This little military escapade comes in the wake of wide protests against changes to Russian pension laws, and is accompanied by great frustration with the slow economy. As news of what was described, of course, as a Ukrainian provocation broke in Russia, the country’s most prominent opposition activist, Alexei Navalny, immediately observed that recent polls showed a drop in the popularity of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Expect to hear more on television, he wrote sarcastically, about the “aggressive Kiev military, supported by hawks from the Potomac.”
The timing might also have been chosen with an eye to the political calendar in Ukraine, which is gearing up for a presidential election next March. Perhaps the Russians want to inject a polarizing element into an already divided society; perhaps this is an answer to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s decision to break away from Russia; perhaps they want to provoke a postponement of the election altogether. In a narrow sense, they may already have succeeded in changing the political atmosphere. At a late-night meeting Sunday, President Petro Poroshenko — now far behind in the polls — called for a period of martial law in part of the country, and parliament voted Monday to impose it. It’s not clear yet what this means. It seems just to include military mobilization — Poroshenko has said there will be no restrictions on media or public gatherings, and no postponement of the election — but accusations of election meddling are already flying.