MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin knows there is little the West can do to get him to reverse his mobilization in Crimea or to stop him from sending additional troops into other parts of Ukraine. But trade sanctions against Russia could be painful, and there are ways for him to get what he wants – keeping Ukraine from slipping out of his grasp – without ratcheting up the military pressure.
The plan Russia pushed Monday calls on Ukrainian politicians to return to their earlier agreement to form a government of national unity. Importantly, the presidential election under that scenario would be held in December and not in May, as the government formed by victorious protesters has planned.
This would buy the Kremlin time. In the coming months the Ukrainian economy could go into free fall, with the West helpless to stop it. There would be new pressure within Ukraine to turn to Russia. A similar thing happened when Ukrainians grew weary of the pro-Western leaders swept into power by the 2004 Orange Revolution.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called on Ukraine to return to a Feb. 21 agreement between Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his opponents just before Yanukovych fled to Russia and his opponents named a new government. Ironically, that agreement received the blessings of the West, but not Russia, at the time. Lavrov said representatives of Russia-friendly Ukrainian regions should be brought into the new government.
“Instead of a promised national unity government, a ‘government of the victors’ has been created,” he said at U.N. meetings in Geneva.
This has been the position of the Kremlin all along, but now it is negotiating from a position of strength.
Russia has taken control of Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based. Russian troops controlled all Ukrainian border posts and all military bases Monday.
Putin also has left open the option of sending troops into eastern and southern Ukraine, where many ethnic Russians live. “We are talking about protection of our citizens and compatriots,” Lavrov said Monday.
This has raised fears in Kiev and the West that Russia will annex these regions as well.
The current instability plays into Moscow’s hand by making it more difficult for the new government to persuade the International Monetary Fund to provide the billions of dollars in loans that Ukraine needs to avoid default. An IMF delegation was to arrive in Kiev today.
Putin cannot afford for Russia to cede influence over Ukraine to the West. The country of 46 million people is an important trade partner, holds pipelines that carry Russian natural gas to Europe and is central to his ambitions of restoring Moscow’s influence over much of the former Soviet Union. The Crimean Peninsula is of particular importance, both strategically and sentimentally.
For Russians, Ukraine is part of their history and their faith, and family ties run deep. Ukraine, which became independent with the 1991 Soviet collapse, has always seemed like an artificial state to many Russians, including Putin.
Since three months of protests, which included elements of Ukrainian nationalism, drove the Moscow-supported government out of Kiev, Russian state television has portrayed Ukraine as under threat from “fascists” supported by the West. If Putin were to back down now, Russians would see it as his failure.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said world leaders “are prepared to go to the hilt in order to isolate Russia.”
Putin is unlikely to be too worried about a threat to kick Russia out of the Group of Eight leading industrial countries, even though he was set to host the next summit in June. He skipped the summit hosted by President Barack Obama in 2012.
Kerry’s warning of possible visa bans, asset freezes and penalties on trade and investment, however, may have gotten Putin’s attention and certainly alarmed many of the wealthy businessmen in his circle.
Kerry made clear that if Russia stood down, the U.S. would work with Ukraine’s government to make sure Russian interests in Crimea were respected and the naval base was allowed to remain.
“We believe there are many alternatives before you get to an invasion, and none of those have been tried at this point in time,” Kerry said Sunday on ABC television. He was due in Ukraine today to meet with the new government.
While Putin most likely is relishing Russia’s ability to strike fear in Kiev and world capitals, Lavrov’s statements suggest he might be willing to make a deal that could serve him better in the long run.