April 16, 2014
By Dmitri Trenin
Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center
Western suspicions that Russia is following the "Crimea playbook" in eastern Ukraine are way off the mark. To begin with, President Vladimir Putin never considered Crimea to be part of Ukraine. His mission there, as he saw it, was to reunify Russia and correct two historical injustices: Nikita Khrushchev's transfer of the peninsula to Ukraine from Russia in 1954; and the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, which left Crimea in now independent Ukraine. That mission is now accomplished.
Eastern and southern Ukraine are different. Ethnic Russians are not in a majority there, and the sense of allegiance and attachment to the Russian state - which was so strong in, say, Sevastopol - is totally missing. And whereas the Black Sea Fleet was on hand in Crimea, there are no Russian forces stationed in eastern Ukraine. To understand Mr Putin's motives, you have to see the world through his eyes. For the Russian president, civilisations are the main units of global politics. Sometimes they align and sometimes they clash. For him, the Russian state is inextricably entwined with Russian civilisation. And he sees Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians as one people.
A century ago, this was the official view in St Petersburg. For Mr Putin, the natural line between the Russian civilisation and that of western Europe runs along the western borders of Belarus and the Russian Federation itself. Ukraine, however, is a cleft country, torn between Russia and Europe. It can be partitioned or, better, neutralised - becoming either a buffer or a bridge between Russia and the west.