“Fluid” is the one word that describes the rapid flow of events in Ukraine over the last five days. The unpopular President, Viktor Yanukovych, decamped from Kiev for parts unknown; the parliament appointed a new government; finance officials kept telephone lines busy talking with European and U.S. Treasury counterparts to try to put together a $35 billion aid package needed to bail out the country’s damaged economy.
The bailout would take weeks and, put through the International Monetary Fund, would require unpopular reforms such as currency devaluation and reductions of state subsidies of natural gas (which comes from Russia).
That, in turn raises a very big question: What will Putin do? To keep his plans to himself, he has stood aside, letting Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expand the Russian narrative to the effect that the months of protest were the work of paid “foreign” agents; that Yanukovych’s ouster was a “coup” and the new government is “illegitimate.”
RT.com, Russia’s English-language website yesterday began to work in a sub-theme: “Political instability settled over Ukraine...with eastern and southern Ukraine saying they no longer see parliament as legitimate.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s Facebook page stated, “Western media prefer not to talk about the fact that the riots (in Kiev) were organized by extremists. Perhaps the management of the European structures does not know how extremists, posing themselves as ‘civilians,’ acted.”
RT.com adds a note that Ukraine’s acting president claims there are “signs of separatism “ in the Russian-speaking areas of eastern and southern Ukraine. It noted, “Protesters on the southern peninsula (Crimea) have held rallies since President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted.” Crimea was turned over to Ukraine by the USSR in 1954. Russia holds a long-term lease on its Black Sea naval fleet base in the city of Sevastopol. Yanukovych got his political start in eastern Ukraine and drew much of his support from Russian-speaking citizens there.
Last November, Putin muscled Yanukovych into backing out of Ukraine’s wide-ranging “partnership” agreement with the European Union just days before it was to be signed. Yanukovych then agreed to sign an agreement with Russia, turning Ukraine into a vassal state in exchange for a $15 billion loan. Many Ukrainians, especially in the west of the country, had seen the EU agreement as a path to Europe and prosperity. Large, but peaceful demonstrations over Yanukovych’s about-face ensued in Kiev. Over time, added to this issue was anger over corruption in government. Yanukovych resisted all demands for reforms until the last minute. Last week, he allowed his security forces to shoot at demonstrators, despite pleas from U.S. Vice President Biden and others not to fire on citizens. Eighty people died. Yanukovych finally made a tentative agreement with the protestors for a new government, then left Kiev in the middle of the night.
Putin’s feckless erstwhile ally had managed to reverse the Russian leader’s victory over the EU agreement. Putin does not want it to appear to be a pyrrhic victory so will more-than-hope for political in-fighting in Kiev, leading to chaos. As suggested by the articles in RT.com, getting pro-Russian friends in eastern Ukraine to stir up secession talk would be to Putin’s advantage. His agents may try to bring this to critical mass so that it forces the new government to try to solve the problem.
Under such circumstances the parliament might propose that the country have two autonomous states, West and East, each with the ability to keep a good portion of the taxes it collects and the right to set local policy. Foreign and national economic policy would continue to be the province of the central government. Ukraine could point to the various “autonomous” republics in Russia as its model. That fact might slow down Putin in his determination to construct a new Russian Empire, but it would to stop him. Through all this, Putin could use leverage by increasing the price of the natural gas it pumps to Ukraine, which is vital to it.
At worst for Ukraine would be an accelerating secession movement in the east, all manipulated by Moscow. This might cause civil war. In that case, Putin would have to calculate that winning would be worth the cost. Most of the country’s industrial production lies in the east and he would not want it destroyed. In the case of civil war, Putin might do an end run around the U.S. and E.U. by casting himself as "peacemaker" and calling for a contingent of U.N. members' troops to end the fighting. Thus, he would have "plausible deniability” for causing the civil war and a halo for ending it. As a result of the peace conference that would no doubt follow, he might still get eastern Ukraine or, at the least, new economic levers over a unitary state.
Peter Hannaford is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. He was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number oF years. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”