Putin is either an aggressive schemer, to be opposed and vilified at all costs, or a wise, restrained real-politician, balanced irreconcilable forces next door. Which is it?
The 2014 coup in Ukraine succeeded due to the fierce campaign led by neo-fascists, heirs to the Banderistas of 1940--50s, now lauded as freedom fighters, but seen at the time as terrorists, murdering Ukrainians and Jews, and sabotaging a Ukraine in shambles after the war. They had almost zero support then, having collaborated with the Nazis to kill tens of thousands, but their hero, Stepan, was honoured with a statue in 2011, erected by the godfather of the current anti-Russian coupmakers, the (disastrous) former President Viktor Yushchenko. Ukraine’s Soviet war veterans were outraged and the statue was torn down in 2013, just months before the coup, bringing the Bandera-lovers back to power.
The eastern Ukrainians, mostly native Russians, centred in Donetsk and Lughansk, saw the coup as a surreal rerun of WWII, this time with Banderistas triumphant. They had no real plan, but panicked at the thought of what was to come, and seized government buildings and declared themselves mini-republics, calling on Russia to come and rescue them, as was happening in Crimea.
A tall order. Much as Putin empathized with his fellow Russians, now being bombed and boycotted by the Ukrainian forces, with a death toll of 10,000 so far. Between 22 and 25 August 2014, Russian artillery, personnel, and what Russia called a "humanitarian convoy", crossed the border into Ukrainian territory without the permission of the Ukrainian government.
This state of stalemate led the war to be labelled by some a war of aggression against poor Ukraine, a "frozen conflict". The area has stayed a war zone, with dozens of soldiers and civilians killed each month. Close to 4,000 rebel fighters and the same number of 'loyalists' have been killed, along with 3,000 civilians. 1.5 million have been internally displaced; and a million have fled abroad, mostly to Russia.
A deal to establish a ceasefire, called the Minsk Protocol, was signed on 5 September 2014, but immediately collapsed. It called for reincorporation of the rebel territories under a federal system, with full rights of the Russian-speakers and open relations with the Russian Federation. Russia stands by the principles of the protocol, calling for Ukrainian borders to stay as they are, despite the pleas of the rebels. This restraint pleases neither side. The Russians clearly will not abandon their fellow Russians, but at the same time, refuse to invade and start a war with their unpredictable, basket-case of a neighbour. Russians are surely thinking: Ukrainians -- you can't get along with them or without them.
The Russian position is clear and firm: give Russian Ukrainian their rights, make our borders porous for locals and their relatives, revive shattered economic links among common peoples with a thousand years of common history. Get on with it.
The Ukrainian position is mostly hysterical, calling for NATO and Europe to fight off the Russkies, salvage the bankrupt economy, ignore the creepy fascists. WWIII if necessary. The coupmakers are unrepentant as Ukraine slides deeper into insolvency, corruption getting worse (if that's possible). Poroshenko is as unpopular as a leader can get, and only the threat of a Ukraine shattered in pieces gives him a life preserver among his citizens.
The West incited the coup and quickly embraced it, ignoring its unsavoury origins in nostalgia for fascism. While it feigns shock and anger at Russian actions, it certainly can't ignore that the Russians really had no choice, that their actions were/are both necessary and measured.
It looks suspiciously like the West is sitting back and enjoying the fisticuffs, reminding one of how the West sat back and let the Russians do the dirty work in WWII, defeating the Nazis, with the 'Allies' joining in the last year to warrant their claims (now the official story) that the US won the war -- with a little help from its friends and even the nefarious Russians.
A messy conclusion to that war, the ultimate 'frozen conflict', the Cold War, that spawned the current many mini-frozen conflicts (Trans-Dniester, Abkhazia, Ossetia, Kosovo, not to mention ones farther afield, like Taiwan and Somaliland -- all legacies of the Cold War).
