What next for Putin?

 

As Russia moved to consolidate its grip on the Crimea on Saturday, evicting unresisting Ukrainian troops from their Belbek and Novofyedorovka air and naval bases and seizing the flagship of the Ukrainian fleet, the Slavutich , the locus of the crisis moved to eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian demonstrators are making sure that increasingly Kiev’s writ can no longer run. President Putin has insisted he has no interest in sending in the Russian troops massed on the border but Ukrainians fear that the slightest excuse will bring in a “rescue” mission.

The concern in Kiev’s new government is that even the slightest attempt to crack down on disorder in Donetsk and Karkhiv could be taken as provocation to justify invasion. It is , despite its mobilisation of troops and reserves, powerless to respond, and the danger is that as the eastern cities become increasingly ungovernable a de facto partition of the country may develop, even without overt Russian intervention. The Kremlin has insisted that the troops massed along the border are engaged in training exercises, but, in truth, their very presence is sufficient to embolden Russian supporters.

The troops’ presence close to the Moldovan border is also alarming western countries about the possible threat to the country’s separatist Transdniestria region.

But Russia’s agreement to the deployment of a monitoring mission from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europein eastern Ukraine, though not Crimea, is, hopefully, a somewhat reassuring sign of its intent.

Crucial too is the repeated insistance of many of the demonstrators in places like Donetsk that they do not aspire to secesssion but to a more radically federalised Ukraine in which the eastern part of the country is ceded far greater autonomy. That was also the message of local business people who met German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Saturday. And Russia has urged its neighbour to adopt a federal constitution that guarantees political and military neutrality, grants powers to Ukrainian regions, and makes Russian a second official language.

This may be the price that a largely powerless and economically desperate Kiev will find itself forced to pay to de-escalate tensions. It is clear it cannot rely on further external pressure on Moscow beyond the very limited sanctions both the EU and US have imposed if Russia holds back from further military intervention. Its leverage is largely rhetorical.

Leaders of the EU, which signed the political chapters of an association accord with Ukraine on Friday, the US, China, Japan and other nations meet in The Hague today for a summit on nuclear security. They are expected to discuss the Ukraine crisis on the sidelines of the conference but are not likely to agree further measures against Russia.

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