If the world blinks, Putin will seize the rest of Ukraine

This will be a crucial year for Ukraine’s delicately balanced democracy and sovereignty. A real danger exists that Russian President Vladimir Putin will scan the new world order and think the time is right to complete his takeover of Ukraine.

An inwardly focused nationalism is taking the global stage in the U.S. (with the election of President Trump) and in England (with the Brexit vote). Europe may see further divisions with important elections this year in the Netherlands, France and even in Germany where populist candidates are ahead in some polls.

These isolationist leanings are the sorts of distractions that Putin will exploit in Ukraine by using tactical hybrid aggression – a combination of military posturing, disinformation warfare and use of paid local surrogates to carry the Kremlin’s agenda. I hope our friends in Congress, who have been loyal to Ukraine, will not turn away from the global stage in this new era and will continue to support the freedom of the Ukrainian people.

Through a combination of military muscle and non-military actions designed to destabilize Ukraine, Putin hopes to chip away at Ukraine’s armed resistance and convince its citizens to question the legitimacy and effectiveness of the government they elected.  With the West pre-occupied with its own domestic issues, Putin will seize any opportunity to return Ukraine to Kremlin’s orbit or ensure it becomes a failed state.

Putin is tapping into the Russian longing for a return to the Soviet empire.  But this is nothing more than a distraction for his people, meant to hide the fact that Russia itself is failing economically. Russia makes no products that are competitive in the global marketplace. After oil, its most competitive export may be internet hacking. Outside of an aging nuclear arsenal, modern Russia has little in the way of new or innovative technology to be proud of.

It’s clear Putin has little regard for his own people. He leads a government that spends heavily on military and propaganda and neglects funding for education, healthcare, pensions, modernization and other important areas for the Russian people. By attacking Ukraine, menacing the Baltic States, using limited resources to take sides in Syria, and meddling in U.S. and European elections, he puts his own machismo above his people’s interests.

The most recent example of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign against Ukraine is the assertion by former Ukrainian politician Oleksandr Onyshchenko that the government of Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko accepted millions of dollars in bribes for political favors.

These allegations are not confirmed. What is confirmed is Onyshchenko was accused by Ukraine’s national anti-corruption body of embezzling $62 million in state funds. He was stripped of his seat in the Ukrainian parliament and charged with treason. Onyshchenko fled Ukraine to London, but not before making one stop – in Moscow.

Onyshchenko has produced no documents or other evidence to back up his wild stories. Unsurprisingly, Kremlin-backed media – broadcast by satellite across Ukraine – are using Onyshchenko’s allegations to disrupt the Kiev government and to undermine Poroshenko’s government.

At the Free Russian Foundation, a U.S. non-profit organization that assists Russian civil society and works with the Russian diaspora – especially those who’ve left Russia because of political oppression – we have collected many first-hand accounts of Kremlin tactics. We have watched Russia wage its de facto war in Ukraine for three years. We have seen Russia pour millions into funding fake news, propaganda and disinformation – not to mention military expenditures – to further its empire-reassembling agenda. And all the while, the Russian economy – and its people – continue to suffer.

The danger from Putin’s Russia is imminent and unrelenting for Ukraine and whichever sovereign neighbor Kremlin sets its sights on next. Putin stole Crimea and has much of eastern Ukraine. He will not be happy until he has Kiev under his control. I hope this was on the agenda during British Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent visit to the White House. The world’s great democratic powers – the U.S., the U.K. and Ukraine’s friends in Europe – must not fall prey to the siren call of nationalism and ignore Russia’s blatant imperialism, because it will not stop on its own.

This article first appeared at The Hill’s site.

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Natalia Arno

Natalia Arno

President of Free Russia Foundation