Putin may have scored another win in Ukraine, but is he in over his head?

Russian President Vladimir Putin's calls for moderation may have put off the prospect of tougher European Union sanctions, but if he gets bogged down in Ukraine, he could face problems.

Darko Vojinovic/AP
A pro-Russian gunman sets up a banner that reads: 'Do not forget, do not forgive!' in front of the city hall decorated with flags of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, in the center of Slovyansk, Ukraine, on Thursday.

What came across Wednesday as Russian President Vladimir Putin standing down on Ukraine was, just a day later, looking much more like Mr. Putin once again manipulating the Ukrainian crisis to his liking.

Putin on Wednesday called for a weekend referendum on eastern Ukraine's independence to be postponed, but separatists vowed to go forward with the plebiscite anyway. And Putin pledged to pull Russian troops back from Ukraine’s border, sending a soothing message to Germany and the rest of Western Europe. The Russian leader may have accomplished two goals in all this maneuvering, some Russia experts say.

First, he may have succeeded in disassociating Russia from a referendum that he privately prefers to see proceed, they say. That may have allowed Putin to let some of the air out of the Western assertion that the separatists receive their marching orders from Moscow.

Perhaps more important, Putin’s words of moderation and calls for diplomacy may have succeeded in putting off for the foreseeable future any move by the European Union toward broad sanctions on Russia’s key economic sectors. President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed last Friday that such sanctions could be imposed much sooner than Putin might have thought.

The Obama administration said Tuesday that Russian support for the weekend referendum in eastern Ukrainian cities where separatists are holding public buildings could serve as a “trigger” for tougher sanctions. The targets could be key sectors of the Russian economy, such as the energy industry, finance, or the arms trade. At the same time, administration officials continue to insist that those sanctions only make sense if adopted by both the US and the European Union, which plays a much larger role than the US in Russia’s economy. Mr. Obama made the same point with Ms. Merkel at the White House Friday.

But some in Congress continue to show impatience with Obama’s priority on working in tandem with Europe. At a House hearing on Ukraine Thursday, administration critics said the US should stop waiting for Europe – and Putin – to act before imposing harsher sanctions on Russia.

“We must stop reacting to Putin’s moves, while waiting patiently for the Europeans to join us,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R) of California, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Instead, we must adopt a proactive strategy that will convince Putin that his aggression will have a significant and lasting cost to the Russian economy.”   

Still, support for heavier US involvement in Ukraine is not unanimous, even among Republicans. Another California Republican, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, said the Ukraine crisis is much “murkier” than “a simple case of Russian aggression,” and he advised caution, especially concerning any massive economic aid plan for Ukraine.   

NATO officials announced Thursday that they saw no evidence of Russia pulling back the thousands of troops it has deployed to the Ukrainian border. Putin’s claim was reminiscent of earlier assurances the Russian leader made to Merkel but which turned out not to be true, US officials say.

But Putin may yet be able to declare “mission accomplished” as a result of his moderate words, even if he doesn’t ultimately follow through on them, some analysts say. One reassuring sign for Putin: the 28-nation EU agreed Wednesday to a modest expansion of sanctions on Russian individuals but nixed a plan to broaden sanctions to more Russian companies.

No one should think that Putin’s words on Wednesday indicate that Russia is retreating from an assertive stance toward Ukraine, said Thomas Graham, a former special assistant on Russian affairs to President George W. Bush and now a managing director at Kissinger Associates in Washington.

“You’re going to see tremendous effort in exerting Russian primacy over Ukraine over the next few years,” said Mr. Graham, who spoke Thursday at an event sponsored by the Center for the National Interest in Washington.

But Putin knows as well as anyone else that Russia’s goal of re-exerting its power and influence over Ukraine and “the former Soviet space” can only be achieved with the backing of a robust and growing Russian economy – not one hobbled by debilitating Western sanctions, he adds.

“If Russia wants to grow its great-power status, it’s going to have to build the economic strength that serves as the base of that power,” he said.

For others, Putin’s steps-forward, steps-back approach to Ukraine suggests someone who is flush with an initial success – in Putin’s case, Russia’s annexation of Crimea – and, as a result, wades into deeper and more problematic waters.

As the Russian economy shows signs of weakness, that may be increasing doubts among the power players in the Russian economy who have Putin’s ear, says Dimitri Simes, a Russia expert and president of the Center for the National Interest.

“[Putin] had a huge success in Crimea,” Mr. Simes says. “And then he overreached.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.