One year on, Rus­sia’s gam­ble in Ukraine shows mixed con­clu­sion


A year since the start of the fight­ing in eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin may not have emerged the win­ner in his show­down with the West but he has not lost ei­ther, an­a­lysts say.

By sup­port­ing Ukrainian sep­a­ratists, they say, he took a huge risk but it largely paid off as it al­lowed him to pun­ish Kiev’s proWestern au­thor­i­ties for seek­ing to turn their back on Rus­sia and stand up to the West.

Most im­por­tantly for the Krem­lin, the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and sup­port for fel­low Rus­sian speak­ers in Ukraine’s east have given a huge boost to Putin’s pop­u­lar­ity rat­ings at home.

Ac­cord­ing to a Fe­bru­ary study from the Le­vada Cen­ter in­de­pen­dent polling group, the num­ber of peo­ple who want Putin to seek a fourth term in 2018 has more than dou­bled to 57 per­cent since De­cem­ber 2013.

“What Putin wanted was clear a year ago — he wanted a block­ing stake in Ukraine or — the next best op­tion — a man­age­able con­flict,” Niko­lai Petrov, a pro­fes­sor at the Higher School of Eco­nomics, told AFP.

“To a large de­gree the Krem­lin has achieved what it wanted.”

Ukraine marks the first an­niver­sary of the start of the con­flict in a hugely de­mor­al­ized state with its econ­omy shat­tered and NATO membership a very dis­tant, if not im­pos­si­ble, prospect.

“They man­aged to keep Ukraine out of NATO be­cause it is strug­gling with two un­re­solved ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes,” Alexander Baunov, a se­nior as­so­ciate at the Carnegie Moscow Cen­ter, told AFP.

Cal­cu­lated Risk

If Putin gam­bled that the West would not move to burn all its bridges with Rus­sia nor en­gage the for­mer Cold War foe mil­i­tar­ily, he was right.

While Wash­ing­ton has been vo­cal in its as­ser­tion that Moscow has been send­ing troops over the bor­der to but­tress Ukrainian sep­a­ratists, it has held off on sup­ply­ing Kiev with lethal weapons over fears of es­ca­la­tion.

Econ­omy-wise, the U.S. and Euro­pean Union have forged a united front, slap­ping Rus­sia with sev­eral rounds of sanc­tions, but de­cided against rad­i­cal mea­sures like cut­ting Moscow off from the SWIFT bank­ing sys­tem.

Rus­sia has with­stood the blow, and the gov­ern­ment re­cently de­clared that the worst was over for the re­ces­sion-hit econ­omy.

Af­ter a shock slump late last year, the Rus­sian ru­ble has re­cently re­bounded fol­low­ing a lull in fight­ing in Ukraine and the steady­ing of oil prices.

Econ­o­mists have fore­cast stag­na­tion over the next few years but naysay­ers pre­dict­ing im­mi­nent fi­nan­cial col­lapse have been floored.

In a sign that Putin may be get­ting ready to break out of West­ern iso­la­tion, he is con­sid­er­ing whether to travel to New York to speak at the 70th ses­sion of the U.N. Gen­eral As­sem­bly this fall, the Krem­lin said. It would be his first U.N. visit over the past 10 years.

Such a move would have ap­peared unimag­in­able sev­eral months ago when Putin ap­peared crushed un­der the weight of in­ter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion when a Malaysia Air­lines Boe­ing came down over rebel-held Ukraine, killing all 298 peo­ple on board.

The West and Kiev claim that Moscow-backed rebels shot the jet out of the skies by mis­take, with a mis­sile pro­vided by Rus­sia.

In a bid to counter rag­ing ac­cu­sa­tions that he was per­son­ally guilty, an ashen-faced Putin recorded an un­prece­dented night- time video ad­dress, urg­ing the West and Kiev not to ex­ploit the tragedy for po­lit­i­cal gains.

But as a shaky truce ap­pears to be tak­ing hold in Ukraine, Rus­sia has ap­par­ently man­aged to put the worst of the fall­out be­hind it.

That may ex­plain Putin’s jokey mood at the tri­umphant cel­e­bra­tions mark­ing one year since the takeover of Crimea last month when he quipped that Rus­sia “will over­come the dif­fi­cul­ties that we have so eas­ily cre­ated for our­selves.”

‘Putin will not back off’

To a large ex­tent, Putin has been lucky, af­ter rush­ing into the con­fronta­tion with the West with­out a well-thought-out plan, ob­servers said.

“There was a set of tasks and Napoleon’s fa­mous maxim, ‘On s’en­gage et puis on voit’ (Let’s jump into the fray and then fig­ure out what to do next),” Kon­stantin Kalachev, head of the Po­lit­i­cal Ex­pert Group think tank, said of the pres­i­dent’s at­ti­tude.

Even if his tac­tics have of­ten de­fied com­pre­hen­sion, Putin has made his mes­sage abun­dantly clear: the West should un­der­stand that a new, post-Soviet Rus­sia is a force to be reck­oned with.

“Putin will nei­ther give up nor back off,” Dmitry Trenin, direc­tor of the Carnegie Moscow Cen­ter, wrote in a re­cent re­port.

The fight­ing has ex­acted a huge hu­man toll.

Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial statis­tics, more than 6,000 peo­ple have died in eastern Ukraine since last April, and hu­man rights ac­tivists say scores of Rus­sian troops sent over the bor­der may have also per­ished in the ex-Soviet coun­try.

Ties be­tween or­di­nary Rus­sians and Ukraini­ans have also been torn apart, with ob­servers say­ing years — if not decades — will be needed to heal the rift.

While the fight­ing has largely died down, an end to the Ukrainian cri­sis is nowhere in sight.

“The cri­sis is drag­ging on through in­er­tia, which is danger­ous,” said Petrov of the Higher School of Eco­nomics. “It has be­come a ne­ces­sity to a large num­ber of peo­ple.”

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