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Russia’s Ukraine strategy

Is President Putin distancing himself from the separatists?

By Stelios Papadopoulos

ON MAY 7 Russian President Vladimir Putin called on Pro-Russia groups in Eastern Ukraine to postpone the May 11 referendum on independence, fuelling hopes of an easing of the crisis that has threatened to tear the country apart.

On May 8 he added that Russia intended to act in the framework of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe agreement but added that any compromise in Ukraine would be conditional on Kiev negotiating with the Pro-Russia separatists.

However the Pro-Russia separatists snubbed Mr Putin’s request and pressed ahead with the referendum. Roman Liyagin one of the rebel leaders said the referendum would be conducted in all parts of the Donetsk region-despite continuing confrontations between the Ukrainian military and Pro-Russia militants.

Kiev officials on the other hand promised to press on with their anti-terrorist campaign to retake control of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk regardless of the rebels decision on the vote. Moreover Ukraine’s interim president Oleksandr Turchynov has ruled out holding negotiations with separatists who had ‘’human blood on their hands’’.

After Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the shoring up of forces on the Ukrainian border, Putin’s ‘concession’ may seem puzzling and surprising and naturally raises many questions about what he is actually up to.

Yet if one considers the events which preceded the Kremlin’s announcement the move might not be that puzzling at all. Judging from the facts Russia seems to want to absolve itself of any responsibility over the actions of the separatists. This became obvious during the process which led up to the signing of this April’s Geneva agreement. Even before the meeting began Moscow renounced its demand that representatives from eastern Ukraine should take part in the talks.

Furthermore as stipulated in the resulting document, Moscow agreed to the disarming of all illegally armed organizations, the return of occupied buildings to the legitimate owners and the clearing of streets and squares. On May 7 Mr Putin even stated that the May 25 Ukrainian presidential elections were ‘’a step in the right direction’’.

It should not be forgotten that on May 4 Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, stated that holding such elections after the bloody events in Odessa would be ‘absurd’.

Why is Mr Putin distancing himself from the separatists? Destabilising Ukraine by aiding and abetting separatist tendencies in the east is surely in his own interest, since it can in principle force the Ukrainian Government to capitulate to Russia’s proposal for Federalisation to prevent the country from breaking up.

The latter would imply the power of any region, and naturally the ‘’Donetsk people’s Republic’’, to veto any EU or NATO accession. How can one make sense of Mr Putin’s actions? This is especially puzzling because it is also a move that can very easily backfire domestically. President Putin’s ratings have soared after Crimea and any sign of ‘’capitulation to the West’’ will not be welcomed by the Russian public. Let us consider first Mr Putin’s latest decision to call on the separatists to postpone the referendum.

Mr Putin’s move certainly achieves the following aims: First of all it gives the impression that Russia has no control over the separatists given that the latter have rejected his proposal. Secondly, he called on Kiev to negotiate with the rebels knowing very well that they would not do so and that they would continue with their anti-terrorist operations irrespective of Sunday’s election results. Consequently Russia can shift the blame for further destabilisation to Kiev and the rebels.

But then again what is the ultimate goal? Judging from the escalation of the conflict, including the bloody events in Odessa and more recently Mariupol, an escalation of the conflict would allow Putin to eventually portray himself as a peacemaker just as he did in Syria. This is because a federalised solution would seem like the more sensible option if the Ukrainian state is to avoid a protracted civil war and a break-up.

So it is safe to argue that Mr Putin’s aims from April 17 until now was not a repeat of the Crimean formula. The annexation of Crimea was a panicked move aimed at securing Russia’s black sea fleet in Sevastopol, divert the Russian public’s attention from the current recession in the country and intimidate the authorities in Kiev by forcing them to think twice before joining NATO.

In eastern Ukraine on the other hand he simply chose to take advantage of existing internal divisions within the country between a pro-Russian east and a pro-Western west. There is another question of whether the Kremlin’s strategy will work or not but this is a big question which cannot be addressed in a few words. It all depends on the escalation or not of the conflict which at the moment seems to be escalating rather than de-escalating.

Stelios Papadopoulos MSc Political Economy, is a Political Risk Analyst

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