It has been asked many times in the past several months: What is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s endgame in Ukraine? This question became even more relevant after the referendum in March in Crimea, which has now become part of Russia, and the thinking in Washington and other Western capitals was that more “land grabs” could follow.
Would the Kremlin opt for taking over the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine where substantial numbers of ethnic Russians are living or would Russia settle for a federation with the east having autonomy and its own government? Or maybe Putin is actually thinking of taking over the whole of Ukraine, and then turn his sights on the Baltics, Moldova and even Poland? Some people even went as far as to ask whether the Kremlin’s endgame is about recreating the old Soviet Union and getting not just Ukraine, but countries like Kazakhstan and other former Soviet republics back under its control.
So what I’m saying is that we only hear people asking about Putin’s endgame in Ukraine. But imagine for a moment that the Russian president and his closest aides and advisers are asking themselves a totally different question: What is Washington’s endgame in Ukraine? Quite a different angle, isn’t it? Because the way Moscow sees it, US President Barack Obama’s administration must have some sort of an endgame as well when it comes to the crisis in Ukraine, and it would be naive to think that they have not been burning the midnight oil in Washington and looking at their options.
The tragic events in Odessa last week when clashes broke out between anti-government protesters and supporters of the interim regime in Kiev, leading to over 40 people – some now say up to 100 people – burned alive in the trade union headquarters, came as a wake-up call for all those people who thought that there was still an opportunity to implement the Geneva accords.
For some strange reason this agreement was greeted as if it actually promised a way of out of the crisis. And once you add to this the bloodshed in the east, with troops loyal to Kiev involved in fierce fighting with the opponents of the interim government, you have a situation which optimists might describe as a crisis but pessimists would probably opt for something a bit stronger – like civil war, for example.
Moscow is convinced that the US have been planning to stir trouble in Ukraine for a while. Russian officials are saying that ever since the failure of the Orange Revolution of 2004, and the downfall of its sons and daughters after Yanukovich came to power in 2010, the US and the EU did everything to drag Ukraine away from Russia and make it ‘part of Europe’.
The rhetoric coming from all sides has been getting tougher in recent days, with more sanctions introduced against Russia and more promised to follow, if Russian troops invade eastern Ukraine.
I just wonder, could anyone have imagined last year in November, when the first protests emerged in Kiev over the refusal of President Viktor Yanukovich to sign the free association agreement with the European Union, that several months later we would be talking about a possible “Russian invasion” of Ukraine and NATO building up its military presence in Eastern Europe? I very much doubt it.
But let’s get back to the drawing board in the Kremlin, with Putin and his people trying to figure out what the US is hoping to achieve in Ukraine and whether it is going to stop there.
Moscow is convinced that the US has been planning to stir trouble in Ukraine for a while. Russian officials are saying that ever since the failure of the Orange Revolution of 2004, and the downfall of its sons and daughters after Yanukovich came to power in 2010, the US and the EU did everything to drag Ukraine away from Russia and make it “part of Europe”.
These suspicions, incidentally, were not without foundation and both the US and the EU were active in drawing Ukraine closer to the West. Not that Russia was without blame itself for pushing Ukraine away, failing to resolve the never ending dispute about gas prices and pipelines and letting the oligarchs on both sides play their nasty games with each other while ignoring the interests of millions of Russians and Ukrainians.
Still, the biggest mistake some people make these days is when they claim that Yanukovich was a “Kremlin puppet“. That, he most certainly was not. He pulled out of the deal with the EU because he was trying to manipulate both Brussels and Moscow at the same time, to get the best of two worlds, as they say. And only when the EU had offered a very modest amount of money, as a sweetener to the agreement, and Moscow outbid it, did he finally choose the better option, but with a view to come back to the table with Brussels at some point again. As one Russian official told me: “Yanukovich was double dealing behind Moscow’s back and wanted to milk both sides… And then it all blew [up] in his face.”
So what does the Kremlin expect from Washington when it comes to Ukraine? In the near future, it anticipates that the US will be pushing for the presidential elections to take place on May 25, to have a “legitimate” leadership emerge in Kiev. And here, incidentally, would arise a dilemma for the Kremlin. If it does not accept the new president, it would be seen as refusing to give diplomacy a chance. Therefore, it might so happen that Moscow will actually be ready to talk with the new lot in Kiev, if only to be seen as trying to find a solution.
But when it comes to the bigger perspective, the endgame, Putin and his people suspect that the US plans to use the crisis in Ukraine to drive a wedge between Europe and Russia, with the aim to take over the European markets under a trading pact with the EU. The Kremlin believes that the crisis in Ukraine has a much bigger dimension and involves a US desire to redraw the economic map of Europe, to start sorting out its enormous debts that are spiralling out of control.
In order for it to start cutting down the debt, the US needs a vast market for its goods and services and the EU is currently the biggest one of them all. So the US endgame, as Moscow sees it, is to run Europe while freezing out Russia. And the response that Moscow sees to that? Do what the Yanks are doing: Drive Europe and the US apart.
Moscow has been quite good at it up to now. And that’s what the new “cold war” is all about really. Russia battling with the US over Europe. And in this fight, regrettably, Ukraine is coming out as the biggest loser.
Alexander Nekrassov is a former Kremlin and government adviser.