What is Putin's Secret Weapon?

Pro-Russian protesters raise a Russian flag in front of the regional administration building during a rally in the industrial
Pro-Russian protesters raise a Russian flag in front of the regional administration building during a rally in the industrial Ukrainian city of Donetsk on March 1, 2014. More than 10,000 people carrying Russian flags protested in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, the stronghold of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych. Protesters declared they supported 'the aspirations of Crimea to rejoin Russia', referring to Ukraine's pro-Russia peninsula further south where Kiev has accused Moscow of launching an 'armed invasion.' AFP PHOTO/ ALEXANDER KHUDOTEPLY (Photo credit should read Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images)

Does Russia's President Vladimir Putin have some secret weapon? It seems that, with a wave of his hand in the Kremlin, he can cause crowds of secessionists to gather on the streets of eastern Ukraine, crowds that somehow have enough local authority even to stop and disarm Ukrainian army units that confront them. One might wonder whether Putin has developed some mysterious ability to cause such crowds to materialize at his command from afar, while the leadership in Kiev seems helpless to respond.

Some have argued that Putin may be applying dark arts of espionage that he learned in his years as a KGB officer in East Germany before 1990. However instructive that experience may have been, let me suggest that it is a distraction from understanding the real secret to Putin's tactical mastery in the eastern provinces of Ukraine today. Secret agents and commandos cannot accomplish much without local political support.

Putin's ability to manage people in local government developed when he worked for the mayor of Saint Petersburg between 1991 and 1996. Then in 1997, most significantly, Vladimir Putin became President Boris Yeltsin's deputy in charge of relations with Russia's 89 regional governments. According to Andrew Jack (Inside Putin's Russia, 2006, p. 79), Putin has described this position of presidential deputy for regional-government relations as perhaps the most interesting job in his career.

For the better part of a year, it was Putin's job to negotiate political deals with locally elected leaders in all the provinces of Russia. Surely he then spent much time on the phone with local leaders, making promises and threats to win their cooperation in managing politics and public policy throughout Russia. In this work, he developed sinews of power that reached out from Moscow to every part of Russia.

Ukraine's provinces today have locally elected councils but, under Ukraine's constitution, a presidentially-appointed governor actually supervises the state administration in each province. Thus, without much effective power under the constitution, these provincial councilors have little stake in the political system of Ukraine. In a province where local voters did not support the current president or prime minister, nobody with popular support in the province may have any real stake in Ukraine's government at any level, local or national.

But in winning their local elections, the provincial councilors have proven their ability to mobilize thousands of local residents for political action. However minor their role may seem under the constitution of Ukraine, these locally elected councilors have power to make crowds materialize in their communities.

Surely Putin has long understood, better than anyone else, how a few calls and promises from the Kremlin could readily recruit many of these local leaders in eastern Ukraine to win their cooperation in organizing local residents for pro-Russian demonstrations. To an unappreciated provincial councilor who has gotten words of assurance that he or she would be warmly welcomed into Putin's party of power, the idea of secession from Ukraine into Russia could become quite appealing. No bags of cash would be needed.

We may wonder, did Putin leave these calls to his presidential deputies, or did he personally call many of these local leaders in Ukraine? We must also wonder, how many provincial councilors in eastern Ukraine have gotten any competing calls from any high-ranking leader of the current Kiev government?

Ukraine is considering constitutional reform proposals to decentralize power. A decentralization reform can strengthen Ukraine against the current threats to its sovereign integrity only if the reform can convince elected local leaders throughout the country that they will have some real power to serve their communities under the new decentralized system. National leaders of Ukraine should be actively discussing the details of such reform proposals with sympathetic members of the provincial councils in disaffected regions, to formulate a reform plan that can win the loyalty of popularly elected local leaders in every part of Ukraine.

Thus, Putin's secret weapon should not seem so mysterious. The deep question now is whether leaders in Kiev have realized the vital importance of negotiating with these locally elected leaders, to ask their support for preserving the sovereign integrity of Ukraine within its current recognized boundaries. Surely there are still some of these local councilors who would welcome such a call from Kiev.