Russian troop movement at Ukrainian border-what does it mean?
Negotiations with Russia over the Ukraine are reaching a critical junction. Putin’s call to Obama, which lasted an hour, is encouraging. Obama reiterated, reportedly in the clearest of terms, the need to protect Ukrainian sovereignty. As a first step, he demanded that Putin remove troops massed at the Western Russian border with the Ukraine. They agreed that further negotiations should be between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. This they proceeded to commence the next day. Following the first meeting between them, Kerry publicly reassured Ukrainian leadership that he wouldn’t make any agreements without first consulting them. It is crucial that Secretary Kerry be firm in his demand for a withdrawal of, or significant reduction in forces at the border while at the same time reassuring the Russians of a full hearing of their demands. Although Putin is likely to retain many troops there, to serve as leverage in negotiating with the Ukrainians, if he complies with demands to stand down some of his military forces as a precondition for further negotiations. At this writing, there is troop movement at the border being reported on the Russian side, and on their side, Ukraine has their tanks and men as prepared as they can be.
Time will tell what those troop movements are, but I took Putin’s move in calling Obama as quite hopeful. To my way of understanding the pressures upon Putin, the pragmatic politician, his call represents a desire by Russia, if some of their interests can be met, to de-escalate this crisis. Otherwise there would appear to be little reason for him to have made the call in the first place. This should be possible unless the Ukrainians themselves provoke Russia in ways that would be foolish. Again, as of this writing, Kerry says there is no agreement yet, but, perhaps signifcantly, Lavrov reiterated Putin’s early assertion that Russia wouldn’t invade the Ukraine. I fully expect current troop movements, despite some of the hawkish headlines now appearing on-line, to be reductive in nature as a token move to further signal Russia’s desire to resolve the current situation diplomatically. Russia, de facto, has Crimea. and yet they still have strong interests in what the new leadership in the Ukraine does. These include the safety and well-being of the Russian ethnic Ukrainians, mostly living in the eastern part of the Ukraine nearest the Russian borders. But they also have strong economic interests and solving those might be the toughest task to accomplish. The possible effects of the West’s sanctions should also not be minimized, but their removal is something we can offer. The Ukrainian desire to move towards Europe rather than toward the east makes a creative diplomatic solution a must.
Recall that the entire crisis erupted following former President Viktor Yakunovich’s rejection of the European trade negotiations and signing an important trade deal with Russia. And with the Russian economy in dire straits, this is no small matter. Still, I am encouraged and wouldn’t react too strongly to any less optimistic reports meant for domestic consumption in Russia. Let’s see how this plays out in the next few days to get a better feel for Russian intentions.