Can Poroshenko and Putin deal on Ukraine?

Ukraine's president-elect is broadly regarded as pragmatic, but with Putin looking to block Kiev's westward tilt and end its military operations in the east, a deal with Russia may be hard to come by.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP
Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko gestures during a press conference in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday. Mr. Poroshenko said does not intend to stop the use of force in the southeast of the country.

Ukraine's president-elect, Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire with a political track record of pragmatism, may be Ukraine's last chance to pull back from the brink of economic catastrophe and civil war.

But Mr. Poroshenko faces a near-Herculean task if he hopes to translate his electoral victory into a political vehicle that can begin reunification of his violently fracturing country.

Most experts give him high marks as a capable, determined person, with wide experience in politics and business, and extensive ties in both Russia and the West. As Ukraine's ultra-rich "oligarchs" go, he is reputedly the least corrupt of the lot, having made his basic fortune by building a confectionery empire. His electoral win, though marred by chaos in parts of the east, has been embraced by the West and even accorded "respect" in Moscow.

"Poroshenko has better chances to gain control over this runaway train than any other Ukrainian political figure," says Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the independent Center for Political Studies in Kiev. "But he needs solid unity behind him, and it's not even clear members of his own team are in agreement about basic issues like how to pursue the struggle in the east. So far, he can only pretend to be in charge."

Ukraine's economy is plunging; its currency, the hryvnia, has lost 30 percent of its value this year; and commerce with the country's largest trading partner, Russia, is fraying. Moscow has threatened to turn off the gas next week without a substantial down payment on the $2.5 billion it claims Ukraine owes for past supplies, a move that could shut down much of Ukraine's industry.

But most of all, Poroshenko urgently needs to find a way to convince eastern Ukrainians, trapped between armed separatists and an increasingly assertive Ukrainian army, that he can offer a way to national unity that undercuts the rebels by speaking to their concerns.  Even as Poroshenko gave his first press conference as leader on Monday, violence in the eastern region of Donetsk was spiking to unprecedented levels, with casualties by many accounts now running into the hundreds.

Poroshenko and Putin

To a great extent, finding a way to peace may depend upon Poroshenko's ability to cut a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he has offered to meet with in early June. "Stability in eastern Ukraine is impossible without Russian representation and meetings with the Russian leadership," he told journalists Monday.

Mr. Putin, who sees Russia as the protector of the rights of Ukraine's eastern Russian-speaking population, wants legally binding assurances of Ukraine's non-aligned – i.e. non-NATO – status; guaranteed status of the Russian language; and some sort of "federalist" constitution that would devolve the powers of central government to the regions. Poroshenko has hinted that all of those conditions might be acceptable, though many in Kiev and western Ukraine would oppose them.

Putin has made conciliatory statements in recent days, and he has apparently made good on pledges to pull Russian troops back from the Ukrainian border. His foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Tuesday that Poroshenko would find a "serious and reliable partner" in Moscow if he comes with an agenda to mend ties.

Poroshenko is "a smart person, to be sure, and he's clearly pro-Western. But the problem is that people who are Washington's favorites don't always prove themselves capable of solving problems at home. A lot will depend on how he acts," says Andrei Klimov, deputy head of the international affairs committee of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament.

But Russian leaders have insisted that Poroshenko must show his bona fides by ending the military operation in eastern Ukraine. So far, that does not appear to be in the cards. Although Poroshenko has said he will go to eastern Ukraine and engage with people there – as long as they aren't armed rebels – he also seems to have endorsed the "anti-terrorist" military operation, which ratcheted up almost immediately following his election.

Beyond that, it is not clear that Russia would settle for a Ukrainian pledge not to join NATO – it may also demand that Ukraine avoid deeper economic integration with the European Union. That would be a deal-breaker for Poroshenko, who has repeatedly said that drawing Ukraine deeper into Europe's fold will be his top priority.

"This issue of European integration is what triggered the whole crisis" when former President Viktor Yanukovych balked at signing an EU association agreement last November, says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "Russia's key aim has been to prevent Ukraine from falling into the Western orbit. This is not just about NATO, but also a wish to block closer cooperation with the EU."

Another potential sticking point may well be Poroshenko's refusal to accept Moscow's annexation of the Russian-majority Ukrainian territory of Crimea last March. That would be a deal-breaker for Putin, who has staked his entire political legacy on making Crimea's reunification with Russia permanent.

Shifting ground in the west

Poroshenko has probably been strengthened, and Russian propaganda deflated, by the crushing electoral defeat of candidates from the ultra-rightist Right Sector and Svoboda parties, which between them got less than 2 percent of the votes. On the other hand, Oleh Lyashko, a militantly anti-Russian candidate who has formed his own militia to fight "separatists" in the east, got over 8 percent of the votes.

Poroshenko's main opponent, the fiery "Orange Princess" Yulia Tymoshenko, conceded her loss to Poroshenko when vote counts showed her running hopelessly behind. But she may be waiting to pounce on any misstep by Poroshenko. Moreover the Ukrainian parliament, which under the current constitution is politically dominant, is controlled by Ms. Tymoshenko's allies.

Another factor that might wield unpredictable influences is the result of the weekend's EU parliamentary elections, which showed huge gains for right-wing anti-Europe parties.

"These forces are not the majority, so Europe's policy probably won't change, but it is a factor to take into account," says Ms. Lipman. "These new forces tend to be more sympathetic to Putin than they are to Ukraine. And they are absolutely without sympathy for any increased European budgetary expenses, such as helping Ukraine might demand. Their arguments will inevitably sound more loudly now."

But the most critical variable affecting Poroshenko's chances, she adds, is what happens in eastern Ukraine as fighting between rebels and Ukrainian forces becomes more bloody by the day.

"Three months after the change in power in Kiev, a new leader appears and declares that he will reach out to the people of the east and assure them they are as Ukrainian as people living in Lviv or any other part of the country. That is all very well. But what about all the shooting?"

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