory and reduced the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics to two small pockets.

That was too much for Putin. At the end of August, he signalled his red line in the sand: he would not let his proxies be defeated. He sent elite airborne troops into the Donbas to mount a counteroffensive alongside separatist/Russian ground forces armed with Russian heavy weapons. Within days, they broke the Ukrainian siege and restored the secessionists’ control of about half of the territory that the DPR and LPR had ruled at their height.

President Poroshenko understood the message and immediately proposed a truce, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, brokered the Minsk ceasefire of 5 September. The shaky agreement at least reduced the scale of violence for five months, until the separatist/Russian forces made a fresh effort to break through strengthened Ukrainian lines in January and February of 2015 – and failed. A further shaky “Minsk-2” truce followed. But on 1 September 2015 the heavy guns abruptly fell silent and, for the most part, remained silent. For the first time in a year, overjoyed babushkas in the separatist Donbas enclave could walk across the front lines to reach Ukrainian-held towns seven kilometres away and buy salo (pork rind), butter and eggs at far cheaper prices. They returned to tell journalists that their greatest wish was simply for the fighting to stop.

***

At the end of September Putin opened a front in Syria, and reportedly redeployed some special forces from Ukraine to the new battlefield. Ukraine dropped off Russian TV bulletins. The war there had
caused 8,000 deaths and forced 2.4 million people from their homes. It was clear that Putin was belatedly acknowledging that the war also had strategic costs for Russia.

He had first lost all of Ukraine, with the exception of Crimea, to the Euromaidan that he despised. He had failed to salvage Novorossiya for Russia. He had failed, too, to maintain the shelled and charred Donbas region in any form he wanted to annex or subsidise – and keeping it as a zone of frozen conflict for future mischief-making wasn’t much of a consolation prize. He had provoked the West into resuscitating Nato and imposing sanctions that damaged the Russian economy. He had alarmed Belarus, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan into distancing themselves somewhat from Moscow.

Moreover, the Russian war in Ukraine raised the spectre of the failed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that killed 15,000 Soviet soldiers in the 1980s and gave birth to the Russian Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, which tries to ferret out facts about their dead sons. Last May, after many inquiries by the committee about Russian casualties in Ukraine, the Duma passed legislation banning the spread of information about Russian casualties across the border. In this context, it seemed unlikely that Putin would risk incurring a rise in Russian deaths by resuming heavy fighting in Ukraine.

This appraisal, however, takes the pressure off the Ukrainian oligarchs to grow beyond the robber-baron stage and become patriotic philanthropists. On the present evidence, they no longer sense much urgency with regard to implementing reform legislation, installing the rule of law, building democratic institutions and rooting out kleptocracy as opposed to exploiting it.

Putin has surely lost Ukraine. The Ukrainian oligarchs have not yet surely lost their own country. But how ironic it will be if he manages to melt their urgency into complacency by easing the pressure on Ukraine, thus paving the way for that final loss of the Revolution of Dignity. It would give the last laugh to Georgy Arbatov, the Kremlin’s leading Americanist who prophesied as the Cold War ended: “We are going to do to you the worst thing we possibly could – we are going to take your enemy away.”

Elizabeth Pond is based in Berlin and is the author of several books about Germany, Europe and the Balkans. They include “Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification” (Brookings Institution)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war