Roman Pilipey / EPA

At Ukraine talks, Russia has the upper hand

Unless Kyiv’s Western backers muster more pressure, Moscow will continue to engineer the Ukraine it wants to see

As pro-Russian separatism flares from Donetsk to Luhansk, delegations from Ukraine, Russia, the U.S. and the EU sat down at the same table Thursday for talks aimed at de-escalating a crisis that Kyiv and its Western backers say has been engineered by Moscow to prevent its former ally from veering too far to the West. Russia, for its part, insists that Ukrainians are deeply divided over their future, and that the Kyiv government brought to power by a popular uprising in February is neither legitimate nor representative.

The Geneva talks come as pro-Russian armed groups have declared an independent republic in the eastern city of Donetsk, occupied several government buildings in other cities and inspired defections from the Ukrainian armed forces. On Wednesday, pro-Russian armed men seized Ukrainian army vehicles and paraded them around the city of Slavyansk.

But the authorities in Kyiv aren't buying it. "This [pro-Russian] unrest was provoked by Russia," Kyiv’s ambassador to the U.N., Yurii Klymenko, said Tuesday. "It's very remarkable that this unrest, these separatist actions, are taking place just before the talks. There is some linkage without any doubt."

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While a U.N. report released Tuesday found little evidence to back Moscow's claims that ethnic Russians are under threat in Ukraine (Russia dismissed the report as “biased”) and Russian covert operatives appear to be stirring up separatist actions, there is clearly also considerable popular opposition in eastern Ukraine to the new pro-Western authorities in Kyiv. The presence of a substantial number of civilian protesters on the streets has complicated Kyiv's efforts to militarily dislodge armed groups that have seized control of government buildings in the region.

And if the situation on the ground has amplified Russia's claims about dangerous divisions emerging in Ukraine, its position at the Geneva talks has also been strengthened by Western powers' lack of political will to escalate pressure on Moscow. The U.S. has imposed only limited sanctions on Russian elites, while the EU has only threatened to follow suit. Russia, thus far, has taken Western condemnation in stride, heightening its own rhetoric in recent weeks.

“The sharp escalation of the conflict puts the country, in effect, on the brink of civil war,” Russian President Vladimir Putin told German counterpart Angela Merkel during a telephone call late Tuesday.

As Putin warns of imminent civil war and the need to decentralize power to diffuse sectarian tensions, Moscow has presented its opening gambit for Geneva by calling for the federalization of its neighbor into at least two regions, each with a high degree of political, economic and cultural autonomy from the capital — a system that might resemble that of ethnically divided, geopolitically unaligned Bosnia.

Fearing that such a constitutional overhaul would cripple Ukraine’s current momentum westward and render the country dysfunctional — but recognizing that Moscow has the ability to manipulate its internal dynamics — Kyiv has rejected federalization and instead proposed a compromise that would merely grant eastern Ukraine greater autonomy. Neither side seems ready to give ground.

“From the Ukrainian perspective, the negotiations should be a forum to show, and perhaps give proof for, Russian-inspired actions in eastern Ukraine," said Wojciech Kononczuk, a scholar with the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw and a visiting scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington. "As a result — at this stage — Ukraine rejects the possibility of discussing Russian demands.” 

It is unclear what the West can do to bridge the gaps. Moscow has been willing to pay the costs of international condemnation. It has not been deterred by economic sanctions from the U.S. or eviction from the G-8, and it has managed to stave off the threat of sanctions from its more important trading partners in the EU, whose members buy 30 percent of their natural gas from Russian giant Gazprom.

And Moscow has shown it is willing to go the distance in Ukraine, first by brashly occupying and then annexing the Crimean peninsula in March, and then by repeatedly emphasizing that military intervention in mainland Ukraine is on the table, even if it remains a last resort.

The talks in Geneva are not likely to erode Russian resolve; on the contrary, they could play into Moscow’s strategy, said Joerg Forbrig, an Eastern Europe expert with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “The talks tomorrow, from the Russian side, are basically a tactical move to dangle the carrot of negotiations before the West. They’re a mechanism to postpone the possibility of sanctions from the European Union.”

Still, the West has cards it can play on behalf of its allies in Kyiv. The U.S., at least, has repeatedly threatened a harsher regimen of economic sanctions, a threat that will likely resurface in Geneva. At some point, analysts say, Europe will have to make good on its promised economic retaliation, too.

And even though military engagement with Russia would be highly undesirable for the cash-strapped, war-weary members of NATO, the military alliance announced on Wednesday it would bolster its presence along Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia, apparently to counter the threat posed by an estimated 40,000 Russian troops that have massed on the other side.

There will be “more planes in the air, more ships on the water, more readiness on the land,” said NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who added that the buildup was about “deterrence and de-escalation” in the face of Russian aggression. After all, Crimea looms large as a resounding geopolitical victory for Putin over his Western rivals.

“We feel very strongly that the pattern of activities bears striking similarities to the situation in Crimea, ahead of the illegal Russian occupation and purported annexation of that part of Ukraine,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday.

Most analysts do not expect Russia to invade mainland Ukraine as it did Crimea. Dividing Ukraine through federalization would be less costly — both geopolitically and economically — than conquering it. “I don’t think the annexation of the Donetsk region is an option at this stage of the crisis, but Russia’s strategy is flexible and can change” depending on the situation on the ground, Kononczuk said.

But there is nonetheless an urgency to these talks. As the diplomatic wrangling trudges along, Russia continues to stoke the divisions that underpin its narrative of the Ukrainian crisis, said Forbrig. “Russia is playing for time to create facts on the ground in Ukraine,” he said.

If Western leaders do not show a strong hand on Thursday, Putin will likely continue to have his way.

“Russia thinks the West is unable to impose any real sanctions on Russia, and to a large extent it is right. Putin understands the West much better than the West understands Putin,” said Kononczuk. “A weak response from the West after the Russian annexation of Crimea gave it a green light for further escalation, and Russia has shown it is ready to pay some costs of its actions in Ukraine.”

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