Has Vladimir Putin blinked? If so, there’s a much greater chance today than yesterday that a diplomatic solution to the crisis over Ukraine can be found. And it’s a sign that President Obama’s steady-as-she-goes, centrist foreign policy could all at once calm the Ukraine storm, prevent a new Cold War and get back to cooperating with Russia on things that matter to the United States, such as the Iran talks, Syria’s civil war and Afghanistan. And, reports RT, Putin plans to meet President Obama and other Western leaders in a few weeks at a celebration in June of the 1944 Normandy landing.
And no doubt, the European and Russian business classes, who feared that the standoff over Ukraine could upset their profitable ties, are calming down. (At least, the ruble and the Russian stock exchange are up sharply.)
Putin says that he’s ready for a “roundtable dialogue” with the United States, Ukraine and Western Europe. One issue is that Putin has been insisting that the eastern Ukraine pro-Russian rebels have a seat at that table, something that neither Kiev or Washington is likely to accept. On the other hand, now it seems that Putin might be willing to accept a second, parallel set of talks between Kiev and the rebels, without the participation of Kiev’s backers in the West or the rebels’ backers in Moscow, which just might work. And something like that is being put together by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, it appears.
Putin spoke at a news conference with the chief of the OSCE, the Cold War–era diplomatic group, whose leader says that he’s already working to plan a “roadmap” to end the Ukraine crisis.
But it’s unlikely that the crisis is over just yet. Perhaps Putin is indeed looking for a diplomatic way out of the mess he’s created, one that would entail Russian support and recognition for the May 25 elections in Ukraine in exchange for promises by Kiev (and by the West) that Ukraine will reconstitute itself, giving rather more autonomy to the regions—without, of course, going so far as to accede to Moscow’s unreasonable demand that Ukraine’s regions get nearly full autonomy, near to independence. And perhaps underpinning such a negotiation would be an agreement not to bring Ukraine into NATO.
But if Putin’s initiative yesterday is a feint, meant only to provide a sort of plausible deniability in regard to Russia’s support of the anti-Kiev rebellion in the east, then things could get worse fast.
The pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine—“separatists” being the euphemism for the band of Russian covert operation-sponsored “little green men” who took over various buildings in cities in the east—haven’t all responded well to Putin’s call on Wednesday for them to cease-and-desist in their plan to hold a referendum on, well, something (joining Russia, declaring independence, creating some sort of “People’s Republic”) in Ukraine’s east, scheduled for Sunday. Of course, there isn’t a chance that they could orchestrate any sort of referendum at all, given that they have no machinery to organize a vote and that they control only a few government buildings here and there. Still, even a phony vote—and one separatist leader was overheard via surveillance suggesting a rigged, 89 percent vote in support of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”—could lead to intensified violence and trigger a more overt Russian intervention. The United States and Europe are keeping their eye—meaning, their spy satellites—on Russian troop movements near Ukraine, and it isn’t clear yet that those troops are moving away from Ukraine, as Putin promised. (Meanwhile, according to RT, the Russians chose this moment to hold massive military exercises, including try-outs of their “nuclear deterrence” systems, “led by Russian President Vladimir Putin,” including “strategic bomber aircraft and underwater missile carriers of the Pacific and Northern fleets.” )
Via RT, here are the relevant quotes from Putin’s remarks yesterday:
Russia believes that the crisis, which originated in Ukraine and is now actively developing in accordance with the worst-case scenario, is to be blamed on those who organized the coup in Kiev on 22-23 February and still do not care to disarm the right-wing and nationalist elements.…
We are calling for southeast Ukraine representatives, supporters of federalization of the country, to postpone the May 11 referendum to create the necessary conditions for dialogue.…
We have been told that our troops by the Ukrainian border are a concern—we have withdrawn them. They are now not near the border, but at locations where they conduct regular drills at ranges.
On Thursday, back in Moscow at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization—the “mini-NATO” that includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Armenia—Putin added:
Concrete steps have been planned to augment efforts by the OSCE to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine, primarily through arranging a direct, equitable dialogue between the present Ukrainian authorities and representatives of southeastern regions of Ukraine.