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If there was a standard operating manual for the secret services of the world’s dodgier regimes, it would no doubt omit any mention of the term “agent provocateur”.
In Russia, Burma, Iran et al, state-backed agents never get involved in causing trouble. Instead, there are only “patriotic local citizens”, who, unable to contain themselves, rise up in righteous indignation against those who might betray the nation.
That, if Russia is to be believed, is exactly what it happening in eastern Ukraine right now. According to a statement this morning from the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, there are “no Russian agents” at all in the city of Slavyansk, scene of the latest bout of pro-Russian unrest that erupted over the weekend.
Indeed, the only secret agent that Mr Lavrov expressed worries about this morning was George Brennan, the director of the CIA, who was rumoured to have gone on a secret mission to Kiev last week.
Only a hardened cynic, of course, would cast doubt Mr Lavrov’s word about the absence of Russian agents in east Ukraine. But such people do exist, and not just in the White House.
Take, for example, the gunmen who have seized control of the police station in Slavyansk, who, when interviewed by my colleague Roland Oliphant over the weekend, were fairly candid about getting Russian help. Asked by Roland where his weapon came from, one masked man nodded at the Russian flag now flying from the police station and said: “Look at that flag. You know which country that represents.” He must have forgotten to read that secret service operating manual.
So is this another Crimea, another land-grab by stealth? On the face of it, yes. The Ukrainian government had always warned that it expected Russia to bide its time for a few weeks before stirring things up again . And among the gunmen that have seized buildings in Slavyansk and elsewhere in recent days, there is a small contingent who carry brand new weapons, and who seem far calmer, more relaxed and professional than the rest. If they were just ordinary locals, as Mr Lavrov contends, they’d probably be much more excited.
Whether this is the prelude to a full-scale Russian invasion, though, is another matter. For a full-scale invasion would be what Russia would need here, as annexing the whole of Eastern Ukraine is a very different prospect from annexing Crimea.
Crimea was relatively small area where support for secession was strong, the equivalent of low-hanging fruit in land grab terms. Eastern Ukraine is a much bigger chunk of turf, and home to far more people who have no desire to be part of Russia at all.
Annexation by Moscow would likely lead to a fierce anti-Russian insurgency, and far from being a vote winner for Vladimir Putin, as Crimea has been, could be a disaster. Not to mention the question of much-increased sanctions, although judging by Russia’s behaviour so far, that has not figured very high in Moscow’s calculations.
But the Kremlin does not actually need another land grab to make life hard for the government in Kiev. All it needs do is maintain the kind of aggro it is currently fomenting, then sit back and let events take their course.
With random and not-so-random gangs of armed thugs running amok everywhere, eastern Ukraine will quickly become ungovernable, its people in uproar and its industry unproductive. It will be as much of a headache to Kiev – if not more – than if it became part of Russia overnight.
True, there are of course local people in eastern Ukraine who would genuinely like to become part of Russia. It’s generally a poor area, and has its fair share of people who claim that the government in Kiev has all but ignored them since Ukraine got independence in 1991.
But ask them just why they want to become part of the Russian Federation, and the answers tell their own story. Few say “It’s because of Vladimir’s defence of democracy and human rights.” Few predict their business will fare better in Russia’s dynamic economy, dangerously dependent as it is on oil and gas.
Instead, when asked what the benefits of Russian citizenship would be, they speak quite literally of benefits – of pensions, social security and other hand-outs. In other words, Russia is seen a giant welfare state, and as such has a ready-and-willing client-class in eastern Ukraine, especially among the poor and destitute. That, together with the efforts of a few “patriotic local citizens”, gives Moscow all the levers it needs right now.
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