Ukraine crisis: Russia's options

Pro-Russian demonstration in Sevastopol, 23 Feb 14 Sevastopol, 23 February: Pro-Russian protesters denounced the uprising in Kiev

Russia has voiced alarm and anger at the overthrow of Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych by protesters in Kiev. Prof Andrei Zagorski, a political analyst at Moscow's Institute of World Economy and International Relations, examines the Kremlin's policy options in the current crisis.

Moscow is questioning the legitimacy of Ukraine's interim leaders, it has suspended financial assistance and recalled its ambassador from Kiev. But this is not an irreversible move - Ukrainian politics is evolving every day.

Much is at stake for Russia. President Vladimir Putin has sought to pull Ukraine into a Russian-led customs union and for centuries the two neighbours have had a common destiny.

Restoring the status quo ante is no longer a viable option for Moscow - it cannot undo the dramatic changes, nor does it seem interested in trying to restore ousted President Yanukovych to power.

Building on the opposition to Kiev in mainly Russian-speaking eastern parts of Ukraine has its limits. And playing the card of splitting the country appears neither feasible nor attractive to Moscow, despite recent developments in Sevastopol, the strategic port and naval base in Crimea.

Pro-Russian protesters in Sevastopol say their city must be defended from the Kiev "extremists" and there are reports that Russia may make it easier for people in Crimea to get Russian passports. Crimea only became part of Ukraine in 1954, in Soviet times.

Strategic rethink

Moscow's primary focus could be to support the emergence of new political leaders with nationwide appeal, particularly in eastern Ukraine, who could replace Mr Yanukovych's demoralised Party of Regions. They could then challenge the parties that spearheaded the anti-Yanukovych protests in the past three months.

Map

There is limited value for Moscow in applying its traditional leverage on Ukraine during the country's current vulnerability.

Raising the gas price or reducing the supply, seeking to deepen the insolvency of Kiev, or restricting imports from Ukraine can certainly exacerbate things for a new Ukrainian government.

However, it could at the same time help to consolidate Ukraine's EU-orientation and strengthen anti-Russian feelings in Ukrainian politics. Such an economic squeeze would particularly hurt Ukraine's eastern regions, traditionally more Russia-friendly because of their close cultural and economic ties with Russia.

A disruption of the gas supply to Ukraine would bring Moscow into a conflict with the EU.

Mourners in Kiev There is much bitterness in Kiev after police shot dozens of protesters last week
Parliamentary muscle

Ukraine has restored its 2004 constitution, which empowers parliament and the government, rather than the president. So a resolution of the political legitimacy crisis in Ukraine will depend not so much on the expected presidential elections in May, but on the anticipated parliamentary elections in summer.

The parliamentary elections may provide Russia and the EU with more incentives to co-operate. Neither Moscow nor Brussels are interested in a collapsing Ukraine. Both should be interested in the establishment of a legitimate government and, for that reason, in fair elections. Brussels will want to see a government that enjoys maximum popular support, and Moscow will want a rebalancing of the current political constellation in Kiev.

It would be best - for the EU and Russia - to postpone any decision to sign the EU-Ukraine association agreement.

It was Mr Yanukovych's refusal to sign that deal which triggered the protests back in November. But if Ukraine were to sign it now it would be interpreted in Moscow as a strategic defeat. The deal could be signed once the political and financial situation in Ukraine has stabilised.

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