Ukraine: what's Putin's plan and what does it mean for the West?

What is the likely outcome of the Ukrainian presidential election on May 25th, 2014?

Professor Stefan Hedlund:

Well, the set up is very complicated now. It’s not going to be just any old presidential election. With the pro-Russian control over the eastern part of Ukraine we now have the Peoples Republic of Donetsk, and the People’s Republic of Luhansk, and in both those the local activists are talking about holding a local referendum on May 11th, two weeks before the presidential election.

And that referendum,depending on whom you listen to, will be a two-stage process. One, whether those parts of Ukraine should be autonomous, and two, whether they should be annexed to the Russian Federation.

It is very difficult to say what is going to happen because the opinion polls we have access to are several weeks old. And things on the ground are moving so quickly that the impact on voters is difficult to assess.

But it’s not going to be a lot of people voting in favour of independence here. So that vote will obviously be spun by the pro-Russian media as a victory for independence in these parts.

What will follow after the referendum is that Kiev will not recognise the referendum as legal, and the outside world in the West will not recognise it as legal. The question is what the Russians will do, and that’s the big question, obviously.

When it comes to the presidential election on May 25, there are opinion polls saying who is the front-runner, and those may be credible when it comes to the central parts of Ukraine. But if no presidential election can be held in Donetsk and Luhansk, then the Kremlin has achieved its main objective – namely, that there is no way that this presidential election is going to come out looking in anyway form, or shape as a legitimate election.

And that has been the main objective of the Kremlin all along, to destabilise Ukraine to the point where it doesn’t have legitimate leadership. And they’re winning that struggle now.

What are the likely actions Putin will take after the election?

Professor Stefan Hedlund:

Well that is very difficult to say at the moment. When they annexed Crimea nobody thought they would actually do that. Most observers believed that Crimea would become another ‘frozen conflict’, if you wish. Like South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, or like Transnistria in Moldova – parts that are de facto controlled by Russia but not recognised by anybody else.

The fact that they annexed Crimea may be a special case because Crimea is so special to the Russians. Whether they actually will go ahead and annex Donetsk and Luhansk - it’s obviously possible, but I still believe this is not a very likely option. Having the leverage of controlled areas within Ukraine seems, from a rational point of view, preferable to the Kremlin. But given what they did in Crimea, you never know.

So destabilising Ukraine, opting for some sort of federalisation, constitutional re-write where some parts of Ukraine have de facto rights to conduct their own foreign policies with Russia. That’s going to be the likely outcome.

Then obviously we have the case of Transnistria, the breakaway part of Moldova that is now squeezed between Ukraine and Moldova with a very large Russian military garrison. And it’s likely that the lethal fire in Odessa was partly triggered by pro-Russian activists arriving from Transnistria to kick up trouble in Odessa. Not in actually starting the fire, but in the context of street violence is brought about by activists from Transnistria. That is now part of the Ukrainian imbroglio, and it does not look very promising for the future.

What will this mean for the West?

Professor Stefan Hedlund:

Well it means quite a lot for the West. What Russia has demonstrated now is that what we believed to be the new world order after the Cold War – the inviolability of international borders, and the Budapest Agreement that Russia signed to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine - all of these agreements have now been voided by Putin. He literally drove a tank all over it.

Exactly what is going to come out of all this is still very hazy. I mean, what is enough for the Kremlin? How far are they intending to push this? Having de facto dismembered Ukraine, will they do the same in Kazakhstan where the northern part is 50 per cent ethnic Russians?

According to the Russian Federation constitution they claim they have the right and a duty to protect – with military force – Russian speakers in other countries. So Kazakhstan may be in the line of fire. And the Baltic Republics, especially Estonia and Latvia which have sizable Russian-speaking minorities may also be in the line of fire.

So to the West and to Nato in particular this is completely novel, and not a very happy situation. Nato is militarily very superior to the Russian army. Even without the Americans, the European part of Nato is superior to the Russian army. But if you don’t have the guts to use the army, that doesn’t help very much.

And if Russia were to kick up trouble in Kazakhstan or in the Baltic Republics, in the manner that they have done in Ukraine – with pro-Russian activists in uniforms without insignia - that is not something you can counter with military force.

When Nato members like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania call for consultations according to Article 4, looking at Article 5 on collective defence, that is not designed to deal with these types of terror destabilisation operations that the Russians are conducting at the moment.

So we really don’t have an antidote for what the Russians are up to at the moment. And this is the new world that we are faced with now: completely new security dilemmas and security challenges that the West just is not up to facing at the moment.

And this is worrisome. Much more worrisome than the risk of war.

(photo credit:dpa)