Putin's Choice: 'Confronting the Extremes'

Jul 24, 2014

After the downing of flight MH17, Russian President Vladimir Putin is under intense domestic and international pressure. Which way will he turn? William Pomeranz of the Wilson Center in Washington told DW what he thinks.

DW: What are the choices Vladimir Putin will be considering right now? Some analysts point to two extremes: deescalating and trying to portray himself as a peacemaker, or going for broke and sending troops into eastern Ukraine. Do you see it that way?

William Pomeranz: Those are the extremes. And Putin has put himself in a position where he has to confront those two very difficult extremes.

A choice of deescalating, which runs the risk of having political repercussions at home - because he'll be seen as abandoning the Russian speakers who, a few months ago, he said he would defend at all costs. Or alternatively he can double down, and theoretically even intervene directly - although that's something I don't think he's looking to do. If he were to intervene directly, then obviously the level of sanctions would increase significantly and quickly, and that would really cause economic pain for Russia.

Looking first at the deescalation option, how could he minimize the political repercussions?

If he does it slowly, sending out messages about the security of Russia. Yesterday Putin told the Russian Security Council that Russia's borders were secure, that there were no threats to its territorial integrity. If he can portray it somehow that Russia has emerged strengthened, or at least as a fully respected and engaged international player, then he might be able to deescalate.

Russian border crossing checkpoint 'Goptovka' in Kharkov region of Ukraine. 
Putin could emphasize border security as a deescalation strategy

Looking at the other extreme of sending Russian troops into eastern Ukraine - you say that's unlikely. But who in Putin's circle might be arguing for that?

I think it's possible that the security services would insist that he can't abandon the pro-Russian separatists, and that he can't be perceived as losing Ukraine. If it's perceived that the final result of this whole crisis is that Russia gains Crimea but "loses" all of Ukraine, then I think the perception in Russia would be that this whole series of events did not live up to expectations. Putin doesn't want to be perceived as the Russian leader that "lost Ukraine."

Crimea is going to be very expensive. For those who see Crimea as a major source of expenditure, I don't think it will be enough to compensate for "losing Ukraine."

Having talked about the extremes, do you see a middle path that Putin could take?

The middle path has been there almost the entire crisis. First, Ukraine does not become a member of NATO. No one in NATO as far as I can see really wants Ukraine, especially in its current situation; I don't anticipate Ukraine ever becoming a member.

So if Russia were to get a sort of guarantee that Ukraine would be a non-NATO country, and second, Russia was willing to accept that Ukraine will introduce constitutional reforms that will devolve power to the regions. Here there's a crucial caveat that Ukraine decides how that power devolves, and it's not dictated by Russia. That would allow certain powers to be transmitted to Donetsk and Luhansk without destroying the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

What is the best move for the US - what's the best diplomatic posture that would encourage Putin to deescalate?

Obama answers questions after delivering a statement on the Malaysia Airlines crash over eastern Ukraine (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images) 
The US recently introduced new sanctions against Russia

While the US has raised the level of sanctions, it has done so intermittently in the hope that Russia would come and negotiate. The US has sent out strong signals that it will not tolerate Russia's interference - but there is an "off-ramp" available through negotiation.

Looking at the broader picture, Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow wrote this week that an "unalloyed competitive posture" may now set in for US-Russian relations. Do you agree?

I think we've reached a real low point in US-Russian relations. I think President Obama is not that interested in investing whatever political capital he has left in changing that dynamic. And President Putin, I think, is secure in knowing that he can wait until the next president to see what his next moves have to be. So I don't see any major shifts in US-Russian relations unless other events intervene.

This article was originally published on DW.

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