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May 7, 2014 | 19:40 GMT

Russia's Putin Changes His Tone, But Not His Goals, in Ukraine

Russia's Putin Changes His Tone, But Not His Goals, in Ukraine
(ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

On May 7, following a meeting with Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Chairman and Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for separatists in southeastern Ukraine to postpone their referendums on independence scheduled for May 11 in order to allow for dialogue. Moreover, in a rhetorical shift from the Kremlin's recent opposition to Ukraine's plan to hold a presidential election May 25, Putin referred to the scheduled election as a move "in the right direction." Meanwhile, Burkhalter said the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe would offer a proposed "roadmap" on Ukraine later May 7.

Stratfor has maintained since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis that Russia is unlikely to carry out a military intervention beyond Crimea. One of the key reasons is Moscow's interest in maintaining its political influence in Kiev. To that end, Russia never opposed a presidential election, as long as the election included votes from strongly pro-Russian areas and Kiev made progress on constitutional reforms and decentralization beforehand. Putin's statements are part of a broader negotiation between Russia and the West, in which Russia essentially has said that decentralization will occur in Ukraine — either via referendum and the east's refusal to recognize decisions in Kiev or in a mutually acceptable diplomatic framework. For now, Russia is trying to steer Ukraine toward the latter.

On the surface, Putin's statement signals that Russia is willing to compromise with Kiev and use the Organization for Security and Co-operation as a mediator. However, Putin also reiterated on May 7 Russia's core demands, which remain unchanged. The Kremlin insists that Kiev implement constitutional reforms before the May 25 election. Moreover, Putin emphasized that Ukraine should halt the military campaign against the separatists who have captured administration and security buildings across eastern Ukraine.

Thus far, Ukraine's Fatherland Party-dominated government has been unable — and unwilling — to fulfill Putin's demand for constitutional reform, since some of the Fatherland Party's coalition partners and allies oppose conducting a nationwide referendum or poll on the decentralization of power. Moreover, domestic pressure to retake control of the eastern regions from separatists constrains the Kiev government's ability to limit its military offensive in the region. While Putin's conciliatory gesture may give Kiev further impetus to push for reforms, significant domestic opposition to accommodating Kremlin demands will continue.

Ukraine's Political Divisions

Ukraine's Political Divisions

It also remains unclear whether the separatists, whom Western governments have accused of having close ties to Russia, will heed Putin's advice to postpone the planned May 11 referendums on independence from Ukraine. In response to Putin's statement, Denis Pushilin, the leader of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, said his organization respects Putin and will discuss his proposal for deferring the referendum at a meeting May 8. Separatists' willingness to comply with Putin's request will serve as an important gauge of Russia's influence over the diverse groups of separatists and anti-Kiev activists operating in eastern Ukraine.

Putin's decision to meet with the head of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and ask pro-Russian groups to postpone their controversial referendums indicates the Kremlin's intent to work toward a de-escalation in Ukraine, or at the very least show that it made attempts to do so. At the same time, Putin's endorsement of the May 25 election could serve to further the Kremlin's goal of creating paralysis in Kiev. Should eastern Ukraine participate in the May 25 election, it is unclear whether the leading pro-Western presidential candidate, Petro Poroshenko, would win an absolute majority in the first round of the elections, leading to more internal fighting among the pro-Western political factions and contributing to the growing political gridlock in Kiev.

For Putin, creating political paralysis in Kiev is a tool for slowing Ukraine's Western integration. By insisting on preconditions for de-escalation that are politically fraught and costly for the Ukrainian government, and by tentatively supporting a potentially divisive election, the Kremlin is aiming to hamstring Kiev in its movement toward the West while temporarily trying to limit escalations in anti-terrorism operations in Ukraine's east.

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