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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow Playing Risky Game in East Ukraine

APPolice guarding a fence at the parliament building in Kiev on Tuesday as thousands of Yushchenko supporters rally nearby.
Moscow is making no secret of its support for the leaders of eastern and southern Ukraine in their standoff with central and western regions over who should be the next president. Powerful politicians, including Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, backed the east even as it threatened to seek autonomy if Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is denied the presidency.

The two men's remarks jibe with President Vladimir Putin's open support for Yanukovych. But a policy of encouraging a split would be pointless, because eastern Ukrainian leaders lack any genuine desire to secede, and even dangerous, as Russia would risk alienating itself from the international community, political analysts said Tuesday.

"The possibility of a formal breakup is very unlikely, and the international community would not tolerate it," said Alexei Titkov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"I am not sure whether the Russian elite understands this, but Russia's current policy on Ukraine is based on a wrong analysis or self-deception," said Arkady Moshes, a Ukraine specialist at the Finnish Institute of Foreign Relations.

Putin agreed to respect the results of any new election in Ukraine in a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der, Reuters reported Tuesday, citing the German government.

However, given the tight control that Putin exercises over domestic and foreign policy, it is not conceivable that loyal politicians such as Gryzlov and Luzhkov would openly support eastern Ukraine without the Kremlin's approval.

Gryzlov told reporters Tuesday that unless opposition candidate Victor Yushchenko calls off street protests, the end result will be "a split of the country or bloodshed."

He said the Duma on Wednesday will host Nikolai Levchenko, the city council chairman of Donetsk, the capital of the eastern region that is Yanukovych's stronghold, and which had planned to hold a referendum on autonomy next Sunday. Donetsk postponed the vote Tuesday.

Levchenko was invited by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a deputy Duma speaker and ultranationalist, and he had planned to travel to Donetsk for the referendum. Deputy Duma Speaker Lyubov Sliska, a senior United Russia member, had expressed interest in joining Zhirinovsky on the trip.

Luzhkov visited Donetsk and another eastern region, Luhansk, earlier this week, and likened the Ukrainian opposition's protests over vote fraud to a witches' sabbath.

Moscow has supported the establishment of autonomous regions before. In Georgia, it backed the creation of the de facto independent republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the turmoil that followed the Soviet collapse. Both regions were staunchly pro-Moscow. Moscow's tacit support has also played a key role in ensuring the survival of the separatist-minded Transdniester republic in Moldova.

In recent years, however, the European Union and the United States have greatly expanded their influence within the former Soviet Union, and former Soviet republics have taken big steps toward asserting their independence from Moscow.

With Moscow facing pressure to abandon its support for existing autonomous regions, it risks entering a new Cold War if autonomous or semi-independent territories emerge in Ukraine with its tacit approval.

"Russia would be blamed by international community and made a pariah if it tries to establish even informal control over any quasi-independent regions in Ukraine, should they emerge," Titkov said.

He said that if Ukraine's crisis is protracted, the more likely scenario would be that the country remains formally intact but several quasi-autonomous regions emerge, some of which would be in Moscow's axis.

Moshes agreed, noting that it is in Russia's interests to have a stable and unified neighbor ruled by a friendly regime rather than a disintegrated, failed state. "Ukraine is sufficiently stable, and no one wants a civil war. The absence of violence in Kiev proves this," he said. "One should not exaggerate the potential for a breakup."

Moscow's support may embolden Donetsk and other eastern and southern regions as they rally around Yanukovych, but they do not really want autonomy, Moshes and Titkov said.

To the chagrin of many locals, the heavily industrialized east effectively subsidizes the agricultural west, which favors integration with Europe and weaker ties with Moscow. But eastern leaders would prefer to keep their economic muscle and use it on Kiev rather than come under the aegis of Russia and risk losing in a much more competitive environment, Moshes said.

As for the population, secession is far from a priority. They mainly want higher salaries -- since they consider their subsidization of western Ukraine unfair -- and the right to speak in Russian in official settings.

"Russia cannot offer them anything more than it has offered earlier," Moshes said.