Russia in a corner over Ukraine

What can President Vladimir Putin do about Ukraine? Not very much at the moment.

President Putin has very little room for manoeuvre, writes Nekrassov [EPA]

Now that the Sochi Olympic Games are well and truly over and Russian President Vladimir Putin has returned to Moscow, the question everyone is asking in the West and beyond is: What is he going to do about Ukraine?       Susan Rice, White House National Security Advisor, has already warned the Kremlin to keep its troops out of Ukraine and British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, answering a question from a journalist, repeated the warning, saying that Russia’s military intervention would be a grave mistake.

Pretty rich coming from US and British politicians who have been sending their troops thousands of miles away when it came to defending their strategic interests – not to mention failing to bring to responsibility the people who are guilty of starting the war in Iraq on false pretences. Such policies cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and triggered a chain of events that have destabilised the whole of the Middle East.

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Was it any wonder that the leaders of the interim regime in Kiev quickly picked up this theme, claiming they have information about plans to send the Russian Black Sea fleet to Crimea?

At the same time, these sort of panicky statements, coming from Western capitals and Kiev, betray the uncertainty about the way the situation will develop in Ukraine. Because only a very naive person can actually believe that the new interim regime in Kiev has a proper mandate to lead the country into the new presidential elections in May, while hastily adopting new laws which benefit the new status quo.  

But what can Russia actually do in response to the change of power in Kiev that Moscow views as a coup organised and supported by the West? Not very much at the moment, apart from saying that the new interim authority does not have proper legitimacy, which it actually doesn’t. And also freezing the money that it had agreed to lend to Ukraine last year, as part of the agreement with President Viktor Yanukovich, to offset the deal that he had turned down with the European Union last November in a spectacular fashion which eventually resulted in his downfall. Oh yes, and it could recall its ambassador in Kiev to Moscow, which it did, a move that has been given way too much prominence by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in a press conference.   

Little room for manoeuvre

In fact, President Putin has very little room for manoeuvre, as he had been distracted by the Games in Sochi while the dramatic events in Kiev unfolded. He can’t really send Russian troops to Ukraine because that would cause the biggest crisis since the end of the Cold War. It would also make the military conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia in August 2008 look like a minor skirmish.

He can’t really send Russian troops to Ukraine because that would cause the biggest crisis since the end of the Cold War and would make the military conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia in August 2008 look like a minor skirmish.

Any hint of Russian forces amassing on the borders with Ukraine can trigger a civil war in the country and may drag other nations into it. Putin knows that and has to tread very carefully.

But at the same time, the Russian president has to demonstrate to his own people, who are watching the developments in Ukraine with concern and anxiety, that he is doing something to protect national interest there and, even more importantly, demonstrate his readiness to defend ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. And this represents a big dilemma for him.

He obviously has economic and financial leverage on Ukraine, but with the West’s newfound readiness to provide Ukraine with serious injections of money, the Kremlin will be finding it difficult to exert serious enough pressure to make a difference in the next month or two.

In his phone conversations with US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel while still in Sochi, Putin agreed with them that preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity is paramount.

But these were diplomatic niceties, with Russia and the West holding  totally different views on the events in Kiev. It would be very difficult for Moscow to refuse to listen to demands of the people in the eastern part of Ukraine to join Russia if a civil war breaks out in the country. And at the moment the threat of such a development is very real.

Yet, Ukraine splitting into two parts would actually be beneficial to Russia in the long run, as it will get the industrial powerbase that keeps the country going. Western Ukraine without the east will totally depend on the hand-outs of the EU, a prospect Brussels must be dreading. But from a point of view of symbolism such a split would be damaging for Russia domestically and might even put Kremlin under pressure.  

Still, the first and biggest casualty of the dramatic change of power in Ukraine is the EU, with its unsavoury role in encouraging the opposition to push for the downfall of the democratically elected President simply because he didn’t sign a deal that was expected of him in Brussels. The way EU leaders and politicians from EU member countries visited Kiev, openly supporting the opposition would raise eyebrows of many people around Europe.

Especially as the deal that had been offered to Ukraine was not a great one. So considering that the EU is not exactly very popular at the moment, having failed to solve the debt crisis and help revive most national economies, the future for the Union is looking bleak, especially if the referendum in Britain in 2017 delivers a “no” to UK’s membership in the block.

Worrying times all around when it comes to Ukraine. The hope is that politicians and the media on all sides would not be tempted to use the crisis to achieve their own agendas.

Alexander Nekrassov is a former Kremlin and government adviser.