Vladimir Putin has suggested a postponement of the referenda in Donetsk and Luhansk, and offered his support for the Ukrainian presidential elections, scheduled for May 25, as a good first step toward resolving the Ukraine crisis.
His apparent moderation of tone recently prompts me to revisit a scenario that emerged earlier in the Euromaidan upheavals. In reality it is probably at best one of many conceivable options with which the Russia president may be toying with regard to Ukraine.
The scenario may seem so far-fetched as to be unworthy of considering. It stems from an alleged leak of a conversation between Yulia Tymoshenko and Nestor Shufrych of the National Security Council of Ukraine held in March. Tymoshenko appeared to suggest that Ukrainians should kill Russians and assassinate President Putin. According to Moscow Times (cited in The Washington Post), although Shufrych rejected the authenticity of the statement, an entry from Tymoshenko on Twitter appeared to verify the comments as representing her position.
My musings were reawakened while reading an editorial suggesting that the two leading candidates in the Ukrainian presidential elections, Petro Poroshenko and Tymoshenko were all-too familiar and predictable, and that voters had little choice . The question is obvious: why would they run against each other?
Bu to return to Tymoshenko comments on Russia and Putin, why would she make such absurd remarks? She has a history of getting along well with Putin, and in fact it was her 2009 negotiations over gas prices in Moscow that were the stated reason for her imprisonment by former president Viktor Yanukovych. The most reasonable answer is that she wished to be perceived as an implacable enemy of Putin during the election campaign. The response to such comments from Moscow was notably, but suspiciously, muted.
Switch to Putin, whose assumed policy of undermining stability of Eastern Ukraine has enjoyed limited success. Certainly some towns have changed hands and been taken over by self-appointed separatists, usually led by a combination of Afghan veterans, gangsters, and criminal types, and no doubt aided by Russian security services to some degree. But these events have not undermined the general desire of the population in these regions for a united Ukraine.
Though the Russian military has been stationed around Ukrainian borders for some time, it has not advanced further, despite the horrific burning of the trades union building in Odesa. It seems that an invasion, partial or full-scale, is a last resort. So what is the next option?
Logic would suggest that if the Russian leadership wishes the local referenda to be delayed, it is focusing on other matters, the most significant of which is the Ukrainian presidential elections. Does it have a preferred candidate? Perhaps it does. Perhaps that candidate is Yulia Tymoshenko, the person whose earlier remarks suggested that she would be the last person to attract Russian support.
Again without wanting to suggest that the following is the only possibility—I may have been reading too many spy novels—Putin’s thinking may be along the following lines. Delay the election if possible to allow Tymoshenko to improve her standing. Disrupt the campaign of Poroshenko who at present has a healthy lead in opinion polls, while supporting covertly in various ways that of Tymoshenko. Offer a cancellation or reduction of Ukrainian gas debt and the chance of future talks on price reduction, if Tymoshenko becomes president.
As the campaign reaches its final days, suggest talks with Tymoshenko about a future deal for Eastern and Southern Ukraine that would allow some local autonomy and guaranteed rights for Russian speakers. Bring local separatists to these talks and offer seats at the table to Western powers. Advance the conclusion that a Tymoshenko presidency might end the conflict in Ukraine and that a workable solution can be found.
If Tymoshenko wins, Putin emerges as the provider of a peaceful solution, his popularity intact. Ukraine survives as an independent state (likely with the acceptable loss of Crimea). Tymoshenko as president agrees to remain close to Russia and to refrain from joining NATO or European structures. Subsequently, military units, rightist and separatist, are disarmed.
Whether this represents anything close to the thinking of Putin is a moot point. It requires of course the consent and approval of Tymoshenko, but I would posit that her irrational statements imply some sort of subterfuge. She has remained in the contest despite seeming to have very similar views to Poroshenko, and after the other “democratic” rival, Vitaly Klitschko, has stepped down—she has refused the latter’s appeal to do likewise in support of a united candidate, despite her dismal showing to date.
These suppositions lead to by another, namely that Tymoshenko is Putin’s preferred choice for president of Ukraine because he believes he could work with her, and that she would be responsive to Russia’s needs and geostrategic interests. This theory implies that she would consent to such dubious and dangerous maneuvers as a means to gain power; first by giving the impression that she is militantly anti-Russian, something that was never evident during her two tenures as Prime Minister under the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko.
I am prepared to acknowledge that the theory has many potential flaws. But, it seems to me, it is not inconceivable. It would offer a way out for Putin, a means to change the general Western perception that he is a bully who wishes to restructure the European order by force, dismantling Ukraine in the process. What would appear as magnanimous concessions might lead to the removal Western sanctions, a new rapprochement with the EU, and above all it would avert Moscow’s nightmare of the loss of Ukraine to Europe, and possibly NATO.