Putin's Double Game in Ukraine

The Russian leader is reaching out to his foes with one hand, and striking them with the other.
Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

As fighting intensifies in eastern Ukraine, signs are emerging that Russian President Vladimir Putin has adopted a twin strategy: pledge his willingness to support a negotiated settlement, but continue funneling arms to separatist rebels.

"Putin in the last several weeks has been playing a dual game," said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Brookings Institution senior fellow. "There have been things that suggest that Russia wants to help solve this diplomatically. ... But you’ve continued to see evidence that Russians weapons are flowing into Ukraine."

Three weeks ago, after months of bellicose rhetoric, Putin had Russia's parliament revoke his authority to use Russian military force in Ukraine. Then on Thursday, Putin issued a joint call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande for a ceasefire in Ukraine.

The cause of Putin's apparent change in tone is the focus of debate in Washington. Obama administration officials credit American and European sanctions with slowing both Russia's economy and Putin’s efforts to sow chaos in eastern Ukraine. But former U.S. diplomats contend that while two rounds of sanctions have helped, they're not the key factor in blunting Moscow’s designs. The successes of Ukraine's new government and failures of its separatists are the primary cause. "That’s first and foremost because of what the Ukrainians are doing," said Michael McFaul, who until February served as the Obama administration’s ambassador to Moscow and point man on Russia.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, elected in May, has done a surprisingly good job of turning Ukraine's military into a more effective fighting force. Ukraine has received $20 million in American military aid, as well as intelligence and advice. But it is the new government's vetting of troops, decisiveness, and willingness to take casualties that have given its military an edge.

At the same time, pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have done a poor job of generating popular support. Instead of sparking a pro-Russian popular uprising, they have alienated much of the population in eastern Ukraine. "Separatists have worn out their welcome,” Pifer said. "The population is tired of this."

On Monday, Poroshenko accused Russian military officers of fighting alongside separatists. A missile that downed a Ukrainian transport plane carrying eight people near the border was probably fired from Russia, Ukrainian officials said. And on Friday, Ukrainian officials said a Grad missile attack that killed 23 Ukrainian soldiers showed that Russian arms are flowing to rebels as well. Russian officials deny supplying or aiding the rebels.

The situation remains volatile. Poroshenko and Putin could be drawn into a dangerous tit-for-tat cycle as the fighting intensifies. Tensions rose on Sunday when Russian officials threatened Ukraine with "irreversible consequences" after a Russian citizen was killed by a shell fired across the border from Ukraine. Kiev said the accusation that its forces had fired across the border was nonsense and suggested the attack could have been the work of rebels trying to provoke Moscow to intervene on their behalf. The rebels denied they were responsible.

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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