Alexander Motyl: Will Putin Avoid Getting Cornered?

The New Pathway has interviewed Alexander J. Motyl, a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark, as well as a writer and painter. Mr. Motyl is an internationally acclaimed political scientist with Ukrainian roots and he has been writing extensively about the Ukrainian Revolution and war for the World Affairs Journal, Foreign Affairs and numerous other publications.
NP: Will the Malaysian airliner’s disaster be enough for the U.S. and Europe to provide military equipment or other forms of military aid (NATO forces on the ground/peacekeeps/advisors) to Ukraine?
AM: I don’t expect the Europeans to provide military assistance anytime soon. But the disaster is certainly going to increase the pressure on the Obama Administration, and it’s conceivable that the U.S. might funnel some of the equipment it currently has in Iraq and Afghanistan (and which is slated for withdrawal) to Ukraine. Depending on the amounts and kind, deliveries could even be clandestine.
NP: If Putin does not yield to Merkel-Cameron-Holland’s ultimatum about full access to the crash scene, is the West ready to corner Russia into a Libya/North Korea position (considering economic ties and a pro-Russian lobby in the West)?
AM: Russia has not quite yet become (or, more accurately, it is not yet perceived as having become) a fully rogue state, an international outlaw a la North Korea or Libya. Russia and Putin are rapidly moving in that direction, however, and it is getting exceedingly hard for Putin’s European supporters to argue that Europe should continue doing business as usual with Russia. I expect Europe to impose a wider and deeper range of sanctions; they will be sectoral and affect a range of Russian companies.
But the sanctions are likely to fall far short of the kind of full-scale economic boycott that affects North Korea. Even so, inasmuch as sanctions will have crossed the “red line” and become sectoral, they will be significant and hurt Russia.
NP: Is Putin rational enough to avoid getting cornered in this kind of position?
AM: He’s certainly rational; and he’s certainly not just, as is often suggested, a powerless captive of some crazy messianic ideology. That said, the real question is: how will he try to avoid getting cornered?
It would be as rational for him to try to wiggle out of the corner and continue trying to play Europeans against Europeans while supporting the terrorists as to meet with Poroshenko and the West, sue for peace, and declare that, thanks to him (Putin), peace has finally come to Ukraine.
NP: What would the worst-case and base case scenarios for this war going forward?
AM: At present, the worst case scenario would be for Putin to up the ante and invade the small bit of eastern Ukraine the terrorists still hold, while possibly striking parts of Ukraine with pinpoint rocket attacks. That would be almost crazy, as it would elicit an immediate very strong Western reaction and probably result in a humiliating defeat for Russia, but Putin might conclude, if he’s desperate enough, that this might be the only way to reinforce his strongman image in Russia. The best case would be for him to sue for peace, as I just suggested. The base case would be a continuation of the present, although that route is ultimately a losing proposition, as it would mean supporting the terrorists (who are being viewed as rogues) and watching their positions crumble before the advances of the Ukrainian army.
NP: After the “Maidan Revolution”, what has changed in the Ukrainian society/economy/government, what is changing and what is not changing (but needs to change)?
AM: For the first time, arguably ever, Ukraine has a solidly pro-Western, pro-reform elite and society, a patriotic, self-mobilized, active, and pro-Ukrainian civil society and population, an increasingly patriotic security apparatus and army, the solid support of the West and of key Western institutions, and a crystal-clear sense of who the “enemy” is – Russia.
Ukrainians have finally become Ukrainian, and their society and state are finally in the West. This is unprecedented and of world-historical importance.
What needs to change is of course the economy, the state apparatus, the society. The economy has to be made more market friendly, the state has to be trimmed, decentralized, made less corrupt, and subordinate to the rule of law, and society has to be made less corrupt and also subordinate to the еrule of law. Opening up the economy is “easy,” as are trimming and decentralizing the state. A few good laws can do the trick. Changing attitudes to corruption and rule of law will take time.
NP: How has this Revolution affected your work as an artist? How do you convey your feelings into the work that you do (paintings/literary work)?
AM: In the last few weeks, I’ve painted two satirical paintings of Putin, available at my facebook page, one of him as a spy outside a gay bar in Hamburg, the other of him bathing with his girlfriend in the icy waters of the Volga. Back in December-January, I had also written a satirical novel, tentatively titled Ardor House, that features an oafish and thuggish Ukrainian president by the name of Zekovich (as in “zek”, of course). The tragedy of the Malaysian airliner has put satire on hold, but I will probably return to the genre soon. Satire is the perfect weapon against such insufferably and ridiculously self-important tyrants as Yanukovych and Putin. Yanukovych is almost too easy a target, being a bumbling fool. Putin, in contrast, has all the preposterous attributes of Mussolini. My earlier (2010) novel, The Jew Who Was Ukrainian, had depicted Putin as the “extraordinarily great leader of Mother Russia”- a man by the name of “Pitoon,” which “rhymed almost perfectly with spittoon.” He was the target of a failed assassination attempt by the novel’s anti-hero, the tortured “Jew who was Ukrainian,” Volodymyr Frauenzimmer.

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