Putin and Russia’s “Hells’ Angels”

By Simon Saradzhyan in Moscow for ISN Security Watch
July 15, 2009

In 1965, Hell’s Angels leader Sonny Barger led members of the outlaw motorcycle club in an attack on a group of students protesting the Vietnam War and then cabled President Lyndon Johnson, volunteering himself and fellow outlaws to fight in Vietnam as a “crack group of trained guerrillas.” LBJ never bothered to write back.

Barger would have had more luck with former Russian president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Not only did Putin meet with the leader of the Russian motorcycle club (MC) “Night Wolves,” Alexander Zaldostanov, earlier this month, but he also presented the MC head with a large Russian flag to fly at the bikers’ show, which the club has organized in support of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet (BSF) in the Crimea.

The Night Wolves proudly flew Putin’s tricolor gift as they rode their sleek iron horses along the streets of Sevastopol this weekend to the cheers of residents, the mayor and the commander of the BSF. Such a reception for the Russian flag should come as no surprise.

Ethnic Russians account for more than 70 percent of the Crimean population, which Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred from Russia to Ukraine over 50 years ago. Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based in Sevastopol, where it is the largest employer.

Russia wants to keep the BSF in the Crimea beyond the expiration of the current lease in 2017.

On a strategic level, presence of the BSF in the Crimea arguably helps Russia keep Ukraine within what it defines as a zone of its “privileged interests” in the post-Soviet neighborhood, contrary to the aspirations of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko who wants Ukraine to join NATO and the EU.

The “regional significance” of Ukraine and Georgia for Russia was one of the issues that Putin raised at the 7 July breakfast with US President Barack Obama shortly before his visit to the Night Wolves’ Moscow lair, according to Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Yuri Ushakov. The prime minister also told Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush at a NATO summit last year, that “Ukraine is not even a state,” and warned the West to keep its hands off “Little Russia.”

All this could be evidence that Putin – who continues to exercise enormous influence over Russia’s foreign policy – may be yearning, at least on the emotional level, for return of Ukraine to the “Big Russia.”

But it is time for Putin to put his emotions, or territorial aspirations if there are any, aside. While fostering Russia’s soft power in the Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, Putin and other Russian leaders should avoid encouraging separatism or disloyalty there.

The war in South Ossetia has demonstrated that the Kremlin cannot indefinitely maintain a military presence against a neighboring state’s will and tacitly support separatism in this state’s provinces in hopes of anchoring it to Russia. Sooner or later, one side will attempt to break the stalemate.

No matter who provokes violence in the Crimea, the consequences of an armed conflict in Europe would be in no one’s interests. Russia might as well forget about its hopes for a friendlier Ukraine as well as its plans for a new pan-European security architecture. And Ukraine, apart from possibly losing part of its territory for good, would be pushed years back economically and politically. As for the peninsula itself, few would be willing to recognize an independent Crimea.

The upcoming elections in Ukraine may offer a window of opportunity to set aside the emotional past and reset Ukrainian-Russian relations, building them on both sides’ overarching interests in regional stability, prevention of conflicts and economic cooperation.

Yushchenko stands little chance of winning re-election next January, and the new Ukrainian leader may prove to be more balanced in his vision of Ukraine’s defense and foreign policy posture, and more accommodating of Russia’s legitimate interests in the region.

However, Moscow should not hope that the winner will anchor Ukraine to Russia. After all, any Ukrainian leader who chose to do so would be committing political suicide as he would be acting against his nation’s vital interests, which require balanced relations with both East and West.

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