A quick end won’t serve Vladimir Putin’s purposes in Ukraine

Pro-Russia activists guard barricades in Slovyansk, Ukraine.
(Alexander Zemlianichenko / Associated Press)

Amid low expectations, it came as a surprise to Western diplomats when Russia signed off on an agreement calling for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine to lay down their weapons and surrender the public buildings they have been occupying for weeks.

What hasn’t been surprising in the days since is Russia’s apparent unwillingness to ensure that those terms are quickly and cleanly enforced.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has two objectives in what the Ukrainian and Western governments say is his thinly disguised backing of the separatists. Neither is served by pushing for a quick end to the challenges to Ukraine’s interim government in Kiev.

Putin wants to regain the influence he had over Ukraine before Kremlin-allied President Viktor Yanukovich was ousted by a popular rebellion in late February. He can do that by forcing constitutional reform that would reconfigure Ukraine into a federation of highly autonomous regions, in effect allowing Moscow veto power in the Russian-speaking border areas already under its sway. Failing that, he can invade and annex territory, as he did recently in Crimea.


Putin’s other objective is to muddy the Ukrainian presidential election scheduled for May 25. Balloting that is widely regarded as fair and inclusive would confer legitimacy on the central government in Kiev, undercutting Russia’s claim that it needs to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

Continued defiance by pro-Russia gunmen would undermine the Kiev leadership’s ability to govern or organize polling places and international monitoring for the presidential vote in less than five weeks.

Putin’s invasion and seizure of Crimea were wildly popular, according to polling by the independent Levada Center, which showed that support for the Russian president had soared to 80% days after the March 21 annexation.

Since then, Russian Cabinet ministers have begun sounding the alarm on the economic blow the Ukrainian unrest is dealing Russia. Economic growth this year is expected to be near zero, and huge amounts of foreign capital — $63 billion in the first quarter — are fleeing the country. But the bite on Russians’ buying power from those setbacks won’t be felt for months or years, providing little public pushback on Putin’s territorial ambitions.

Kremlin officials have feigned innocence in the armed takeovers of a dozen Ukrainian towns and cities since the Crimean gambit, even though many of the gunmen are armed with Russian army-issued rifles and wearing fatigues identical to those of Russian soldiers.

“Blame for the Ukrainian crisis and its current deterioration is groundlessly apportioned to Russia,” the Foreign Ministry in Moscow complained in a statement Friday, echoing its denial of involvement in the Crimean seizure — until Putin last week conceded that Russian armed forces were involved in the operation. He said the takeover was necessary to defend Crimea’s majority Russian population.

The separatist leader in Donetsk, the most entrenched of the pro-Russia occupations, argued in interviews with journalists outside the regional government headquarters that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who endorsed the Geneva agreement for Russia, wasn’t empowered to make decisions for the self-proclaimed “Donetsk Republic.”

“He did not sign anything for us; he signed on behalf of the Russian Federation,” Denis Pushilin said of his forces barricaded behind piles of bricks, tires and barbed-wire cordons.


The Geneva meeting Thursday brought together Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and acting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia for the first attempt at a diplomatic resolution that involved a representative from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. The diplomats produced an eight-paragraph plan to “de-escalate” the Ukraine crisis, but its purported commitments to disarm “all illegal armed groups” and to restore control of government facilities to their “rightful owners” have proved vulnerable to gross misinterpretation.

Leaders of the separatist actions claim that the government in Kiev is illegal, having gained interim authority after staging a “coup d’etat” against Yanukovich. “We will leave only after the Kiev junta leaves,” Pushilin told the Associated Press on Saturday. “First Kiev, then Donetsk.”

They also contend that the disarmament order applies to the Ukrainian national guard, as well as paramilitary groups supportive of the Kiev leadership, such as the ultranationalist Right Sector. Until the disarmament order is honored by the Kiev government, the rebellious eastern gunmen say with one voice, they will not comply with it either.

Political analysts criticized the Geneva agreement for its failure to address the intimidating presence of 40,000 Russian troops along Ukraine’s eastern border, which the Kremlin had insisted were engaged in routine military exercises.


Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, conceded to journalists Friday that the massing of troops was a response to the confrontations across the border.

“We can mobilize our whole society if someone starts driving Russia into a corner,” Peskov said. He warned that U.S. and European Union threats to impose new sanctions on Russia if the Geneva agreement fails to defuse the crisis were “absolutely unacceptable,” intimating that any such punishment could drive Russia to more forceful action.

The Geneva agreement also made no mention of the Crimean seizure by Moscow, an action condemned worldwide as a violation of international law in unilaterally changing a sovereign country’s borders.

“The document says nothing about Russian aggression,” Russian economist and former Kremlin advisor Andrei Illarionov wrote in a critical analysis of the agreement. He said the Western diplomats’ omission of any censure could be seen as de facto acceptance of the Crimea takeover.


That capitulation to the territorial seizure that no outside military force is willing to reverse helps make a reality of Putin’s vision of a Ukraine that is divided into a Russian-allied or annexed eastern entity and a weakened western part governed by unelected leaders.

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.