On September 3, 2014, Vladimir Putin presented his seven-point plan for Eastern Ukraine. But while the Western public ponders his motivation and possible tricks, or haughtily believes that the sanctions might have an effect after all, Putin intervenes in the Ukrainian power struggle. An op-ed by Stefan Bernhardt
The civil war in eastern Ukraine is not over yet. After the Ukrainian army gained the upper hand in early September and besieged the separatists’ strongholds Donetsk and Luhansk, the separatists broke the blockade and marched up to Mariupol. In recent weeks, at least a ceasefire has been achieved. According to the United Nations, one million people are fleeing their homes in Ukraine; most of them resident in Russia, circa 460.000 are on the run within Ukraine.
Despite this catastrophe, Ukrainian politics in Kiev has consolidated and found back to its old strength: a power struggle on the back of the Ukrainian citizens, since power, privileges, and money will be newly distributed in the parliamentary elections of October 2014. With his seven-point plan, Putin intervened in the power struggle about eight weeks before the election.
The bigger the choice, the harder it is to choose
Meanwhile, a power struggle rages between President Petro Poroshenko on the one side, and head of government Arseni Yatsenyuk with his party Fatherland on the other. Likely, Putin has decided on his fellow leader Poroshenko. After the fierce military confrontations in recent months, the seven-point plan offers Poroshenko the opportunity to position himself as a president of peace and unity. In support of this assumption, Putin has only called and held meetings with him until now. Certainly, one reason is that the Ukrainian head of government Yatsenyuk showed no interest in discussions, and that the president is responsible for this task.
However, Yatsenyuk demonstrated how little he understands diplomacy or conflict solving via negotiation. The head of government rather screams his slogans into the cameras: with pathos, exaggerations, and drama; shows no interest in a peaceful solution, constantly attacks/provokes Russia, and relies on a military solution. Additionally, Yatsenyuk’s politics illustrated how Ukraine, in the future, completely wants to isolate itself from Russia – whether it may be beneficial or not. The people’s destiny in eastern Ukraine remains a plaything – both in domestic and international politics. Poroshenko, compared to him, shows a balanced foreign policy to East and West; he furthermore grants, as wished by Russia, eastern Ukraine more political rights through greater autonomy.
The Kremlin’s aim
For Russia this is not primarily about the person or party in particular. The past months clearly showed what is at stake for Russia in Ukraine: not land annexation as is often assumed by the West, but Ukrainian policy towards Russia and the West. A pro-Russian policy by Ukraine would be the best possible option for Putin, however, this is not considered likely by anybody in Moscow anymore. Presumably, the aim is more humble, but the situation is suitable for it: a Ukraine which does not join the Western block although it domestically follows Western models, and does not play off Russia and Brussels against each other, either. For the Kremlin, a Ukraine would be desirable in which an overthrowing of the government, combined with a radical policy change, would not be that easy anymore.
More and more synergies become obvious between Poroshenko and Putin. The seven-point plan as well as the ceasefire give Poroshenko the opportunity to further distinguish himself in the public, like in Mariupol at September 8, 2014. Simultaneously, this weakens Yatsenyuk’s aggressive rhetoric. With this, the election campaigning in the Ukraine has begun. It is a template for Poroshenko to distinguish himself as peacemaker who ended the civil war.
This is an advantage for Russia: Poroshenko, as intended by Putin, advocates a constitutional reform which would shape Ukraine more federally – with growing approval in Kiev and among the separatists, too. Furthermore, a victory of Poroshenko with Klitshko in October 2014 would put an end to the interim government of Yatsenyuk that is unloved in Moscow, as well as his Fatherland party. This would, moreover, lead to an end of the aggressive rejection of the Kremlin and to an unconditional devotion to Brussels.
Too perfect a timing
Not only the circumstances suggest that the Kremlin has chosen Poroshenko. The timing for the seven-point plan and the ceasefire is nearly perfect. Two months before the parliamentary elections in Ukraine, Poroshenko gains the possibility to further distinguish himself and, at the same time, to push the interim government onto the defensive. Nevertheless, Poroshenko faces some problems since peace, ceasefire, and talks are controversial. The population, as well as the interim government, considers this, in part, a betrayal. Instead of talks, Yatsenyuk announced the construction of a wall at the border to Russia. Especially when regarding these contrasting reactions, the decision for Poroshenko, or at least for the toleration of him, should have been an easy one.