Vladimir Putin is still a step ahead of the West in Ukraine, but he is playing with fire.
KGB instructors told a young Vladimir Putin during his training that he had ‘a reduced sense of danger’. They saw it as a negative, but in an interview published in 2000, he recalled their appraisal proudly.
Judging by his current behaviour, that same instinct remains part of Putin’s character. Driven by what he sees as high stakes in Ukraine, he is playing a high-risk game, one that could easily spin out of control.
The swift annexation of Crimea has not obscured Putin’s determination for Russia to dominate the re-shaping of Ukraine in line with Russian interests. Moscow wants to see Ukraine as a non-aligned, decentralized state with substantial powers devolved to its regions, including the ability to form their own foreign relations.
If this vision were to become reality, it would emasculate central government in Kyiv and undermine Ukrainian statehood. It would also keep Ukraine’s industrial heartland in the southeast firmly integrated with the Russian economy and prevent the country’s economic integration with the EU.
Over the past three weeks, Moscow has been using multiple levers to pressurize Ukraine’s interim government and its Western partners to accept that Russia holds the key to a solution to stabilize the country.
These include the massing of military forces along the border, threats to cut off Ukraine’s gas supply and, almost certainly, covert action by Russian intelligence agencies to foment disturbances across southeastern Ukraine.
Putin’s behaviour suggests that he believes that the US and the EU have neither a concept for stabilizing Ukraine nor the appetite to bail it out economically.
He also does not appear to take seriously the threat of strong Western economic sanctions against Russia.
Tactically, he is playing a confident game. He realizes that he cannot simply confront Western countries over Ukraine. Instead, he needs to co-opt them so they support Russia’s plan to stabilize Ukraine and become part of a ‘joint’ solution to the problem.
The ramping up of pressure on Ukraine aims to soften up Western governments ahead of four-party crisis talks planned for Thursday in Geneva. This will be the first time since the start of the crisis that Russian, EU, US and Ukrainian leaders have met together.
Stoking trouble in the southeast of the country is probably also a tactic to undermine the presidential election due to take place on 25 May. A free and fair election held across the whole country would install a legitimately elected leader and provide a focus for uniting the country. This does not sit comfortably with Moscow’s efforts to ‘federalize’ Ukraine.
At the Geneva talks, Russia is likely to push for a timetable for rapid constitutional reform, arguing that there is no alternative given the spectre of chaos engulfing the eastern regions and the increasing dangers of violence.
While Putin holds the important cards, the risks of his strategy are nevertheless considerable.
First, he has built up a picture in Russia, assiduously cultivated by state media, of Russian-speakers in danger in southeastern Ukraine. If the seizures of government buildings by pro-Russian activists lead to violence, he will be under pressure to intervene militarily. With Kyiv now promising military action against pro-Russian gunmen in the east, the hitherto unthinkable is becoming possible: a war between Russia and Ukraine
Second, the government in Kyiv and Western countries might not agree to Moscow’s proposals to fast track constitutional reform in Ukraine. As a result, Putin might need to escalate efforts to undermine the control of Kyiv in key industrial centres and increase the urgency to find a solution. He might then also need to implement his threat to cut off Russian gas supplies to Ukraine because of its inability to pay for them, risking a repeat of the 2009 crisis when some of Gazprom’s European customers did not receive their contracted supplies.
Third, Russia’s increasing political, economic and military pressure on Ukraine might bring down the interim government and cause the country to splinter before any constitutional reform process can begin.
Controlled chaos is one thing. Uncontrolled chaos is quite another. Western leaders need to be understand that they are dealing with a Russian leader more focused on his goals in Ukraine than the risks involved in achieving them.
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