What Putin wants matters less than what he doesn’t

March 7, 2014

By Pierre Briançon

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

The Western governments wondering what Vladimir Putin wants in Ukraine should start by focusing on what he doesn’t. That has become a little clearer after the Russian president’s rambling press conference earlier this week, during which glimpses of rationality appeared amidst a long, disingenuous rant against the new authorities in Kiev. Putin doesn’t want Crimea – which is only a pawn in his Ukrainian game. He is not ready to take the risk of a Western-style democracy in the former Soviet republic. And he fears the disruption of the economic and financial ties that bind Russia and Ukraine.

Crimea is not the main issue. Historians and politicians can argue about whether it should be part of Ukraine or Russia, but the case has been settled in international law since the 1994 Budapest protocol guaranteed the former Soviet republic’s borders. Putin said explicitly this week that he wouldn’t favour annexing the region – for understandable reasons. Crimea depends on Ukraine’s energy, water and financial transfers. The local parliament’s decision to hold a referendum on the topic doesn’t change the equation – and Putin will not have to follow up on the results. Were Crimea independent, or annexed, Putin would be deprived of a major bargaining chip to influence events in Kiev. With Russian troops already on the ground, he can keep playing games, and pretend that local militias are acting in self-defence. But he’s after unrest and instability, not partition and annexation.

The Russian president isn’t ready to tolerate Western-style democracy in Ukraine any more than he does at home. Democracy is dangerous. Voters are unpredictable. Ukrainians might choose a president or parliament hostile to Moscow. When Putin says he will only recognise the president who will be elected in May if the reign of “terror” ends in the streets of Kiev, he means that he reserves the right to determine his position later, depending on circumstances.

In a surreal moment this week, Putin threw scorn on all recently-elected Ukrainian presidents, enmeshed in the country’s deeply corrupt political and economic system. That is fresh coming from the leader of a country that serves as a yardstick for government corruption.

But he has a point. Democracy has been tried in Ukraine before, and it has failed, betrayed by its own supposed leaders after the 2004 Orange Revolution. Of course, Putin’s government did everything it could to meddle and skew the electoral results. But the Russian leader has since learned to be agnostic about the political shade of whoever rules in Kiev, as shown by his good relationship with long-jailed Viktor Yanukovich opponent Yulia Tymoshenko.

Finally, Putin fears that a more European Ukraine will hurt Russia’s economical and financial interests. That’s why he is eager to take part in talks about a possible bailout of the country with the International Monetary Fund, the EU and the United States.

Gas is a major factor – but gas is not everything. Putin is also afraid that an agreement between Ukraine and the EU will disrupt Russia’s own trade. And Russia’s ruling elite, including Putin’s cronies, would have a lot to lose if it were no longer possible to launder so much gas money through opaque intermediaries.

Putin’s fears frame the talks that Americans and Europeans must have with him to persuade Russia to step back. They have to convince him that closer ties between Ukraine and Europe wouldn’t be a declaration of hostility towards Russia. And they must do that without compromising on the principle that Ukraine must be a democracy without reservation, doing trade without corruption.

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