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Today could be Ukraine’s day of reckoning

By Dale R. Herspring

Today, May 25, is one of the most important dates for the future of Ukraine as well as East-West relations.

Today Ukraine is supposed to hold its presidential election. If it is held, and if it reflects the will of all Ukrainians, it will be a landmark development for Ukrainians and could do much to defuse East-West tensions. Most observers believe that the best that can be hoped for is that the election to be held only in western Ukraine, which would further divide the county.

There is reason for pessimism.  The most obvious is Russian President Vladimir Putin. A stable Ukraine working to heal its wounds is not one that he could easily manipulate.

So far, Putin has avoided getting directly involved in the country.  Russian special operations forces have been involved stirring up the Russian-speaking population, but in announcing the withdrawal of 40,000 troops, Putin has demonstrated that he does not want to get directly involved in Ukraine as he did in Crimea.  

If Putin wanted them to, Russian forces could easily overwhelm Ukrainian resistance. But he’s reluctant to get involved for two reasons. First, he is far from the thug that many believe him to be. Yes, he’ll use force when it suits him. But if he did, he would come under even more pressure than is the case now.

In addition to having to occupy parts of Ukraine, he would have to feed millions of additional people. Ukraine already is beset by corruption, crime and rival oligarchs who are un-friendly both to Moscow and Kiev. The situation could create chaos for an outsider — even a Russian. Just knowing who is who is a complicated but important matter. The Russians could easily find themselves overseeing a civil war, always a combustible situation.

Another concern is that the Russian military is not a first-rate force. True, Moscow has some elite units — its Marines, its airborne troops and its special operations forces — but the regular forces in all three branches are well behind those in the West and are only only partially in a state of readiness.

Another consideration is the situation on the ground.  Several weeks ago, most pundits were predicting the end of Ukrainian control in its east.  “Separatists” had seized control of most of the region’s major cities, and it seemed only a matter of time until the region either became independent or part of Russia. The region held a plebiscite, and separatists claimed that 95 percent of voters supported independence or association with Russia.  

It was at this point that Ukrainian billionaire Rmat Akh-metov stepped forward.  Akhmetov, con-sidered the richest man in Ukraine, owns SKM Group, the most powerful firm in industrialized eastern Ukraine.  He de-cided that Russifica-tion is not in the country’s interest — or in his own economic interest.   

He called on workers, including miners and steelworkers, to restore order. They did just that in cities such as Mariupol (a separatist stronghold) and Majetevja.  Although the separatists’ power has yet to be broken, Akhmetov is playing both sides — Kiev and the separatists — to see which makes him the best offer.

Meanwhile, Putin has indicated that he wants Ukraine to immediately repay its billions of dollars in oil and gas debt. He also suggested that if it felt philanthropic, the West could pay Kiev’s debt. The West, which has its own financial problems, has declined.

More important than his demand for payment was Putin’s warning that Kiev can buy oil and gas only by paying up front and in cash. The same could apply to Western Europe.  There is no way Ukraine can pay cash for anything. It is broke.  Putin knows this and is putting down a marker — reminding Ukraine and much of Europe that he can create total crisis by cutting off fuel to Ukraine and Europe.  

Putin knows the use of military force is not his best option.  As the United States has learned, it is easier to send troops in than to get them out.  Putin also knows that the West cannot provide the fuel Ukraine needs. He would rather wait for Kiev to come to Moscow on its knees begging Russia to provide energy relief.

Putin, magnanimously, would accommodate the Ukrainians with the condition that Kiev begin “coordinating” its foreign policy with Moscow — following Moscow’s directions. In that event, Ukraine’s presidential election wouldn’t be of much consequence.

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