Putin’s Ukrainian Roulette

The unpredictability of Russian president Vladimir Putin has long worried the Western world. But the problem has become particularly evident in the context of the Ukrainian crisis, during which the official position of the Kremlin has changed repeatedly. Political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya speculates on Putin’s plans for Ukraine.

 

 

Russian president Vladimir Putin is an opportunist by nature. He sets a goal, makes decisions to achieve that goal as events unfold, and often revises his plan of action depending on the circumstances. In addition, his goals always involve some kind of variability of success.

With respect to Ukraine, Putin’s ultimate goal is to establish indirect political and economic control over its territory, eliminate the risk of Ukraine’s accession to NATO, and ensure a stable supply of Russian gas to Europe by controlling Ukrainian pipelines. The supply of gas to Europe is not only a commercial issue, but also a geopolitical one. For the Kremlin, it is important to preserve a monopoly on gas supplies from the former Soviet Union, and to do this, Ukraine’s gas transportation system, through which these supplies are made, must be controlled by Russia. Beyond these more pragmatic goals, Moscow wants the West to recognize Ukraine as Russia’s “traditional area of influence”.

This is why the Kremlin has opposed Kiev’s plans to sign an association agreement with the European Union under its “Eastern Partnership” program. The proposed agreement is widely seen as an initial, albeit symbolic, step taken by former Soviet republics towards European integration—a step that the Kremlin considers a potential threat to its national security. In five or ten years, such an agreement would not only integrate Ukraine into the European Economic Area, but would also make it part of a common EU security system, with potential for North Atlantic integration. The Kremlin has always tried to nip such risks in the bud.

The Kremlin succeeded in disrupting Ukraine’s signing of the association agreement; however, it failed to adequately calculate the potential consequences of this act. And that is despite the fact that the presidential administration consists of people who are far from incompetent. Their mistake was overconfidence and a deep conviction that “Ukraine is here to stay,” especially given the Kremlin’s “gas leverage.” The Kremlin has also always underestimated the strength of pro-European public sentiment in Ukraine. This is one of the major tactical errors of Russia’s leaders, who rely solely on political technologies and communication engineering, without due regard to social factors. They act on the assumption that by controlling the media, the government can generate its desired sentiment in society and promote the “correct” agenda.

February’s “Euromaidan” Revolution came as a total surprise to the Russian ruling elite who supported the “only legitimate” Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. The Kremlin was likewise unprepared for the rapidly deteriorating political situation in Ukraine, and for the tough stance Europe, and Germany in particular, took toward Moscow’s actions.

In the absence of a clear plan, the Kremlin started to take strange tactical steps in Ukraine. At first it tried to convince the international community that Ukrainian authorities had to adhere to the agreements reached on February 21 between Yanukovych and the Euromaidan leaders with the participation of EU representatives. Then Russia’s approach changed, and calls for a constitutional reform and the federalization of Ukraine became the thrust of the Kremlin’s policy. The basis for this aim is Russia’s desire to create political mechanisms that would give the southeastern provinces of Ukraine a kind of “veto power” over actions by the government in Kiev (including Ukraine’s accession to NATO and the downgrading of the Russian language’s status). Apart from federalization, another such mechanism could be the creation of an upper chamber of the Ukrainian parliament, where the Ukrainian regions would be represented, which would slow down the legislation process. According to Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, Moscow “does not hang on to the term [federalization],” and, under certain circumstances, would be prepared to compromise and replace it with “decentralization.” This juggling of words doesn’t change Russia’s strategic objectives, though.

A seeming contradiction in Russia’s policy toward Ukraine is the fact that on the one hand, Moscow calls for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and on the other, it provides moral and political support to separatists in the East. One shouldn’t infer from this that Russia is unfolding a sophisticated plan to grab half of Ukraine, though. The simple truth is, the Kremlin hasn’t fully made up its mind about what to do. Its previous tactics proved ineffective at protecting Russia’s geopolitical interests, and new tactics are yet to be developed. This explains the fluctuations in Russia’s “official line”: the Kremlin is testing various tactical options before making a decision.

Putin’s unpredictability is a critical issue, not because the world has yet to learn how to anticipate his actions, but because Putin himself acts reactively, without regard to the consistency of his decisions.

The most striking example of late is the statement Vladimir Putin made following his recent talks with the Swiss president and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) chairman Didier Burkhalter on May 7. Surprisingly to many, the Russian leader appealed to supporters of federalization in Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions to postpone the upcoming referendums on self-determination, which were scheduled to be held on May 11, and also referred to the presidential elections in Ukraine as “a step in the right direction.” These statements completely contradict everything that the Russian Foreign Ministry has maintained thus far, as well as the message that has been actively promoted in the media: Russia supports the secession of the eastern regions from Ukraine and does not recognize the presidential elections in Ukraine.

All these contradictions raise a number of questions. Where is the line between the Kremlin’s bluff and its true diplomatic stance? What is Russia actually trying to achieve in Ukraine? Why didn’t the separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk listen to Putin, and instead held the referendum against his advice? Were Putin’s recent statements a hypocritical manipulation, or a reaction to the Kremlin’s loss of control over the separatists it nurtured? Will the Kremlin recognize the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and integrate them into Russia?

The worst part is that Putin himself has no ready answers to these questions. His decisions are made based on short-term considerations, and can be drastically revised in light of new circumstances. Putin’s unpredictability is a critical issue, not because the world has yet to learn how to anticipate his actions, but because Putin himself acts reactively, without regard to the consistency of his decisions.

Today, Putin’s official plan is to advance the “New Russia” (Novorossiya) project, involving the creation of a quasi-state in the eastern part of Ukraine, including the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and merging them into a federal state called “New Russia” that could later become part of Russia. But this does not mean that Russia is ready to recognize the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions based on the results of the referendums. It just means that the separatists get political support from the Kremlin, whose objective is to deprive Kiev of control over the eastern territories.

And then Putin, as always, will act according to the circumstances. For example, he may well support the “return” of the breakaway regions to Ukraine, if the country is transformed into a federal state. At the same time, the Kremlin will use to the full extent possible its traditional “gas leverage” (threatening to cut off gas supplies to Europe) and a more global, artificially created threat of the disintegration of Ukraine to make the West guarantee that it will maintain a neutral stance on Ukraine. If such a tactic proves ineffective, Putin will be forced to take more drastic steps, up to providing military support to the breakaway regions. Further miscalculations regarding the Ukrainian crisis, however, may drive the Russian president into a corner, in which case even the worst predictions might end up looking like presumptuous optimism.

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