THE BLOG

Putin's Crossing and the 'Chocolate King'

28/08/2014 11:10 BST | Updated 27/10/2014 09:59 GMT

'Dear comrade Putin,' says a woman who has lost a leg by a shrapnel during shelling near her home town in eastern Ukraine, 'we're told that fighters and weapons are coming across from Russia. Take pity on us because we're choking from grief and in blood. Please take back your men.'

It's symptomatic that she uses the old Soviet word 'Comrade' (tovarishch) to address the Russian president, which the BBC voiceover casually substitutes with Mr.

The legacy of the old communist days is still there - in attitudes, culture and language. And in propaganda!

As fighting continues between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian government forces, Ukraine says it has captured ten Russian paratroopers on its territory. The Ukrainian security service said the ten were seized near the village of Dzerkalne, about thirty miles south east of the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk and just over ten miles from the Russian border. Ukrainian television has broadcast interviews with some of the men. One of them criticises the Russian involvement in Ukraine. 'Why?' he said, 'This is not our war.'

The Russian military admitted that the ten had been patrolling an unmarked section of the border when they 'accidentally' crossed into Ukraine. They showed no resistance when they were detained.

This comes hot on the heels of another Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine - a huge 'humanitarian' convoy carrying supplies to the rebel-held city of Luhansk, which had been besieged by Ukrainian government forces. The NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen saw in this 'a high probability' of Russian military intervention. Russia insists that there is no hidden military agenda.

As turf war unfolds in eastern Ukraine, the new president, Petro 'Chocolate King' Petroshenko, shakes hands with President, Vladimir 'I'm so Powerful' Putin, in neighbouring Belarus. They are being watched with bewildered puzzlement by the autocratic president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. On the other side of the two stands the EU foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton. You might be forgiven for asking: 'What on earth is going on?'

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AP Photo

Ever since the annexation of Crimea by President Putin earlier this year, the West has been agonising about how to deal with the resurgent Russian imperialism in the region. It has to find a formula to accommodate our aspiration that we don't reward aggression and our economic interests. Sanctions are undoubtedly hurting us almost as much as they hurt the Russians.

Sanctions have forced Russia to look towards China as a trading partner. The official Chinese media have been sympathetic to the Russian move on Crimea. The annexation has been described as 'the return' of Crimea to Russia. And to many, this may be an accurate historical statement.

The legacy of the Soviet Union still reverberates. In 1954, Khrushchev signed away Crimea to the then Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic at the drop of a hat. But it didn't matter at the time. It was just an administrative move. Life of those in Crimea didn't really change. Arbitrary redrawing of boundaries of the then Soviet republics, forcible migration and displacement of populations were commonplace. And they are coming back to haunt a turbulent region.

But to portray Russia as solely preoccupied with the wellbeing of the Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine is wrong. It has ambitions to protect its interests, namely it doesn't want another NATO country on its doorstep.

It's equally wrong to portray the new Ukrainian government only as defendant of Ukrainian national identity. There are powerful business interests at stake. Petro Poroshenko is an oligarch who amassed his vast fortune on the back of acquiring on the cheap Soviet state factories. His business empire originally built on chocolates has expanded to include construction and inevitably the media. He owns a TV station, the influential Channel 5 (5 Kanal). Politics and business in Ukraine, like in Russia, are inextricably linked. Poroshenko has been part of almost all Ukrainian governments of different colours and persuasions in recent years, including a spell in the government of his pro-Russian predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, who was toppled by the mass demonstrations in February this year.

Judging by their body language in Minsk, I think Putin and Poroshenko understand one another, they speak the same post Soviet language. Although Poroshenko is much younger, he is still a product of the old Soviet days. He's been vilified by the Russian propaganda machine, which accused him of building his fortune through criminal acquisitions of former Soviet companies, or even that there is a carcinogenic compound in his chocolate pralines, which are being boycotted in Russia. But he thinks he can reach compromise with President Putin. He is in favour of EU membership, although recently his enthusiasm about joining NATO has somewhat abated. And he is firmly in favour of keeping Ukraine together and against any moves towards partition or 'federalisation'.

Poroshenko is a skilful negotiator and I think that in Ukraine's 'Chocolate King' Putin has found his match.