Parts of Eastern Ukraine held referendums this weekend, allowing participants to choose whether or not to declare independence from Ukraine. Meanwhile, Mr. Putin declared he does not support the referendums. The statement comes as a clear public rebuke to pro-Russian sentiment and stands in stark contrast to the referendum held in the annexation of Crimea a few weeks ago, wherein Russia expressed support for the referendum in no uncertain terms.
Why the about-face? One could argue the sanctions are working, that NATO is coming to the region’s defense. That while Russia could annex Crimea without facing any crippling sanctions, a broader move into eastern Ukraine would invite sanctions, political isolation, and perhaps even a new world war. The world would not support another Crimea and made it clear that continued aggression would come at a dear cost to Russian interests.
However, the facts do not fully support the argument. Russia has not faced crippling or even extensive sanctions as a result of the Crimean annexation. Russia has been fomenting dissent by supporting rebels and exporting their own agents into eastern Ukraine, who in turn take over key strategic positions like police stations and government offices. Last, while Russia says its 40,000 troops are no longer positioned on the Ukrainian border, the BBC reports that the troops have instead remained. Meanwhile, Russia continues to promise support to ethnic Russians facing repression.
Taken together, the facts point to another conclusion. Because the votes are not free and fair as they are not officially sanctioned by the Ukrainian government, they can therefore be doctored to reveal outsized support for independence and eventual Russian annexation. And with Mr. Putin distancing himself from the voting, he can claim that he had no undue influence over the voting and that the results reflect the will of the people.
That leaves Mr. Putin with two very good outcomes. Either Russia annexes Eastern Ukraine using the referendums as justification, or pro-Russian sentiment in Eastern Ukraine continues to sow doubt and fear throughout the region, which in turn destabilizes and weakens the national government.
Russia: 2. The West: 0.