Vladimir Putin’s call to Ukrainian separatists to postpone the referendum on greater autonomy or secession points to a sharp turn by the Kremlin chief. The Russian president, not known for changing course, yesterday also said the planned May 25 election to choose the Ukrainian president was a step in the right direction. The conciliatory turn by Putin comes as a surprise though. After the ouster of Russia-backed president Viktor Yanukovich, Moscow made sure that Ukrainians paid for the act. The Kremlin lent support to secessionists in the chaos after Yanukovich’s departure. Eastern Ukraine was almost run over by Kremlin backed militia who took over all government facilities, setting up large ‘self-ruled’ pockets where Ukrainian authority was non-existent. The Russian annexation of the southeastern province of Crimea was Putin’s masterstroke. A referendum, called illegal by the West and Ukraine, declared Crimea to be independent and agreed to be ruled by Russia.
Coming as it does after weeks of Russian-backed aggression, Putin’s asking Ukrainian separatists to postpone their referendum, which would have most likely led to another territory separating, is a surprise move and points to a major shift in Kremlin policy. Going by strained West-Russia ties, Western leaders would act with caution after Putin’s remarks. The toxic nature of the relationship was apparent when Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk dismissed Putin’s remarks as “hot air”.
Moreover, Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen sounded skeptical about another of Putin’s ‘good pledges’ yesterday. The Kremlin leader said that Russia would withdraw its troops stationed near Ukrainian borders, thus marking an important de-escalation in the situation, which could have otherwise led to a military confrontation, which at times seemed quite close in the last few weeks. As the Ukrainian crisis has unfolded, Russia has been hit by debilitating sanctions. Moscow has been virtually cornered by West-backed curbs slapped on several of its leaders and oligarchs.
Putin’s rethink of stance can be either of the two: It could either be a climbdown by the Kremlin, which has come under intense pressure because of heavy sanctions. The Russian economy is not going through the best of times and Putin doesn’t want relations with the West to worsen to a point of no return. Or the apparent change in stance could be a clever ploy by the former KGB spy. Putin is known to be clever strategist. With this move, he may have tried to buy time and get some breathing space for himself and the heavily-criticised Kremlin on the Ukrainian issue. He may have a long-term plan up his sleeve by which he would stump the West when the time is right. For now, the turn of events will augur well for Ukraine. Kiev should try to take full advantage of the Russian climbdown and focus on the May 25 election. It can work towards restoring order and peace to a country buffeted by chaos and disorder.