Sergei Ilnitsky / EPA

Putin makes his case for Greater Russia

While the US and EU dither, Moscow pushes its advantages

May 13, 2014 12:00AM ET

The Ukrainian crisis has reached a turning point. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks on a World War II victory anniversary at a parade in Sevastopol in Crimea on May 9 highlighted the Kremlin’s intention to press ahead in Ukraine and elsewhere despite European Union and U.S. opposition.

Putin’s speech included this soaring patriotic vision: “I am sure that 2014 will also become part of the city’s chronicle and of that of our entire country as the year in which the people here expressed their firm desire to be together with Russia. In this decision they have shown that they remain true to the historic truth and our forefathers’ memory.”

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The rhetorical detail that the order has been given to proceed to partition Ukraine, either by law at the ballot box or by extra-constitutional means, also contained a rallying cry to all Russian-speakers in the diaspora, on former Soviet republics: “We have many difficulties ahead, but we will overcome these difficulties because we are together, and this makes us even stronger.”

In other words, strength, struggle, sacrifice, resolution and a shared devotion to the motherland’s defense are the watchwords for the next years in the long road to victory, the same qualities that described Russian success in the Great Patriotic War, from 1941 to 1945.

The Russian army deployed along the Ukraine-Russia border these last weeks has been steadily increasing its planning and capability. No one has confirmed the momentary report that Moscow ordered the troops to retire from their staging areas. The armed lawlessness in many cities in southeastern Ukraine, especially Donetsk Oblast, has spread to the storied Black Sea city of Odessa as well as Mariupol, with its now well-publicized deaths.

There are expectations in Moscow that in these next weeks, the partisan killing will keep increasing and the Russian media will continue to feature the most extreme reports of anti-Russian violence and rhetoric by Kyiv. The Kremlin is said to be hearing appeals from thousands of volunteers in Russia who want to join the fight for the frightened Russian speakers of what Moscow media calls Novorossiya: southeastern Ukraine and the Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk and Odessa regions. 

The soaring approval ratings for the Kremlin policy in Ukraine are translating into spontaneous outpourings of patriotism throughout the Russian-speaking landscape, including reports of warplanes being delivered early by round-the-clock factory shifts and a surge in enlistment in the Russian armed forces. The enthusiasm of the Russian military was on full display last Friday in Crimea and Moscow. The dark side of the rush was illustrated by Moscow’s announcing a test of nuclear forces. The message on Russian television is that the motherland has awakened to foreign threats and is mobilizing for a long fight.

Merkel in the White House

Putin’s Sevastopol speech makes it clear that Moscow will take matters into its own hands in Ukraine, without help from Washington.

The blunt development of the last days is that Berlin also no longer sees Washington as part of a comprehensive deal to resolve Ukraine’s travails.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany met with President Barack Obama in the White House last month in order to discuss the unresolved discord over the revelations of National Security Agency spying on Germany as well as the fresh challenges in the Ukrainian crisis. 

Russian VIPs are actually campaigning to get on the sanctions list in order to demonstrate that they’re close to the center of power.

The meeting went badly. Both Russian and European observers report that Merkel believes she was misinformed in person when she asked about the extent of U.S. support for the violent Maidan protests of last winter that led to the crumbling of the Kyiv government and flight by President Viktor Yanukovych. 

Moscow knows that Merkel has confirmed information from her own intelligence services and elsewhere that the White House helped sustain and intensify the Maidan uprising.

I am told that Merkel confronted Obama about the fresh violence in Ukraine this spring, especially the Ukrainian forces’ offensives in Donetsk Oblast. He responded that the United States was not involved. He also told her that the collapse of Ukraine was not about Kyiv’s uncertain government or the threat of the Maidan protesters’ Right Sector, which has been deputized to launch the offensive in Donetsk Oblast, but about Putin’s personal upset with Obama’s vision of world affairs.

The argument from voices sympathetic to Moscow is that the White House calculated that the fighting at the heart of the pro-Russian forces would move Merkel and her advisers to the Washington solution of isolating Russia with an ever-sharper sanction regime. The White House maneuver did not succeed. Merkel is now looking away from Obama. 

European observers emphasize that the Germans are distraught about their meeting with Obama and his national security aides. Merkel’s aides were astonished by the poor quality of information and the unearned superiority of Obama’s experts and counselors. She regarded the event as mistreatment, sandbagging, deceiving.

Europe’s limited options

The Kremlin is not in a hurry in Ukraine at this moment, I am told, and the next days and weeks will see more Russian military and diplomatic strength in the approximately 55 percent of Ukraine that is sympathetic to Russian heritage and language. At the same time, Moscow does not now believe that it can comprehensively control events on the ground in the front-line areas of Donetsk Oblast. The pro-Russian separatists are made reckless by casualties. Russian special forces widely reported on the scene are said not to be capable of constraining all the gunmen in the field. Furthermore, Kyiv’s forces, under Ukrainian flags, are unpredictable and motivated to create conditions that call for outside interventions and cease-fires.

For the bigger picture, the failure of the White House to convince German leadership in person that the U.S. understands European dilemmas in a post-Soviet century looks to be the most significant change brought by the Ukrainian crisis. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s call for European governments to increase their defense budgets while the U.S. is cutting back its own did not sit well with European observers. The sanctions so far launched against Russian oligarchs in order to intimidate the Kremlin are having a perverse effect in Moscow: Russian VIPs are actually campaigning to get on the sanctions list in order to demonstrate that they’re close to the center of power. 

The International Monetary Fund’s decision to offer the Kyiv interim government $17.2 billion in loans has not impressed the Kremlin. Reliable financiers assert that the IMF does not have the money. The funds will come from U.S. and EU sources that do not require legislative approval. Kyiv is out of money. The Ukrainian economy has collapsed. The immediate portion of the loans, more than $3 billion, goes to Ukrainian creditors so they do not seek default judgments. None of it will go to pay the outstanding energy bill to Russia, which is due in mid-May.

The Europeans are well informed of their poor options in the face of the Kremlin’s ambitions. There is no foreseeable military response for NATO or its member states to the Russian army camped on Ukraine’s border. More important, there is no foreseeable workaround for the European economy, which is dependent on Russian energy. Berlin and the EU are playing a losing hand as well as possible while waiting on the Kremlin’s card choices.

John Batchelor is a novelist and host of a national radio news show based in New York City.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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