Putin's Gambit

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The big news today is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on separatists in eastern Ukraine to hold off on their referendum, scheduled for May 11. Putin also reportedly said that the expected presidential voting in Ukraine, set for May 25, was a 'step in the right direction.' This is interesting because he had previously been opposed to the voting.

Naturally, people are excited. Here's the Washington Post's take on the developments:

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to take conciliatory steps Wednesday to ease tensions in Ukraine, calling for pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country to postpone a planned Sunday referendum that could exacerbate violence and saying that a May 25 presidential election whose legitimacy the Kremlin had previously questioned was now “a movement in the right direction.” The remarks marked a significant shift in tone from the hard line that Putin and other top Russian officials had taken for weeks toward the acting government in Kiev, which took power after pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled in February in the face of popular protests.

Before people get too excited, however, they should think more about what Putin went on to say (emphasis mine):

“All of us are interested in settling this crisis, in settling it as soon as possible, accounting for the interests of all Ukrainian citizens irrespective of their place of residence,” Putin said.
“We are asking representatives in the southeast of Ukraine and supporters of federalization to postpone the referendum scheduled for the 11th of May,” Putin told reporters in Moscow. Speaking alongside Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), after a meeting about the Ukrainian crisis, Putin said that postponing the referendum would help create the “necessary conditions of dialogue” with the government in Kiev.
As I argued in a post the other day, the goal of the Kremlin in Ukraine is Kyiv, not eastern Ukraine. Why hold a referendum in eastern Ukraine that would either end up being hotly contested, or a complete farce? And what if the 'yes' side were to actually win? Then, Putin's options would be narrower, and he'd feel more pressure to actually act on behalf of the people he's been riling up for the past two months.

But surely Putin knows that actually getting involved in a military conflict in eastern Ukraine would be a crazy risk. Why do that when you can just destabilize the entire country?

The real goal for the Kremlin is to undermine the legitimacy of the central government in Kyiv, and eventually create a weak, and very federalized, neighbor that will always be one step away from collapse. Eastern Ukraine is much more useful to Russia as a level through which to exert pressure on Kyiv than as a territorial conquest in its own right.

It's therefore not such a big deal that Putin would wish to delay the referendum in eastern Ukraine. Only bad outcomes could come from it--violence in eastern Ukraine that could more directly and officially involve the Russian Army, or else a joke of a vote that would only underscore the degree to which many people in eastern Ukraine prefer to stay in Ukraine. The referendum can cause problems. What's better? The threat of a referendum. 

So how to respond to this? Hopefully the people working for Obama understand that Putin's recent comments by no means signal a concession. Unless the Russian President has totally lost his marbles, he wants to avoid war on his southern border. By calling on the separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone their referendum, Putin is trying to save them from themselves, as well as rein these people in. Because the very worst thing that could happen to Putin would be for this situation to spin out of control. 

The US, meanwhile, doesn't have much choice other than to encourage this 'progress' in talks. What else is John Kerry going to do--tell the separatists to go on with their referendum? He has no choice but to go along with things, but should do so with the understanding that this is exactly what Russia wants. Eastern Ukraine is just a tool. Returning a Yanukovych-type person to power--and presumably in a more permanent way than was the case with the exiled former president--is, I think, Putin's ultimate objective in Ukraine.

Frankly, the interests of the US and Ukraine diverge after a certain point. American presidents are concerned with maintaining and expanding American influence and power in the region. People in Ukraine, meanwhile, might have to make choices that won't be pleasant. From an American perspective, it might actually appear preferable to some policymakers that Ukraine be divided, with eastern Ukraine going to Russia and the rest of the country get a new start as a member of the EU and NATO without having to worry about the east or Crimea anymore. Such a proposal, however, would of course be unacceptable to the vast majority of non-separatists in Ukraine and is a non-starter.

Even better would be to allow Ukraine's renegade provinces to vote on joining Russia. While I know that this won't happen, hear me out: it would be a real campaign, conducted in the open as has been the case with most of Ukraine's post-Soviet elections (at least relative to Russia). If people shifted gears right now from occupy-demonstrate mode to campaign mode, I think the Ukrainian government would win. Most important, over the course of a campaign lasting several months, I think it would begin to dawn upon people that, no matter what language they speak, they will likely have an incomparably freer life in Ukraine than in Russia.

An added kicker to this plan: once everything is said and done, some of the more than one hundred ethnicities living in Russia might start thinking it's a good idea to have referenda of their own. It was only a couple of decades ago that Russia was literally falling apart at the seams, with separatist movements appearing ascendant in Chechnya, Tatarstan and elsewhere. Putin's new (since 2008) policy of playing nationality games in the mini-republics of Russia's neighbors exposes a deathly vulnerability for the Kremlin in the form of Russia's own mini-republics.

Russia's republics exist in places where there are concentrations of non-Russian populations

Anyway, I know that this is just a fantasy. And why should Ukraine have to hold referenda just to satisfy Russia? Nevertheless, I think that doing so would take the wind out of the sails of the separatists and redound negatively upon Russia. The worst case scenario would be that a few provinces, likely on the border with Russia, would go. This eventuality would probably serve American interests, but is understandably unacceptable to Kyiv. 

So what does all this mean? First of all, don't get too excited about these developments--it's just a move towards the Russian government's main objectives. Secondly, keep in mind that the real end game in Ukraine is Kyiv, not Kharkiv. Thirdly, if the Obama administration wants to have a prayer in this game, they'll need to shore up Kyiv big-time and make sure there's a big foreign presence for the elections.

And maybe also beware of sudden conciliatory-looking shifts like the one Putin is making right now.

Also see: 
Next Stop, Kyiv?

The Great Game: The US and Russia in Post-Soviet Space

Bad Idea Jeans: Ukraine Edition

Will he or won't he? Putin and Eastern Ukraine

Crimea and Eastern Ukraine: Things Can Always Get Worse

Tough Options

Russia and the Politics of Citizenship

The Crimea: More Than Just a War

More Thoughts on the Crimea

Crimea on the Brink: What's Going On?
More links, commentary and other stuff can be found at the Borderlands Lounge.

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