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Putin's bargaining chip

Ingo Mannteufel / ewMarch 1, 2014

Russian President Vladimir Putin's strategy for the Ukrainian conflict is clear. As a result, Ukraine's new government and the West are in a dangerous jam, writes DW's Ingo Mannteufel.

Ingo Mannteufel (Photo: DW/Per Henriksen)
Image: DW

On the Crimean Peninsula, events have taken a dramatic turn in recent days. The situation is dynamic, and from the beginning it has been clear that Moscow is the driving force behind the developments. The well organized and armed military officers without official badges that took control of critical spots on the peninsula were acting on behalf of the Kremlin. This also applies to the so-called pro-Russian politicians in Crimea, who have seized power in the shadow of the military command and plan to initiate the peninsula's secession from Ukraine via a referendum on March 30.

Then, there are the threatening gestures from Russia's side: military exercises, parliamentary statements and a press conference with ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. All these point to a concerted effort on Russia's part. The decision to allow the official deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine is simply the latest evidence of Russian intervention.

Putin's aims and Kyiv's options

Through "Operation Crimea," the Kremlin has set up an extremely dangerous trap for the West and for the new government in Kyiv. This can be seen in Putin's strategy and options - because through his control of Crimea he is pursuing two goals. Firstly, he proactively secured the Russian Black Sea fleet base before the new government in Kyiv could recall the existing deployment treaty. Secondly, Moscow now has a bargaining chip for putting pressure on Ukraine's government.

Following the ouster of Yanukovych, Putin is securing his place in the debate on Ukraine's future in a ruthless and nefarious way. If the new Ukrainian government doesn't agree to this, we can expect a new Transnistria or Abkhazia to emerge - a breakaway region with an isolated pro-Russian power structure, kept stable through a strong Russian military presence.

The new government in Kyiv now faces a difficult decision. A deployment of the Ukrainian army on the Crimean Peninsula could lead to an unimaginable disaster. The conflict could spread to the whole of southern and eastern Ukraine, the delicate economic situation could be further destabilized, and a full-blown war could erupt between Ukraine and Russia. And it is highly doubtful that the West would support a military solution.

Dilemma for the West

The initial statements issued by the US and the EU show their outrage at the developments in Crimea. But harsh words will have little impact. Putin is indifferent to what the West says or thinks about him. In addition to that, he constantly highlights the alleged demands of the ethnic Russian population of Crimea, whose safety he claims to want to ensure.

As a result, the West finds itself in an uncomfortable predicament. It could retaliate with rigorous sanctions against Russia (trade restrictions, travel restrictions, account closures, eviction from the G8), which could lead to a new Cold War with negative consequences for the West's energy supply and huge investments into helping maintain the new "frontier state of Ukraine." It's hard to imagine that the residents of western democracies would support this kind of solution.

Or the West can grit its teeth for some time and silently accept Moscow's new role in Crimea, coercing the politicians in Kyiv into negotiating with Russia, which they are reluctant to do. In this way, Putin would - in a brutal way and in breach of international law - attain what the anti-Yanukovych opposition and western politicians didn't want to grant him in recent months: a strong voice in the negotiations on Ukraine's political and economic future.