Putin’s Chess Moves on Ukraine

What's really motivating the Russian president's latest "goodwill gestures"?

Vladimir PutinRussian President Vladimir Putin is playing a multidimensional geopolitical chess game, while the Obama administration and our European allies remain in a defensive, reactive stance. In his latest Ukraine gambit, Putin is playing the diplomatic offensive. He offered what he called “goodwill gestures” following a phone call with Didier Burkhalter, the Swiss president of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). He has also spoken with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Evidently, President Obama is no longer on Putin’s speed dial for Ukraine discussions. However, they may cross paths next month in France at the ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the allied invasion of Normandy, which both Obama and Putin have said they plan to attend. 

As part of Putin’s “goodwill gestures” he sent signals that he intended to de-escalate tensions in eastern Ukraine by withdrawing Russian troops from the Russia-Ukraine border and by calling for pro-Russian separatists to postpone their local referendum on sovereignty scheduled for this Sunday. Putin also indicated his willingness to accept the plan for Ukraine’s presidential election to proceed on May 25th so long as the Russian demand for autonomy in eastern Ukraine was met. And Putin took up Chancellor Merkel’s suggestion for a round-table discussion among the Ukrainian factions.

That all sounds like a potential diplomatic break-through. However, more likely what we are witnessing instead is just another set of chess moves in which Putin is willing to sacrifice a minor chess piece for something of more value and is employing a decoy strategy.

“He really promised nothing,” Kirill Rogov, an economic analyst and political commentator in Moscow was quoted in a front page May 8th New York Times article as saying. “He demonstrated that he controls the level of tension in Ukraine. He can return the situation to the high levels of violence at any moment. He did not refuse the referendum, but only proposed delaying it.”

NATO officials have stated that they had not seen any signs of Russian troop withdrawal so far. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s Secretary General said: "So far we haven't seen any indications that they are pulling back their troops. Let me assure you that if we get visible evidence that they are actually pulling back their troops, I would be the very first to welcome it."

Even if Putin does withdraw some troops, it may consist of nothing more than the token withdrawal from the border that happened once before. Moreover, to prove Russia’s military might and reach, on May 8th Putin oversaw military exercises throughout Russian territory involving Russia's nuclear forces. Intercontinental ballistic missiles were launched as part of the exercise from land and sea. But Putin is not content for his country to just be seen as a “regional” power, as President Obama so naively described Russia.

Ominously for the United States, Russia has sent intercontinental strategic bombers across the Pacific Ocean that, according to an Associated Press report on May 5th, have been flying along the Californian coast. Such provocative activity has not occurred since the end of the Cold War. The Associated Press stated in its report that Gen. Herbert Carlisle (who is the Commander of Pacific Air Forces; Air Component Commander for U.S. Pacific Command; and Executive Director, Pacific Air Combat Operations Staff, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii) linked the flights “to the situation in the Ukraine. He said Russia was demonstrating its capabilities and gathering intelligence on U.S. military exercises.”

As for the pro-Russian separatists, they said at first that they would consider Putin’s request for a delay of Sunday’s referendum, but then decided to go ahead with it. Denis Pushilin, the self-declared chairman of the Donetsk People's Republic said, as quoted by the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti: "After the vote that was held today, the unanimous decision was to go ahead with the referendum May 11.”

The question on the referendum ballot will be:  "Do you support the act of proclamation of independent sovereignty for the Donetsk People's Republic?" Ultimately, a vote for “independent sovereignty” could lead to an attempt at full secession from Ukraine, a request to join the Russian Federation or a demand for complete autonomy while remaining nominally within Ukraine.

This appearance of “self-determination” will allow Putin to say that he “tried” to use his influence with the separatists, but that he can’t force them to bend to his will. A referendum declaring independence from the central government in Kiev or a desire to become part of Russia could then be used by Putin to legitimize his demand that the separatists have an equal place at the table in discussions with the central government in order to “reform” the constitution. Reform in Putin’s mind means complete decentralization of power in Ukraine away from Kiev, allowing Russia to treat eastern and portions of southern Ukraine as satellite regions within its sphere of influence. That will accomplish his main goal without having to incur the risk of Russian casualties in an all-out invasion or to take full responsibility for the economy in those portions of Ukraine as he has effectively done in Crimea. To that end, Putin is still sowing the seeds of discord by expressing sympathy for the separatists whom have forcibly occupied government buildings and effectively are in control in major parts of eastern Ukraine.

“I can understand the people in southeast Ukraine, who say that if others can do what they like in Kiev, carry out a coup d’état, take up arms and seize government buildings, police stations and military garrisons, then why shouldn’t they be allowed to defend their interests and lawful rights?” Putin said at a Kremlin news conference.

Of course, unlike the game of chess, real world events on the ground in Ukraine are not in the hands of any single player, even one as clever as Putin. Once the passions of the pro-Russian separatist movement are released, it may be very difficult to put them back into the bottle. On the other hand, if recent polls are correct, nearly seventy percent of the residents of eastern Ukraine want Ukraine to maintain its current borders and reject the idea of Russia sending in its troops to supposedly protect Russian-speaking citizens. If the referendum vote is not rigged – a very iffy assumption, to be sure – Putin may be unpleasantly surprised by the result.

Nevertheless, Vladimir Putin retains the upper hand in Ukraine and continues to outmaneuver President Obama and our European allies who are struggling to put together an effective counter-strategy. A weakened residue of western Ukraine left in Kiev’s hands, while the rest of Ukraine and its valuable natural resources and industrial base move firmly within Russia’s orbit, is Putin’s strategic objective, which he is on his way to achieving by hook or crook.

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