In a bid for electoral popularity, with the seizure of the Crimea in April 2014, President Putin ratcheted up the threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty in defiance of international law to force Kiev into open submission. That August his poll ratings reached an extraordinary 87%. The West under absent Americans leadership huffed and puffed – through sanctions – but failed to blow the house down.
Since that time, however, Putin’s popularity stands at a paltry 29%. Gone are the days when patriotism or great Russian chauvinism, as Lenin would have called it, compensates for falling living standards and widespread corruption. Not only are the incentives not there to go further with dismemberment of Ukraine, but increasing international isolation as a result of acts that have had unforeseen consequences elsewhere (Syria, Skrypal’ etc.) suggest that it is well past time to sit down and negotiate. At the very least the Naval’ny affair indicates that more time and effort need focusing on putting his own house in order before embarking on more unhappy ventures.
Thus nothing could be less welcome at a time when the US Senate is looking to introduce yet more sanctions because of Naval’ny’s deprivation of human rights than the suggestion that it is time for Russia formally to annexe the Donbass region of Ukraine.
In a little noticed announcement on 28 January, Dmitrii Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, brusquely dismissed the ill-timed suggestion from Margarita Simonyan, the main editor at RT, that “The people of the Donbass want to live at home and want to be part of this massive, great Motherland of ours”. “We are obliged”, she declared, “to secure this for them. Russia, mother, take Donbass back home.”
Unfortunately for Simonyan, back home the man who makes Mother’s decisions for her, must have had some unprintable things to say about such impudence. Simonyan, Peskov spluttered in indignation, is “a media manager and editor”; she is “not the spokesman for the Russian Federation’s official position.” Is Ms. Simonyan about to be given a large black plastic bag to clear out her desk?