May 7 1:44 PM

Putin turns the tables in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference after a meeting with Swiss President and Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter at the Kremlin in Moscow, May 7, 2014.
Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

The key to Russia’s strategy following the fall of the pro-Moscow Yanukovych government, has been to make Ukraine ungovernable by the U.S.-backed government installed through street protests last February. And it appears to be working. The U.S. sees presidential elections planned for May 25 as key to establishing the legitimacy of the new order in Kyiv, but Russia rejects that plan — and the turmoil in eastern Ukraine casts a pall over prospects for holding a credible poll.

Moscow’s supporters had planned to hold their own secession referendum on Sunday over whether, but President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday asked them to hold off.

The corollary, however, is his insistence that the May 25 poll can’t go ahead, either, before Ukraine’s constitution is changed. The Russian diplomatic game on Ukraine now traffics in symmetries. 

Putin said Wednesday that “the presidential election the Kiev authorities plan to hold is a step in the right direction, but it will not solve anything unless all of Ukraine’s people first understand how their rights will be guaranteed once the election has taken place.” That appears to be a call for constitutional changes towards federalization before a poll is held. And then the kicker: “Direct dialogue between the Kyiv authorities and representatives of southeast Ukraine is the key to settling this crisis.” That’s a crafty inversion of the West’s demands that Russia deal directly with a Kyiv government Moscow refuses to recognize: Now Moscow is insisting that Kyiv and its Western backers talk to leaders of a pro-Russian rebellion they deem illegitimate.

Most U.S. NATO partners in Europe are desperate to avoid an escalation they fear is heading for a full-blown civil war making further negotiations between Western powers and Russia the preferred scenario for stabilizing the situation.

Moscow appears to believe the mounting turmoil in eastern Ukraine – in which local civilian populations and even local security forces are not exactly rallying behind the Kyiv authorities has amply demonstrated its argument that the new government in Kyiv doesn’t represent all Ukrainians, and makes the case for including pro-Russian rebels at the table in any further negotiations.

The message to the West seems to be: You bring your protégés; we’ll bring ours.

Longtime Moscow-watcher Anatole Lieven, writing in the New York Review of Books warns that Western powers urgently need to restrain their Ukrainian allies from seeking a military solution to the crisis in the east.

“The West itself will not fight for Ukraine,” Lieven writes. “All the blowhard posturing of US and European government officials cannot hide this essential fact. In these circumstances, to give the unelected interim government in Kiev the idea that we are giving it military backing is irresponsible, immoral, and contemptible.”

If the Ukrainian offensive to recapture rebel-held towns continues, he warns, the fighting will escalate to the point that it provokes a full-blown Russian invasion. “The only question then will be where the Russian army will stop.”

Preventing that scenario requires constitutional compromise on which a majority of Ukrainians can agree, writes Lieven  – a solution, he believes, that would require federalizing Ukraine, and taking EU and NATO membership off the table. Lieven’s prescription is not dissimilar from advice offered by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger two months ago.

He, too, insisted that NATO membership be taken off the table in recognition of Moscow’s longstanding strategic interests. And, he counseled, “A wise U.S. policy toward Ukraine would seek a way for the two parts of the country to cooperate with each other. We should seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction.”

Russia, having made eastern Ukraine ungovernable by Kyiv, will now argue that it is.

. . . .

Any views expressed on The Scrutineer are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.


Ukraine Crisis
Vladimir Putin

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