Vladimir Putin has probed in all directions regarding Ukraine’s presidential election, held this past Sunday. At first, he wasn’t going to stand for it – he would unleash the separatists countrywide if Ukraine dared hold elections. Then he warned that he would not recognize whatever the Ukrainian people decided. Most recently, he has stated that he would honor the elections and work with the Kiev government to resolve the unrest. What happened along the way explains a lot.
At first it appeared that Yulia Tymoshenko, the fiercely Western former foreign minister and close second to Russia’s puppet Viktor Yanukovych, would be the runaway winner, and Mr Putin knew he couldn’t work with any government headed by her. Then he began making inroads into Eastern Ukraine, setting in motion fears of Crimea II. Then Mr Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire businessman, burst onto the scene. He has worked well with both Europe and Russia in the past, and seemed to represent someone with whom Mr Putin could work.
Mr Putin has entered what is known as an operational pause – he is consolidating current gains, and continues to posture around next moves. He is waiting to see what, if anything, the West will do, and what, if anything, Mr Poroshenko will do.
As mentioned earlier in these pages, as soon as the regular occupation troops entered Crimea, Spetsnaz special operators again donned their unmarked black uniforms and ski masks, and began rabblerousing in the eastern cities of Kramatorsk, Donetsk and the rebel stronghold of Slaviansk, each containing large numbers of Russian-speakers like Crimea. But unlike Crimea, the energy density of the demonstrations weren’t as great. There was more pushback from those who would rather remain Ukrainian, or become more European. While any actual resistance would be easily crushed, it would result in an unseemly display of Russians killing Ukrainians. Mr Putin has sent in more Spetsnaz and SVR (KGB’s new name) operators to shape events in the east. His cavalry and armor units have been pulled back to ~ten kilometers from the Ukrainian border. Air operations have been largely curtailed in Ukrainian airspace.
He’s taken his finger off the trigger, but the crosshairs are still on-target.
The West (read: Obama and Merkel) aren’t going to do much. NATO will continue to conduct exercises in Poland and the Czech Republic, Estonia and the Balkans. Sectoral sanctions (placing entire economic sectors under sanction) aren’t likely to be implemented, and aren’t likely to succeed if they are. $3.5 billion of the IMF’s $17 billion rescue package to Kiev will have to go to paying Ukraine’s unpaid gas bill to Russia, thus Mr Putin is having the West partially pay for his adventurism. Mr Poroshenko has agreed to implement reforms as part of the rescue package. Those reforms call for a steep increase in taxes and domestic gas prices, coupled with austerity measures to reduce spending – unpopular moves that could challenge Mr Poroshenko’s political resolve. Even with such reforms, the IMF predicts a 5% contraction in Ukraine’s economy in 2014 and says more bailout money could be required.
There are many variables in this situation, and Mr Putin has the undisputed upper hand – he can maneuver into a nearly no-loss takeover of as much of Ukraine as he wants, given enough time. He knows that the Western mind is notoriously impatient and easily bored. All he has to do is adjust his operational tempo to growing Western disinterest.
 Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Russian: Служба Внешней Разведки).