What is Plan B for Putin?

The revolution in Kiev is now an accomplished fact. The new government seems in secure control of the capital and the key levers of power. But the future of Ukraine as a whole is still uncertain.

Ukraine’s new rulers have two key priorities: to reassure and conciliate the Russian government, and to reassure and conciliate their own Russian-leaning citizens in the east and south of the country. The two tasks are closely related, but not identical.

The first is probably the more urgent. Ukraine looms large in the Russian imagination, and its fate will have been discussed in considerable detail in the Kremlin. As Walter Russell Mead said the other day, “it stretches credulity to suppose that Russian planners have not thought long and hard about their alternatives” – there will be contingency plans in place. If Vladimir Putin is going to make a bold move, he will probably do it quickly.

On the other hand, the assortment of mayors, governors and local oligarchs who might lead a domestic counter-revolution will be much less well-prepared. Provided Russia stays aloof, they are unlikely to be an immediate threat. Kiev can afford to let them blow off a bit of steam for now.

Today’s reports all say that Russia has hardened its line against the new government. Prime minister Dmitry Medvedev referred to the change of power as “an armed mutiny”, and a statement from the foreign ministry echoed the same sentiment. Prospects for the payment of Russia’s promised aid package look dim.

But apart from whatever leverage the carrot and stick of economic aid might give it, Russia’s options are pretty limited. If there were an actual civil war in Ukraine, and especially if there were fighting in Kiev, Russian military intervention (to “keep the peace”, of course) would be imaginable. But the revolution has been too successful too quickly for that. Russian troops would have to not just “impose order” but to actually conquer a hostile population.

Putin may be an imperialist, but he is not a fool. The occupation of Kiev, not to mention the territory further west, is beyond his capacity, and he knows it.

That leaves some sort of partition as a possible goal. Russian intervention could try to establish a breakaway government in Crimea and the industrial east of Ukraine, and offer it military support against the Ukrainian authorities – much as it did in 2008 with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. That is the primary threat that the new Ukrainian government will be worrying about.

But in dealing with it, Ukraine is in a much stronger position than was Georgia under Mikheil Saakashvili. Ukraine is a major military power, and it would be fighting not for an ethnically-distinct secessionist territory but for a recognised part of its own heartland. Outsiders talk about breaking up Ukraine, but there seems little enthusiasm for it within the country. All sides have stressed their support for Ukrainian territorial integrity.

The best omen for the pro-western forces is the way that the former governing party, the Party of Regions, has in the last few days largely deserted its leader, ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, and made common cause with the revolution. Its power base is in the east and south; if people there can see that the new government represents their interests as well, they are much less likely to provide a ready audience for Putin’s troublemaking.

Reassurance for both Russia and eastern Ukraine will require admitting that their concerns are real. Russia does care about ethnic Russians getting a raw deal, and its economic ties with Ukraine can’t be just wished away. The new Ukrainian authorities will eventually have to overcome their distaste at being called “fascists” and the like, and make some serious overtures to Moscow.

It would seem, however, that neither Russia nor its Ukrainian sympathisers care much any more for Yanukovych. That also could help the cause of reconciliation: Yanukovych is a convenient scapegoat, and if Putin is willing to cut him loose then Kiev and Moscow can both agree on blaming him for most of the recent unpleasantness.

The hardest problem will be Crimea, where Ukrainian national feeling is weakest. Although I doubt that it will, perhaps the most effective conciliatory gesture the new government could make would be a sign to Russia that once things have calmed down it would be willing to contemplate a referendum on Crimea’s future, and to negotiate its return to Russia if local opinion supports that option.

The events of the last few days have unquestionably been a major defeat for Vladimir Putin. But the best chance of making the change secure is to minimise as much as possible the sense of Russian humiliation, and to assure both Putin and his Ukrainian allies that they can work productively with the new government. Putin won’t be happy, but he’ll eventually realise that has to make the best of it.




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