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    Russia’s Best Bet in Ukraine? Sitting on the Fence (for Now)

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    Since Ukraine exploded last week in a blaze of lethal violence and collapsed leadership, some ominous predictions have been circulating about Russia’s plans for its neighbor’s future.

    MOSCOW, February 26 (Nabi Abdullaev, RIA Novosti) - Since Ukraine exploded last week in a blaze of lethal violence and collapsed leadership, some ominous predictions have been circulating about Russia’s plans for its neighbor’s future.

    But military intervention seems too high-stakes a game for Moscow to play. And cooperating with the new leaders in Kiev is hardly more acceptable. For now, in pursuing its national interests, Russia is far likelier to choose fence-sitting as its modus operandi, with a view to step in more actively when its chances for success improve.

    For days, Russia was, at best, incoherent and, at worst, stuck in denial about the new political reality in Ukraine and the downfall of Moscow’s loyal ally, the de facto deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych. President Vladimir Putin, who held a Security Council meeting about Ukraine on Tuesday, has said nothing publicly about Russia’s new position on the situation there since the opposition clearly gained the upper hand. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the Foreign Ministry have been busy casting doubt on the legitimacy of the new authorities. And Kremlin propagandists have been lashing out at Yanukovych for betraying Moscow.

    This floundering cannot last long given Moscow’s vested interest in integrating Ukraine into a Russia-led trading bloc – a key priority for Putin in his third presidential term.

    In dealing with Kiev’s new leaders, Moscow has roughly three policy options: cooperating, “spoiling” or fence-sitting.

    Cooperating: Too Many Drawbacks

    Cooperating, in this case, means sincere and effective action to help the new Ukrainian government keep its footing, and this is a highly improbable option for Moscow.

    European Union officials have called on Russia to participate in joint financial assistance to Ukraine and invited Moscow to discuss the country’s future. Some analysts have suggested that the optimal solution would be creating an arrangement among Kiev, Moscow and Brussels that would allow Ukraine to trade freely with both Russia and the EU. But this development would fly in the face of numerous firm convictions held by the Kremlin in dealing with its neighbors.

    The Kremlin views the revolt in Ukraine as part of a zero-sum game with the West in the former Soviet republics, which Moscow regards as its zone of privileged interests. For Putin, cooperating would mean acknowledging defeat in the largest, most prized of these now sovereign countries.

    Also, it would send the wrong message – in the Kremlin’s view – to political players in other ex-Soviet republics, such as Belarus, emboldening Western-leaning opposition groups and disheartening pro-Moscow incumbent leaders.

    Third, Moscow may have no confidence in the new key political players in Ukraine, which include radical nationalists and high-level functionaries from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, as well as recycled opponents of the toppled regime. There is a big risk – aggravated by the country’s dire economic situation – that the new Ukrainian government will not be stable and effective.

    One possible form of cooperation, articulated by a few political pundits, involves Russia slowly nurturing pro-Moscow political forces in Ukraine that would return the country under Russia’s wing within 10-20 years. This also seems improbable. Hardly any Ukrainian political force now opposed to Moscow would want to switch sides these days, or in the foreseeable future, for fear of being accused of betraying the country’s newly – and violently – acquired freedom, which is strongly based on a rejection of Russia’s role as “big brother.”

    Spoiling: Far Too Risky

    The second option, “spoiling,” would require the active disruption and sabotage of Ukraine’s new government, and this would come at a price Moscow is not willing to bear.

    The United States and European leaders have already warned Moscow against possible military intervention in Ukraine, but it is highly unlikely that Putin would keep this option on the table even without the warnings.

    Even if Russia managed to successfully annex Crimea, where it has popular support and a sizeable naval fleet, and the Russia-leaning eastern provinces of Ukraine (like it effectively did in its brief 2008 war with Georgia), all while staving off Western criticism, Moscow will not be able to withstand a costly backlash: Radical, violent Ukrainian nationalists would be very likely to wage a campaign of terror and sabotage both in the occupied territories and in mainland Russia.

    Митинг Народной воли в Севастополе
    © Sputnik / Vassily Batanov
    Pro-Russian rally in Sevastopol, February 23, 2014

    Also, were it to fail, military action would only strengthen anti-Moscow sentiments among Ukrainian elites who would then seek stronger alliances with the West, including military ones.

    Propping up separatists in Crimea and in Ukraine’s eastern provinces is also a road to violent conflict that Moscow cannot afford. If these provinces eventually demand that Russia intervene and protect them, Russia will either have to face the consequences described above or lose face.

    On Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry effectively ruled out military intervention, saying Russia will not interfere in affairs in Ukraine.

    Russia has already declared that it would freeze the remaining $12 billion of $15 billion in pledged aid to Ukraine (provided by buying Ukrainian bonds) until a working government is in place in Kiev. It may also boost economic pressure by imposing bans on Ukraine imports as it has in the past, including just last summer. Russia is Ukraine’s largest trade partner, responsible for nearly 30 percent of its foreign trade in 2012; the EU is a close second.

    However, at this time, import bans would not be the way to pressure Ukraine’s new leadership into concessions that it could not deliver in any case, such as integration into Russia’s trading bloc. The bans would be seen as punitive and would only fuel anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine and solidify local elites around the EU.

    Fence-Sitting: The Happy Medium

    Fence-sitting, under the circumstances, amounts to outsourcing the tough job of stabilizing Ukraine – and thus responsibility for a possible failure – to the European Union. The EU, now mired in the problems of its own member states, might eventually offer Russia certain concessions in exchange for agreeing to share the burden of salvaging Ukraine, with its miserable economy. Such concessions could include lifting restrictions on Russian energy trade in the EU and the visa-free travel long sought by Moscow.

    If, after a time, things go well for Ukraine, Moscow would be able to deal with a functioning, established government capable of reciprocity.
    If the new government fails, Ukraine will see a wave of popular resentment for the idea of integration with the EU, especially in the eastern regions and the Crimea. This, in turn, would mobilize and empower proponents of closer ties with Moscow, who could then open its arms wide to embrace anyone disenchanted with the Europeans.

    Nabi Abdullaev is the head of RIA Novosti’s Foreign-Language News Service. The views expressed in this column are the author’s alone.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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