Ukraine and the Threat of Elmer Fudd

The Ukraine crisis is hideously dangerous: Vladimir Putin has too much at stake. This is the land he likes to call “Little Russia”, the cradle of Russian civilisation and its Orthodox religion. Russia’s huge military port at Savastopol (which has just appointed a pro-Kremlin Russian citizen as mayor) gives his Black Sea fleet winter access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. Ukraine’s pipeline network is critical to Moscow, carrying roughly half of Russia’s gas exports to Europe. Large numbers of its people speak Russian and think of themselves, at heart, as Russians. Without Ukraine, Putin’s vision of a Eurasian Union (including Belarus and Kazakhstan) would be the sad pipe dream of an ageing man.

But what makes this even more threatening is what the loss of Ukraine – particularly Crimea – would do to Putin’s image. Sometimes we can become prisoners of the image that we ourselves have created. Remember the photos of Putin, naked to the waist, gun in hand, a slightly pallid Russian “Rambo”. This is the image he has cultivated and cherished. The “man’s man”, the tough guy who doesn’t back down. Putin has a reputation as a winner. Now he must not, cannot lose Ukraine – or at least Crimea and “Russian” Ukraine. If he does, he goes, in one graceless tumble, from Rambo to Elmer Fudd.

I don’t believe Putin has yet decided whether or how to intervene, but the pieces are being put in place to justify armed intervention if needed. The Duma talk of making Russian passports easier to obtain for Ukrainian ethnic Russians. The Foreign Ministry makes ominous noises about human rights of Russians in Ukraine. The Russian media are full of frenzied stories of the fascist nationalists in Ukraine. Echoes of South Ossetia and Abkhazia ring uncomfortably clear. And now 150,000 Russian troops have been ordered into an exercise to test the “combat readiness” of the western and central command.

Meanwhile, there seems to be no strong Ukrainian leader to fill us with hope. Even in Kiev it’s recognised that an angelic face, two years imprisonment and a bad back does not make the controversial former gas magnate Yulia Tymoshenko a heroine. Her record suggests she would be both divisive and ineffective. Klitcschko is probably not ready, and was booed by the Maidan crowd.

Europe cannot allow Russia to seize Ukraine. But Putin cannot afford to lose it. He looks in the mirror, and the spectre of Elmer Fudd may be looking back. Russia’s Rambo might need to reassert his manhood. A horribly menacing phase looms.