This week’s ethnic Russian demonstrations in Eastern Ukraine, fistfights in the Ukrainian parliament, and the image of a country unraveling are all too predictable. They are right out of Putin’s Crimea playbook from a month ago. And just as in Crimea, we shouldn’t believe anything Moscow says about what it is doing. Putin aims to destabilize the heavily Russian-speaking eastern part of Ukraine to weaken confidence in the Kiev government and argue that Russia alone can bring about order.
Putin said Crimea would be his last territorial demand in the former Soviet space. But it is best with Putin not to listen to what he says but watch what he does. He massed thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border to intimidate its people and government. As Secretary of State John Kerry argued this week, the Russian government sent in its own operatives to stir up protests in the big cities of eastern Ukraine’s industrial heartland — Donetsk, Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Dnepropetrovsk. Gangs of armed men seized Ukrainian government offices and alternatively pleaded for Russian help in organizing plebiscites to vote for freedom from Ukraine.