THE BLOG

Putin Is Playing Cat and Mouse With the Ukraine

04/15/2014 12:37 EDT | Updated 06/15/2014 05:59 EDT

Now that Putin has successfully devoured Crimea, it is only the West that has indigestion. Pausing only politely after that appetizer, he has now begun to digest Ukraine proper. Perhaps it would be more exact that he has begun to eat away at the eastern regions. How much does he want? The appetite comes with the eating.

Perhaps it is unfair to say that Putin is digesting Ukraine. Certainly he is digesting Crimea: but not all Ukraine, not yet. How far will Putin go? The more you have, the more you want.

He will go as far as he can. Until now, he is still continuing to test limits; until now, he is still finding none. In the last few days, Russian Special Forces have seized over a half-dozen small or medium-sized towns near the border.

We know that they are Russian Special Forces for at least two reasons. First, photographs of some of the "activists" have been identified with photographs of anti-Ukrainian demonstrators in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Second, the Ukrainian "separatists" in the regions themselves are wholly surprised at events and uninformed about what will follow.

It bears adding, that although the Special Forces have been cleared out of one of the town halls that they seized, there are rumours that at least some Ukrainian forces tasked with clearing them out no longer take orders from Kyiv.

If this is so, then the reason is unclear. Perhaps the families of their commanders are being held hostage. This was the case with the Ukrainian chief of the Crimean fleet who notoriously surrendered near the beginning of the seizure of Crimea.

Putin has trapped Ukraine but not yet consumed it. He is playing with it like a cat with a mouse: not exactly a chess-playing cat, if you wish, who would have his opponent in a "Zugzwang": the term for the situation where any move you make, makes the situation worse; and you cannot pass your turn.

And Putin moves without waiting for others to take their turn. If every move that Kyiv makes, only makes the situation worse, then every move that Washington or Brussels does not make, also makes the situation worse. Yet if Kyiv makes no move, then this inertia itself demonstrates weakness and opens up new vulnerabilities.

Ukraine's appeal to the United Nations for peacekeeping forces only represents despair at the absence of Western assistance. Washington has generously sent Kyiv 300,000 MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) for its forces. Nothing more. It is not in Kyiv that these meals whet the appetite.

So the headline has grasped your attention, dear Reader, but I regret to inform that Putin is taking his time. If he has begun to digest Ukraine, then this does not mean that he has even begun to finish his meal.

At present he is nibbling away and has much further to go before his appetite is sated. But if he is taking his time, then there remains still time to act.

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