BY STEPHEN BLANK
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s allegation of a foiled Russian coup attempt against him underscores the linked external and internal threats confronting Ukraine. The external threat is most visible in the approximately 114,000 troops Russia has massed on Ukraine’s borders because Russian President Vladimir Putin understands that his patrimonial autocracy cannot survive with an independent Westward-leaning Ukraine on its borders.
Since empire is the historical corollary of Russian autocracy and are equally dependent on each other to survive, from Moscow’s standpoint Ukraine cannot be thought of as an independent state. Moreover, Putin has nothing to offer Russia but imperial circuses since he can no longer offer bread to an economically stagnant Russia that is also being ravaged by COVID-19.
In that context, the presence of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders has been almost exclusively seen as a prelude to invasion. This perception is understandable and could well be correct, but it is incomplete. Anyone familiar with the Soviet modus operandi when confronting such challenges will remember that Moscow’s invasions and interventions in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 took place concurrently with the installation of a pro-Russian regime that supposedly invited Moscow’s coercion to create a façade of legitimacy.
Similarly in Poland in 1981, Moscow, though unwilling to intervene directly, clearly threatened from the outset to strike at the Solidarity movement and Poland and supported General Jaruzelski’s coup, which he defended as an alternative to invasion and war.
Consequently, it is entirely consonant with Moscow’s modus operandi to plan a coup with the apparent intention of bringing to power Ukraine’s reportedly richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, supposedly a man Moscow could rely on and an opponent of Zelensky.
Akhmetov could then conceivably be persuaded to allow for an invasion or intervention to reestablish a pro-Russian order. Therefore, nobody should be surprised that this gambit was apparently underway, although Zelensky denied that Akhmetov had yet been approached to play the role of a Ukrainian quisling. Indeed, pro-Russian writers warned of such a coup.
On the one hand, the failure of this coup might further prompt Putin to use force in the absence of any indigenous support for his designs on Ukraine. On the other hand, the derangement of Russia’s plans makes an outright invasion still more potentially costly and adds to the risk of failure, for if it cannot be carried off quickly, its chances for failure multiply.
The second danger this affair highlights is the internal threat, namely the threat from an unreformed or incompletely reformed oligarchical system. The fact that the alleged plotters assumed they could “capture” Akhmetov for the coup reflects the fact that the Ukrainian oligarchs have long had extensive and multifarious ties to Russian economic, energy, financial, governmental and intelligence communities, if not also state-controlled criminal syndicates.
They are willing participants in Russian corruption. Moscow has consistently counted on their support in frustrating reform and Ukrainian independence and evidently believes it can continue to do so.
These internal security issues justify, and even impel, Kyiv to continue and even accelerate the drive towards “de-oligarchization” enshrined in a recent law. Ukraine, for example, must open up its entire energy economy to healthy competition so it can supply its own energy needs and even export some gas to Eastern and Central Europe. It must also do so to eliminate Russia’s chances of finding Ukrainian quislings who, in order to safeguard their own ill-gotten gains, will mortgage the country to Moscow. In this sense, the coup highlighted the linked dual-sided internal and external threats to Ukraine emanating from Moscow and the urgency of squelching both of them.
Admittedly Ukraine cannot do this all by itself. It still needs International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans and Western military and political support. But without progress on the internal scene, that support will not be forthcoming. In this manner, de facto conditionality of the material and political support being sent to Kyiv is the right policy.
Were Ukraine to desist from reform to meet the visible military threat, it would be conquered rather easily from within and be isolated internationally. There is a lesson here for other similarly threatened European states, particularly in the Balkans. Relying on Moscow is like riding a tiger. Not only will the failure to take care of domestic reform isolate you from other institutions and states’ assistance; it will also ensure that you end up inside the tiger.
Therefore, Zelensky’s revelations highlight the intertwined dual threats Ukraine faces and what must be done to prevent them from being realized.
Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). He is also a former professor of Russian National Security Studies and National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. He is also a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia.