Ukraine conflict: President Putin as Mr Nice Guy? It’s puzzling

As President Putin somehow endorses the presidential election on Ukraine and calls for the postponement of the separatist referendum, according to The Moscow Time there was a reaction from Mr. Pushilin, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk republic: The referendum will definitely take place before the presidential election on May 25 no matter what.

Questions:

1. How would you read this, does Putin want to play a nice guy suddenly?

2. How much would you say Kremlin can exercise control over separatists groups as for ordinary foot soldiers it might be difficult to understand the tactical maneuvering?

Answers:

Stanley SloanDirector, Atlantic Community Initiative

1. The United States, its NATO allies and EU partners should remain skeptical of Putin’s motivations, which may have changed very little. Whether or not Russia has begun to withdraw forces from the border with Ukraine has not been confirmed and, with Putin, actions speak louder than words. Putin’s current tactics perhaps do reveal a concern that the situation in Eastern Ukraine may be moving beyond Moscow’s control. The apparent presence of Russian intelligence operatives and special forces in Eastern Ukraine, following the model used in the Crimea, emboldened pro-Russian Ukrainians. But now, with the mild sanctions from the West apparently making some impression and with Ukrainian military forces confronting the rebels, the cost of escalation may appear to be growing for Putin. The fact that rebels in Eastern Ukraine do not take seriously Putin’s “advice” to cancel the referendum scheduled for this weekend suggests either that Putin’s words mean very little or that the situation in Ukraine is moving too fast and too far for Putin’s strategy.

2. As I have suggested above, while Russian operatives most likely are still influential inside the rebel forces, the political momentum that Russia has instigated may have a life of its own. The fact that rebel leaders apparently intend to move ahead with the separatist referendum suggests either that Putin does not have full control of events or that he simply has tried to establish himself as “peacemaker” while Russian operatives continue the process of trying to add Eastern and Southern Ukraine to Putin’s Crimea acquisition. If the rebels move the referendum ahead — with results guaranteed by their arms and control of the counting — Putin can simply say that this demonstrates the popular will to separate from Ukraine, and that even he could not stand in the way.

Finally, many observers in the United States and in Europe have recommended a peaceful settlement in which a form of “neutrality” would be imposed on Ukraine. This has variously been called an “Austrian” or a “Finnish” solution. However, the difference would be that Ukraine would have been forced by Russian military and clandestine pressure to adopt such a status. Austria and Finland obviously have a form of “neutrality” that they have chosen for themselves. While it would make no sense in the current circumstances to re-start the process of Ukraine joining NATO, it also would make no sense to force Ukraine to compromise its sovereignty in this way. It also would make no sense to deny Ukraine the possibility of increasingly close ties to the European Union. In any case, it is doubtful that Russia would believe any commitments made at this point promising that Ukraine would be neutral between Russia and the EU and NATO. The issue should simply be put aside for now, with the focus kept on establishing a new constitution for Ukraine granting more autonomy to the Eastern portions, acknowledging the interests of the people there, and protecting the territorial integrity and political independence of the country.

Stephen BlankSenior Fellow for Russia, American Foreign Policy Council

1. The threat of more severe sanctions, given the pressure that is already apparent, and the realization that Ukraine will and can fight back along with the fact that further overt aggression risks NATO action has forced Putin to make a tactical withdrawal or retreat

2. I have never doubted for a minute Russia’s full control over the separatists there was no such movement before any of this happened neither did they come up with an authentic political alternative to Kyiv indicating this was a Muscovite movement from the beginning.

Eugene RumerSenior Associate and Director, Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Obviously, Putin’s statement is a positive step, but we need to see what comes after it. I think Moscow does not want to launch a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine—too many risks. The events in Odessa have demonstrated that things can get out of control and lead to risks that even the Russians don’t want to take in Ukraine. So, perhaps, Moscow/Putin wants to de-escalate the situation out of concern that the situation in Eastern and Southern Ukraine will get out of hand. I am afraid though that Moscow does not have full control of all the actors in Eastern Ukraine and that some of them (like the Donetsk leader) may be acting on their own, pursuing their own agenda. That would be dangerous.

Steven PiferSenior Fellow, The Brookings Institution

Mr. Putin send some interesting things — Russian troops pulled back from the border, a halt to the May 11 referendum, and support for the May 25 presidential election. The key thing is what the Russians do. Have they pulled their troops back? Does Moscow use its very considerable influence with the separatist groups in eastern Ukraine to stop the referendum and facilitate the presidential election? These would be positive steps if the Russians do indeed take them, but we have to see whether their actions will match their words.

Stephen BittnerProfessor of History, Sonoma State University

1. It’s puzzling, to say the least. It may be the case that there’s domestic pressure on Putin, presumably from Russian elites, to de-escalate. It may also reflect an un-varnished look at the facts on the ground: eastern Ukraine is not Crimea. What polling exists suggests that the vast majority of citizens of eastern Ukraine wish to preserve the status quo, not seek Russian annexation. Finally, it may reflect the fact that Putin has missed his window to invade, given the presence of Ukrainian troops in the east and an official willingness in Kiev to arm nationalist insurgents, should Russia interfere. It is likely the case that we will never know for sure Putin’s motivations.

2. The answer seems to be less than previously thought. It took several days for separatists to release the OSCE observers, despite Russian demands for it. Putin’s call for the May 11 referendum to be postponed also seems to have caught separatists flat-footed.

 

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