September 2, 2014

Putin’s Ukraine Plan Revealed. Need Trans-Atlantic – Ukraine Response

As Russian regular troops joined insurgents over the weekend to push back Ukrainian forces in a counter-offensive near Mariupol, the Kremlin agreed to a negotiated retreat of entrenched pro-Kyiv volunteer battalions via agreed an corridor on August 30. Meanwhile, Kremlin apparently undertook an information campaign to explain what the Russian and the insurgents’ war means and clarify Vladimir Putin’s strategic ends and tactics. President Putin, his press officer, and several pro-Kremlin experts shed light on the strategic thinking that may be behind these moves.

As Russian regular troops joined insurgents over the weekend to push back Ukrainian forces in a counter-offensive near Mariupol, the Kremlin agreed to a negotiated retreat of entrenched pro-Kyiv volunteer battalions via agreed an corridor on August 30. Meanwhile, Kremlin apparently undertook an information campaign to explain what the Russian and the insurgents’ war means and clarify Vladimir Putin’s strategic ends and tactics. President Putin, his press officer, and several pro-Kremlin experts shed light on the strategic thinking that may be behind these moves.

Putin’s continued denials that Russian troops are in Ukraine suggest he would prefer to avoid a risky full-scale war. At a youth camp over the weekend in Seliger, the Russian President said his objective was actually to bring Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko into negotiations on substance on the statehood issues: “Negotiations need to work out in substance what rights the people in Donbass, Lugansk and the entire southeast of Ukraine will have.“ President Putin thus appears to be promoting a semi-autonomous region of southeast Ukraine, or “Novorossiya” as not perhaps yet a state, but a political entity, which is largely not yet under insurgents’ control. Putin’s press-secretary Dmitri Peskov also explained that Russia considers Novorossiya as part of Ukraine, and that Russia is not party to Ukraine’s internal conflict and will not sit down to bilateral talks with Ukraine.

Further insights into the Russian president’s thinking with regard to Ukraine were also provided over the weekend by former Human Rights Ombudsman and Ambassador to the U.S. Vladimir Lukin, who is considered a member of “Putin’s team.” Lukin was quoted in detail by Russian political consultant Marat Guelman. He affirmed that Putin does not support Novorossiya as a separate state legal entity and would not risk it “to gain Novorossiya, but lose Ukraine”.

Lukin furhter warned of Putin’s determination to “send as many troops as needed” to show Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko that he could never win a full-scale war with Russia and to make him come to the negotiations table with “those whom Putin decides”. This apparently means that Putin would like see Ukraine as a “federal” state with “Novorossiya” having autonomy in its foreign policy orientation and/or the political ability to block a decision by Ukraine’s federal government to incorporate Ukraine in the West. Lukin confirmed that “Donetsk and Luhansk would remain within Ukraine as a guarantee that the country would never join NATO”. He speculated, however that Russia might agree to Ukraine’s EU association and speculated Putin is “heading towards” Europe himself, but would require coordinated movement towards Europe from Ukraine. This opaque coordination requirement most likely means Kyiv should seek agreement with Moscow on all Ukraine’s agreements and processes with the EU, including economic, security or visa-free travel issues.

Putin is also trying to leave President Poroshenko with two bad strategic options: either to agree to the loss of part of Ukraine’s sovereignty in Russia’s favor, or to effectively have a secessionist territory and a frozen conflict scenario.

The suggestion that President Putin may now be willing to compromise regarding Ukraine’s EU association could be misleading. Moscow seeks to re-write Ukraine’s EU association treaty to reflect Russia’s own interests in economic and likely security matters to assure effective preferences and control for Moscow and to delay the agreement’s ratification. Specific areas of concern that Russia is likely to address are the technical and sanitary standards and exports of Ukrainian finished products with European inputs to Russia (the so-called re-exports issue). Possibly, Russia would also demand to change the Agreement’s language on gradual convergence of Ukraine’s security policy with the EU common security policy. Russia aims to present its list of proposed amendments at September 12 Russia-Ukraine-EU Foreign Ministers meeting in Brussels.

In reality, Putin remains wedded to his and Dugin’s “Russian world” concept, which was re-visited by Putin in Seliger: “And with the baptism of Rus, [Prince] Vladimir was himself first baptised in Chersonesus, and this makes Crimea a holy place for us too, and he then came to Kiev and had the whole of Rus baptised. It was after this that the Russian nation began to take shape, but it was multi-ethnic right from the start. People living in what is Ukraine today all called themselves ‘Russian’ “.

This language points to nothing less than a vision of negating and eliminating Ukraine as a state entity, possibly including the regime change. Putin is also trying to include Kazakhstan in his Russian world, focusing on Slavic and Orthodox Christian populations especially in northern Kazakhstan, but hoping for all of Kazakhstan to join a Russian-dominated civilization. At Seliger, he commented on the Eurasian Union idea and suggested “The Kazakhs picked it up proceeding from the understanding that it is good for their economy, it helps them stay within the so-called ‘greater Russian world’, which is part of world civilisation“.

It appears thus that President Vladimir Putin has a fairly plain and consistent vision of a “Velikorossiya“ that includes Crimea, transitionary or failing Ukraine and the periphery of a ‘greater Russian world’ that may have flexible borders from Kazakhstan perhaps to Estonia or Latvia.

How should the West respond? There are both the immediate and strategic dimensions. First and foremost, while President Obama is preparing to visit Tallinn to reiterate the US and NATO support to the Baltic States, it is important that Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty is not traded by the West in exchange for illusive “security” deal with Russia. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland should stand together in their support of Ukraine and thus become a leading force for European change. Possible sanctions against Russia should be prepared in advance, effective and have a time horizon, such as temporary suspension of access to international capital markets, suspending the delivery of Mistral, or even Russian membership in the IMF and the World Bank. Last but not least, it is the US should initiate dialogue with China and Central Asian on European security, which would reinforce its Asia “pivot”.

Strategically, the US and the EU should substantially expand public diplomacy efforts with the Russians, especially the future elite intellectuals. Time is ripe to overcome government institutions inertia by network-based international public initiatives to prove that Vladimir Putin’s “strategic vision” is wrong and Russia will eventually benefit from a more constructive world role.

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