BERLIN – Grand political strategy and everyday experience often have a lot in common. Try, for example, to swallow a salami whole, and you will probably choke to death. In the world of high politics, people behave no differently: they slice their salami before consuming it. If they cannot achieve an objective immediately, they approach it patiently, step by step.
Today, the Kremlin is employing such “salami tactics” vis-à-vis Ukraine. Before our eyes, a tragedy in several acts is unfolding, in which the players and their aims are clear. What is not known is how many more acts this sad political spectacle will have, and thus when – and how – it will end.
The first act began in the fall of 2013, when then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych duped the European Union and its leaders by refusing to sign a long-planned association agreement. Instead, he chose to have Ukraine enter a customs union with Russia, in exchange for a pile of cash and cheap oil and natural gas. Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to have achieved his political aim, namely to bring Ukraine, which had been drifting toward Europe throughout the post-Soviet period, firmly back into the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.
The second act was staged by the Ukrainian people, who, in the west of the country and on the Maidan in Kyiv, rebelled against Yanukovych’s effort to align their country more closely with Russia. After three months of protests, the uprising led to Yanukovych’s ouster, temporarily derailing Putin’s plan to vassalize Ukraine peacefully. It was not NATO, the EU, or the United States that acted to block Ukraine’s shift eastwards. Yanukovych was chased from power by a significant majority of Ukrainians themselves.