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Opinion

What's eating Vladimir Putin?

No one in the corridors of power in Moscow was anticipating that events in Kiev would take such a dramatic twist.

Last updated: 29 Apr 2014 10:34
Alexander Nekrassov

Alexander Nekrassov is a former Kremlin and government adviser.
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What are the options that Putin and his closest aides are looking at? Nekrassov asks [AP]

What are Russian President Vladimir Putin's options in Ukraine?

The thing to understand about the way the crisis in Ukraine is perceived from the Kremlin is that Putin and his entourage were initially taken by surprise by the way the US and the European Union pushed for the removal of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and his government. In January, and even in the first part of February, no one in the corridors of power in Moscow was anticipating that events in Kiev would take such a dramatic twist - especially as Yanukovich was seen as playing games with both Russia and the West, trying to get something out of both in return for nothing.

The big wake-up call came on that fateful day in February when leaders of the Ukrainian opposition - with encouragement from abroad - decided to raise the stakes in their game and, as a result, the protests in Kiev turned violent and the shooting started.

Privately, many Russian officials admit that state intelligence had failed spectacularly in predicting such a turn of events whatever the spooks say now, and in effect the crisis was allowed to spiral out of control, with senior Russian officials insisting that Ukraine could wait until the Sochi Winter Olympics were over. So the bottom line is that Moscow had not been on top of the situation for at least two and a half months, failing to anticipate how far the opposition - and allegedly the West - were prepared to go to change the status quo in Kiev.

Moscow's low-key approach

Yanukovich's refusal to sign the association agreement with the European Union, which is always mentioned as the spark that had supposedly ignited the popular protests, was obviously not the main reason for the overthrow of the regime. It was primarily Moscow's low-key approach that emboldened both the protesters and their foreign backers, that was the main reason for the dramatic climax of the violence in Kiev. But, as they say, it's not winning the battle that counts but winning the war, and one has to hand it to Putin and his people for the way they turned failure into a resounding success.

It all started to go horribly wrong for the "victorious" opposition practically from the word go. First, it made a terrible mess out of Yanukovich's impeachment which had been conducted in the Rada - the Ukrainian parliament - with armed thugs surrounding the building and even walking around the chamber and brandishing weapons. Instead of the complicated process that should have involved several sittings of the specially formed committee, followed by the decision of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court, deputies were simply told by the new "leadership" to vote in support of "sacking" Yanukovich.

So what are the options that Putin and his closest aides are looking at? Well, one of them would involve a wait-and-see approach, exchanging angry statements with the West in the run-up to the presidential elections in Ukraine, with candidates going for each other's throats.

And then came the chaotic election of the interim president, the unremarkable Oleksandr Turchinov, and the shameful rubberstamping of new laws that played into the hands of the new lot in power, with some pretty threatening rhetoric against Russia and the Russian-speaking population in the east and south, coming thick and fast.

The emergence of the so-called "unity government" turned into a farce, with not a single representative from the east of the country allowed to join it. Not to mention that four portfolios were given to the members of the Freedom Party that has been known for its ultra-nationalist views and open hatred for "foreigners", including Jews and Russians.

Meanwhile law and order on the streets of Kiev was provided by several thousand members of the Right Sector, a neo-Nazi movement that became the interim regime's private army. Was it any wonder that political infighting broke out in earnest between the different sections of the opposition? Especially as everyone was expecting the West to start showering the new regime with money, which hasn't happened up to now.  

It was then that Moscow regained the initiative and started to use the confusion to its advantage. The operation to defend Crimea from the "junta" in Kiev was conducted like clockwork, and without a shot being fired in anger as the peninsula held a referendum on its status and became part of Russia, before anyone in Kiev could figure out what was going on.

A chain reaction

But events in Crimea initiated a chain reaction in the east and south of Ukraine that Moscow hadn't bargained for. All of a sudden, several towns and cities in the east were taken over by anti-government protesters who were demanding a referendum, along the lines of the one which was held in Crimea. Suddenly a new problem had arisen for the Kremlin, especially after the interim regime announced an anti-terrorist operation against the "separatists", as they called them, in the east.

One city, Slavyansk, has already seen fighting between government troops and protesters. The talks in Geneva between Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the US on finding a solution to the crisis might as well have not taken place at all, considering that there was no one there representing the east of the country. And even though Washington and Moscow are now blaming each other for the failure of these talks, pretty much everyone knew that they would not produce a workable framework.

So what are the options that Putin and his closest aides are looking at? Well, one of them would involve a wait-and-see approach, exchanging angry statements with the West in the run-up to the presidential elections in Ukraine, with candidates going for each other's throats. It's now becoming apparent though that if they actually take place, former minister and confectionary billionaire Pyotr Poroshenko, would win. But will his presidency ever get off the ground? That is another question altogether if Moscow and the east do not accept his legitimacy, considering that he is a supporter of Ukraine joining NATO. Not to mention that it is difficult to imagine how these elections would actually take place when there is something of a popular uprising going on across the east and south.

The other option for Moscow is to actually get involved in the stand-off between the government troops and the protesters in the east, something the Kremlin wants least of all to do for all sorts of reasons. This is the most dangerous route and it would take some dramatic worsening of the situation on the ground for it to happen.

The third option would be creating a federation in Ukraine, with the east given substantial autonomy and devolved powers. But for this to happen, a leader has to emerge in the east and at the moment Moscow is looking at all possible candidates, even keeping Yanukovich as an unlikely option.

The biggest worry, of course, is that Russia and the West can talk themselves into some sort of confrontation, issuing threats and counter-threats, with the regime in Kiev growing more desperate by the day while it runs out of money. That's why a bit more restraint should be welcomed on all sides.

Alexander Nekrassov is a former Kremlin and government adviser.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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