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Putin’s complex game in Ukraine

Putin’s complex game in Ukraine

Bridget Kendall, diplomatic correspondent, BBC News

What is President Putin up to?

Let us return to the end of March: Putin annexed Crimea, all the while denying the participation of the Russian army in the annex.

He brought thousands of Russian soldiers into full readiness near the Ukrainian border. He insisted that Viktor Yanukovych was still the legitimate Ukrainian President though the latter fled his own country.

He harshly criticised the new Kyiv government, calling it illegitimate and neo-fascist, and did not accept Kyiv’s plan to hold early elections.

He also warned: should the Russian-speaking citizens of “historically Russian,” to his mind, oblasts of Ukraine, feel threatened, he may use the power given to him by the Federation Council of Russia and send the army there.

He took the position of power and gladly used the opportunity to demonstrate Russia’s force potential.

Three months have gone by, and we see a completely different picture. President Putin’s position has changed – so what does he stand for now?

A complete 180

He negated his own words having admitted that the Russian army did participate in the accession of Crimea and even merited some soldiers with medals, though he continues to deny Russian military action in the east of Ukraine.

He no longer calls the Kyiv government illegitimate, acknowledged the new President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, and began peace talks with him.

And despite constant please from rebels for help, he did not carry out his worrisome threat: to give the order regarding a full-scale invasion into eastern Ukraine in order to support the pro-Moscow rebels. He did not even support their separatist steps – neither the May referenda nor the further proclamation of the self-declared republics.

Instead, the Russian armed forces close to the Ukrainian border were recalled back to their barracks (though the Americans claim that some accumulation of the army is still observable).

He even suddenly asked the Duma to take back his power to attack Ukraine, if needs be.

It might seem that having secured Crimea, President Putin calculated that he had gone as far as he could without excessive losses and that the time has come to make peace gestures and regulate the crisis.

But is it really so? What if Mr. Putin is playing a more complicated game?

Lessons learned

First, he has significant grounds to retreat. The Russians were so approving of the return of Crimea to Russia partially because it happened quite painlessly (at least, at the first glance): a simple bloodless transfer of power.

However the east of Ukraine is another story. It is a bloody turmoil of a conflict with a growing number of victims and refugees. It is was which the majority of Russians do not wish to see – and they definitely don’t want to send their sons there.

Putin has to prove himself as an ambassador for peace and not threaten invasion once again.

Besides, the Ukrainian government behaved more radically than Putin had probably anticipated. Having learned a bitter lesson from the Crimean situation – that avoiding conflict may lead to the country being ripped apart, – President Poroshenko sent the army to the east in order to push the rebels back and seek an agreement from a position of relative power.

The West also showed more confidence and less leeway that Putin might have expected, taking into accounts the events of 2008.

Back then the short war between Russia and Georgia ended with a hasty signing of a peace treaty on petition of some EU leaders. In the end, two pieces of territory – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – ended up formally independent but essentially under Moscow’s boot.

Mr. Putin probably thought that EU leaders will once more weigh their economical interests and reach the conclusion that they cannot afford to argue with Russia.

In reality the Georgian experience resulted in the opposite. It founded a model of Russia’s international behaviour, which is now exemplified by Crimea.

Some EU countries are now fearing that Putin’s plans might spread to further territories. This time they are especially worries as the conflict is not happening in faraway Caucasus but right on the porch of the EU and the NATO. This explains the joint pressure in the shape of sanctions – though minimal as of today, but they might be increased with time.

It also seems that western governments are no longer inclined to accept Mr. Putin’s statements as sincerely truthful. He hid the actions of the Russian soldiers in Crimea and now, when he is denying the presence of his army in the east of Ukraine, his words sound hypocritical.

Instead he is suspected of a new masking – destabilisation of part of Ukraine with cunning, through soldiers in irregular formations and volunteers, which are still allowed to cross the Russian border with heavy armament while Mr. Putin is loudly calling for Kyiv to stop their advances.

For yours and ours

What will happen next?

It is very possible that it depends on Putin’s calculation of how many more sanctions Russia can digest – and this question is much more complex than it might seem.

Moscow, it seems, has two opposite directions of thinking in this regard.

On one hand, there are nationalists and conservatives – many of which hold office in defence and security, – which see the West as an enemy and not a friends and, accordingly, are happy about the sanctions as a way to distance themselves from it.

On the other hand, there are pro-Western liberals and reformers which think that long-term incongruities with the West will have catastrophic consequences for the Russian economy.

Whose side is Mr. Putin on? I suspect that his nationalistic heart beats in time with those who are against the West; however his pragmatic mind, possibly, supports economic reformers. And it is quite possible that he is taking advantage of this clash for his own benefit.

Many years ago in a BBC interview Putin’s former judo instructor noted that in this sport Putin had a hard habit – to bend first to the right, then to the left to leave the competitor guessing.

I think it is a good metaphor for his style as a political tactician.

Possibly his goal is to make sure that all former Soviet states are in the hands of rulers dedicated to Moscow, which will definitely not go against its interests. It is very likely that this is what he is building state security on.

And if this is impossibly, then he might try to make these countries remain weak. How?

In Ukraine’s case he, on one hand, will resort to obvious leeway in order to avoid the sanctions of the West, which would really “bite” and influence the level of living in Russia, which means his popularity and chances of re-election in 2018 as well.

But on the other hand, he continues to intervene in the affairs of eastern Ukraine and anywhere he does not see significant resistance in order to emphasise his main idea: Russia as a state and he, personally, as a leader, should not be viewed lightly and, on the contrary, his point of view should be taken into account.


Translated by Mariya Shcherbinina

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