Putin’s Options Part II

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke publicly about elements of the growing crisis in Europe for the first time in weeks. Using a press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as a soap box, Putin accused the United States and NATO of using Ukraine as a tool to contain Russia, as well as deliberately ignoring its security concerns. “NATO refers to the right of countries to choose freely, but you cannot strengthen someone’s security at the expense of others,” Putin remarked, and in the process explained in simple terms the core of Russia’s security dilemma. He then repeated his nation’s primary demand that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO.

On this first day of February, the procession of diplomats and European leaders looking to contribute their power and influence towards a peaceful resolution of the crisis continues through Ukraine. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived in Ukraine today. At a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Johnson advised Putin to ‘step back’ from what could be a military disaster for Russia and the world. He also warned that Britain will apply significant sanctions to Russia “the moment the first Russian toecap crosses further into Ukrainian territory.”

With the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics set for this coming Friday, the probability of Putin beginning a major military effort this week is low. As the games go on, Russia will use the next two weeks to build its case for military action and make the final preparations for the military operations set to come. Russia would be smart not to initiate hostilities against Ukraine during the Olympics and considering that Putin is obviously playing the long game here, such a move is not expected. Putin was in a similar position back in February of 2014. A Euromaidan raged in Ukraine, the Winter Olympics that year were going on in Sochi, on the Black Sea. As host of the games, Russia and Putin had to sit there and watch powerless as a friendly government fell. Yet the moment the games ended, Putin took action.

Circumstances today are considerably different, but the Russian leader won’t risk the diplomatic and public relations wrath that would almost definitely come from an attack on Ukraine during the Olympic games.

Poroshenko, Russia, and the Upcoming 2019 Presidential Election in Ukraine

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In two and a half months Ukraine will hold a presidential election. Voters will go to the polls and decide if Petro Poroshenko will remain in office for another term, or if one of the many public figures challenging him will be chosen to succeed him. Judging from the most recent polling data, Poroshenko should be concerned. His popularity has dropped below ten percent and shows no sign of reversing itself anytime soon. Poroshenko’s failure to curb the rampant corruption in  government is the main contributing factor to his anemic approval ratings. Most Ukrainians view the government as being no less corrupt than it was before the 2014 revolution, not a good sign for the incumbent president. There are other issues holding Poroshenko down. The war in the east is a major one. It continues on with no end in sight, and the current president has been ineffective when it comes to rallying the West around Ukraine’s cause.

To be fair, Poroshenko has not performed incompetently on the foreign stage, or when  comes to the War in Donbass. However, his leadership has not enabled Ukraine to build a strong network of international diplomatic support. Nor has it helped to bring about a favorable permanent conclusion to the conflict in the eastern part of  the country. Instead, Ukraine remains mired in a stalemate on the frontlines, and in diplomatic circles abroad. There’s a very good chance that Ukrainians will hold Poroshenko responsible for these setbacks when they go to vote on 31 March. But if they decide that he is not the right man to lead the country into the future, it brings about two critical questions to which there really are no answers for: Who will be selected to replace Poroshenko, and how will Russia respond to a new leader at the helm in Kiev?

The second question is the more crucial of the two. In all likelihood, the candidate who wins March is not going to tilt the balance of influence back in Russia’s favor. Therefore, he or she is going to have to find a way to  contend with a more assertive Russia, and do so in a manner that neither compromises Ukraine’s position or escalates the situation. Russia’s actions in the past three months appear to be designed to place and keep Kiev at a disadvantage in the time leading up to the election, and in the period immediately following.

There is still plenty of time remaining between now and the election. Events in Ukraine and the Black Sea should be watched closely and with luck a clue of Russia’s future intentions could pop up.