Is the Crisis in Ukraine About to Wind Down?

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I’ve been watching the unfolding events in Ukraine with the usual rising mix of apprehension and horror, but I haven’t blogged about it much since I don’t have anything to add in the way of insight or analysis. So instead I’ll turn the mike over to Fred Kaplan, who does:

Contrary to appearances, the crisis in Ukraine might be on the verge of resolution. The potentially crucial move came today when interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said that he would be open to changing the country’s political system from a republic, with power centered in the capital Kiev, to a federation with considerable autonomy for the regional districts.

That has been one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s key demands….If Putin can win this demand—and the political, economic, and cultural inroads it would provide—an invasion would be not just be unnecessary, it’d be loony. War is politics by other means, and a revamping of Ukraine’s power structure would accomplish Putin’s political aims by less costly means.

….Sending [NATO] fighter aircraft to Poland and the Baltic states, mobilizing warships to the Black Sea, ratcheting up sanctions with threats of more to come—all this sends a signal that the West won’t stand by. In fact, Putin has done more to rivet the NATO nations’ attention, and perhaps get them to boost their defense budgets, than anything in the past decade.

But Obama and the other Western leaders also know they’re not going to go to war over Ukraine. Putin knows this, too. At the same time, if he’s at all rational (and this is the worrying thing—it’s not clear that he is), Putin would calculate that escalation is not a winning strategy for him. He could invade the eastern slices of Ukraine, especially around Donetsk, but he couldn’t go much further. The move would rile the rest of Ukraine to take shelter under the EU’s (and maybe NATO’s) wing, and it would rouse the Western nations to rearm to an extent unseen in 20 years (and to a level that the Russian economy could not match).

I keep thinking that even from a nationalistic Russian point of view, the cost of invading and holding eastern Ukraine is simply too large. The game isn’t worth the candle. And yet….who knows? Rationality is sometimes in short supply. I’d still bet against a Russian invasion, especially if Putin can get much of what he wants without it, but it would be a pretty iffy bet.

In any case, I wonder how long this “federation” will last? If Putin is smart, he can bide his time and just wait. A federated Ukraine could organically turn into eastern and western Ukraine with a bit of patience and without firing a shot. In the end, that would probably suit Russia’s interests better than outright annexation.

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