The plan is evolving, depending on what the Russians do. Putin's red line is that Ukraine cannot – will not -- join NATO. The NATO creep eastward, a violation from 1991 on of the implicit understanding with Gorbachev and Yeltsin, will not be tolerated.
The Ukrainian coup created a new scenario. If Russia had moved to support the rebel territories, form a customs union with open borders, aimed at eventual incorporation in the Russian Federation, that would have given the NATOphiles their trump card, and NATO and the EU would be hard pressed not to move in and try to salvage a bankrupt dysfunctional state, with the final coup as its prize: NATO now lined up surrounding Russia, the last real holdout against US world domination.
The Baltic ministates and (almost all) the Balkan ministates are now in the NATO fold. There are a few loose ends for the EU in the Balkans, but EU hegemony economically and US hegemony militarily are the new playing field. The there's Turkey as a key NATO ally.
Whether this is an actual conspiracy or not, only Russian hackers can tell, but the logic is there. Putin sees this logic and is not biting the bullet. Better a tolerable federated Ukraine, where Russians are left in peace, or another frozen conflict, than NATO breathing fire on Russia's borders.
The West played the 'shock and anger' card over Crimea, ignoring the fact that Crimea has been a key part of Russia since Catherine the Great since 1783, the heart of Russian naval power, thoughtlessly given to Ukraine when Soviet internal borders were meaningless, populated by mostly Russians and Tatars.
As Ukrainian nationalism heated up after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia still maintained its bases there, paying rent to Ukraine. But dreams by Ukrainian Russophobes to join NATO, and the desire of NATO forces to occupy Crimea, or that somehow Russia and NATO could share Crimean bases, are nonsensical. Russia's only option was to accede to Crimeans' pleas.
As if to taunt the Russians on Crimea, a British missile destroyer and a Turkish frigate docked at the port of Odessa in July for a joint NATO maritime exercise , several days after the US, Ukraine and 14 other nations deployed warships, combat aircraft and special operations teams for the ‘Sea Breeze 2017’ exercise off the Ukrainian coast.
It looks like a reenactment of western policy following the Crimean War in 1856, when Russia was denied its naval presence in the Black Sea, as Britain and France were preparing to take the Ottoman territories for themselves and keep Russia out in the cold. Combined with the NATO creep in the Baltics and Balkans, it also looks like a replay of the build up to WWII. But without the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. To Stalin's (sorry, Putin's) discomfort, there is no split among the imperialists anymore. Germany et al are postmodern nations, nations without a foreign policy, beholden to the world hegemon, the US. There is only one thousand-year reich (sorry, pax americana) on the table these days. History may repeat itself, but in its own ways.
Frozen conflicts have a bad reputation, but peace is always better than war. Tempers cool over time, past wrongs can be ironed out with reason and compromise. Donetsk and Lughansk will not hoist a white flag to Kiev, given the bad blood. They will continue to get electricity and gas from Russia, and revive their economies by reviving trade and industry with their real ally. Kiev should be careful in its game of trying to starve the rebels into submission. Russians as a people have never backed down when faced with a hostile enemy.
The longer the freeze continues, the more willy-nilly integration with the Russian economic sphere will proceed. Or rather the Eurasian customs union (EACU) that Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan formed in 2010, eliminating obstacles to trade and investment that went up after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Moscow stands to benefit as a natural hub for regional finance and trade and Ukraine is welcome. Win win. A free trade pact as an economic strategy elevates the prospects of the entire region where Russia is a natural centre of gravity. In 2015 the EACU was enlarged to include Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. Russia imports labour from the 'stans' and could well help Ukraine by inviting Ukrainians to work as well.
Sensible realpolitik by the West would take NATO away from Russian borders, and push Ukraine to make an acceptable deal on a federal state structure to keep its own Russians and its neighbour happy. Sensible realpolitik by Ukraine would be to join the EACU, bringing 'little Russians', 'white Russians' and plain old Russians back together. This would be welcomed with relief by EU officials, who have no military axe to grind, and are not happy about the billions it would take to get Ukraine off life support.