Correction:

An earlier version misspelled the last name of the vice rector of Ukrainian Catholic University. He is Myroslav Marynovych.

Putin takes losses on Ukraine, but Russia still has leverage and the will to use it

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP - Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath-laying ceremony Sunday at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow. The Defenders of the Fatherland Day, celebrated on Feb. 23, honors the country’s military and is a national holiday.

KIEV, Ukraine – Russian President Vladimir Putin had a plan for Ukraine, but it all fell apart Friday.

So he went to Plan B: a mediated, gradual transition of power, a plan that came undone Saturday.

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Big setbacks for the Kremlin? Yes, especially given the way they intruded upon the intended public relations triumph of the Sochi Winter Olympics. But a rout? Not if Putin can help it.

Revolution in the streets of Kiev is abhorrent to the Russian president, not least for the example it sets. Putin and his advisers have consistently misread Ukrainians’ devotion to their own sovereignty. But Russia still has a lot of leverage in Ukraine and a keen interest in using it. The cards have been reshuffled — so Putin will play the hand he has now been dealt and is unlikely to waste time or energy regretting the ones he lost.

It is not now in Russia’s interest to keep Ukraine churning, analysts say.

A Ukraine in continuing turmoil would make a difficult and unpredictable Russian intervention almost inevitable and make it even less likely that the country could ever pay off its huge Russian gas bills.

“Putin fears chaos,” foreign policy journalist Fyodor Lukyanov wrote in an article published Friday. “The main driving force behind his policy towards Ukraine will be not a desire for expansion, but a desire to reduce the risk of chaos spilling into Russia.”

Ukraine’s fast meltdown caught the Kremlin off guard, Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center said Sunday, but it is not a total defeat — yet.

“Ukraine is the most important issue on the Russian foreign policy agenda,” she said, and Russia can expect that “the West, particularly Europe, will be too slow, too reluctant” to seize the initiative.

Plan C and natural gas

Putin backed President Viktor Yanukovych — that was Plan A — but disliked him personally. Putin was said to have found Yanu­kovych “unreliable and slippery,” Lukyanov wrote.

Now Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister, is out of a prison hospital and back on the stage. She was a leader of the Orange Revolution in 2004, which Putin took as a personal affront at the time. But after she came to power, the two got along quite well. She’s strong-willed and rich, and, analysts say, Putin respects that.

After more than two years in prison, Tymoshenko could be too ill or too behind the times to return to a position of authority. But she may at least be able to provide a channel of communication between Moscow and Kiev.

So now it’s on to Plan C.

Putin’s primary goal has been to enfold Ukraine in his new Eurasian Customs Union. As Putin knows, Ukraine is vital to its success. Kiev’s defection from the Soviet Union in the fall of 1991 was the fatal blow to the U.S.S.R., and if Ukraine remains outside the Eurasian union, that grouping will never be the economic power Putin wants it to be.

Russia continues to hold a powerful tool: It supplies virtually all of Ukraine’s natural gas, and Kiev is already deeply in debt. The Kremlin could also choose to move forward on its currently suspended $15 billion loan program to Ukraine, signed a long two months ago with Yanu­kovych.

For now, Putin’s plan to bring Ukraine on board is on ice. But in the throes of the Ukrainian revolution, the European Union isn’t likely to rush in to preempt the Kremlin. Moscow can wait.

“Europe would be afraid of us in our present state,” said Myroslav Marynovych, vice rector of Ukrainian Catholic University, in the western city of Lviv. “We need to become a normal state again, and then we can talk about the future.”

Risks of military action

In large measure, the turmoil erupted because Ukraine was caught in a tug-of-war between Russia and the E.U. Yanukovych had said he would sign a trade agreement with Europe in November and then abruptly backed out, with the Kremlin’s encouragement.

Russian politicians and editorialists talked all weekend about the possible breakup of Ukraine into a Russian-speaking east and Ukrainian-speaking west. But no one in Ukraine — east or west — is echoing that thought. Nor is anyone in the Kremlin.

Yet, if the residents of the eastern and southern parts of the country — those who feel the closest ties to Russia and who gave their support to Yanukovych’s Party of Regions — are made to feel like second-class citizens in the new Ukraine, Putin could decide he needs to act. Establishing exclusive economic ties with those regions, while perhaps discouraging trade with the rest of Ukraine, would be one action.

Military intervention, though, would be an incendiary move that Russian and American analysts said would come at tremendous cost to Moscow. The Crimean peninsula could be the flash point, particularly if its regional parliament decides to request Russian protection, as some worry could happen.

In a talk she gave on Ekho Moskvy radio, commentator Yulia Latynina said that sending in the army or navy — there’s a big Russian naval base in the Crimea — would be the equivalent of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which set off the Persian Gulf War.

“That would be a grave mistake,” Susan Rice, the U.S. national security adviser, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Asked if she thought Putin was viewing the Ukraine crisis through the lens of the Cold War, when Moscow used its military to maintain rule in satellite nations, she replied: “He may, but if he does, that’s a pretty dated perspective.”

By various accounts, Putin and President Obama had a constructive telephone conversation Friday about ensuring stability in Ukraine, although that was before Plan B fell apart Saturday with the effective ouster of Yanukovych.

The Kremlin, Shevtsova said, can co-opt the Ukrainians it needs without sending in tanks. Vladislav Surkov, a onetime Kremlin ideologist, has been working almost full time in Kiev to shore up Russia’s position there. There were reports, unconfirmed, that he was interviewing Yanukovych’s candidates for prime minister last month.

Russia’s political opposition hopes that Ukraine’s revolt will spread to its big neighbor and that Putin’s bad bets there will weaken his position at home. Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, laid out six parallels between Yanukovych’s government and Putin’s — involving corruption, brutality, checks and balances and other factors — and argued in a blog post that in each instance, Russia was more flagrant.

But that shows a misunderstanding of the differences between the two countries — almost a mirror image of Putin’s inability to see Ukraine as a sovereign nation with its own interests. Without the flow of money from gas and oil to ensure loyalty and order, Yanukovych never exercised full control in Ukraine — and that made room for the revolt in Kiev.

Kathy Lally in Sochi, Russia, contributed to this report.

 
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