Former US Ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer, assesses a good if difficult first month for new Ukraine President Poroshenko–and sees a potential dilemma for Vladimir Putin
Having assumed the Ukrainian presidency on June 7, Petro Poroshenko has had a good first month. On June 27, he traveled to Brussels to sign the Ukraine-EU association agreement. His military and security forces have displayed new competence, driving separatists out of several key cities in Donetsk and Luhansk. Mr. Poroshenko will have to follow up the battlefield successes with concrete steps to build confidence in eastern Ukraine that he is looking out for their interests and mend the divisions that have emerged over the past five months. Moving to implement his proposals to transfer some government and budget authority to the regions and guarantee status for the Russian language should help. The Ukrainian president also has to deal with an economy that is contracting due to the conflict while instituting the major economic reforms called for in Ukraine’s program with the International Monetary Fund, whose financial support remains critical to Kyiv.
Vladimir Putin has a big say in whether Mr. Poroshenko’s job becomes easier or more difficult. Russian policy toward Ukraine may, however, be creating a bit of a dilemma for Mr. Putin. He appears to have three basic options: (1) cut support for the separatists and make a genuine effort to facilitate a peaceful settlement in Ukraine; (2) continue to aid the separatists with supplies and arms; or (3) send in the Russian army. Thus far, Mr. Putin appears to be pursuing option no. 2; many accounts indicate that materiel continues to flow across the Russian border into Ukraine, and Moscow directs its calls for an end to the fighting solely at Kyiv, not at the separatists with whom the Russians have substantial influence and leverage. The Russian army cannot be eager for option no. 3, which would bog it down in a guerilla conflict. Moreover, an overt military incursion would trigger significant sanctions—even from reluctant EU member states—against a Russian economy that already totters on the verge of recession. Option no. 1, the most desirable from Mr. Poroshenko’s viewpoint, also may have risks for Mr. Putin, as it could cost him with Russian nationalists who have been inflamed by the Kremlin’s anti-Ukraine propaganda machine. Hope for option no. 1, but for the foreseeable future expect option no. 2.
—Steven Pifer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.