Staunton, January 28 – Like many in the West, Ukrainians view Vladimir Putin as the main source of their problems; but if he dies or otherwise leaves the scene, a Kyiv commentator says, he could be followed by leaders who would be even worse, a reminder that the problem is not Putin alone but rather Russia or at least the current Russian political elite across the board.
Writing for the Apostrophe portal, Denis Popovich argues that if Putin were suddenly to leave the scene, “the rapid restoration of Ukraine in its 2013 borders is only one of the possible variants of the course of events. No less probable,” he says, would be the victory of “’war party’” and a major new attack intended to “solve ‘the Ukrainian question’ once and for all” (apostrophe.com.ua/article/politics/2016-01-28/esli-putin-umret-ili-uydet-variantyi-razvitiya-sobyitiy-dlya-ukrainyi/3123).
And even if “’the peace party’” within the current regime came to power or if most of the liberal opposition somehow did, it is far from clear that any of those post-Putin Russian regimes would hand back Crimea. Consequently, Ukrainians must remain vigilant and continue to employ political and economic methods until “some kind of Maidan begins in Russia.”
Throughout the Ukrainian crisis, Popovich says, Putin “has balanced between two influence groups in the Kremlin,” “’the war party’” which wanted him to be more aggressive and “’the peace party’” which called for restraint. And supporters for those two positions were and are to be found throughout the Russian elite and the Russian population.
Because Russian society as a whole was so hostile to Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, “’the war party’ gained the upper hand, and Vladimir Putin sanctioned the operation for the annexation of Crimea.” In the power vacuum following Yanukovich’s flight, Putin could have gone much further and “occupied at a minimum half of Ukraine.” But that didn’t happen.
It quickly became clear that “’the war party’ did not calculate all the consequences of the invasion of Ukraine; and therefore in the following period, the Russian leader has acted as if he is trying to sit on two stools,” now deferring to “’the war party’” and now to “’the peace party.’” And as the costs for him have risen, he has sought a way out if possible “without losing face.”
“’The war party’” has refocused its efforts on Syria, just as Putin has sought to change the conversation from Ukraine to the Middle East. And that has given an opening for “’the peace party’” and seen various Russian moves toward a political solution, although the military option very much remains on the table.
Once Putin leaves the scene, both these “’parties’” will be struggling for dominance. If the “’war’” party comes out on top, the consequences for Ukraine are both clear and dire; but if the “’peace’” party does, they may not be as much better as many Ukrainians now assume, Popovich says.
Most think that if the “’peace’” party comes out on top, Russia will pull its forces from the Donbas, cede control there to Ukraine and “begin a procedure for the return of Crimea.” But Crimea is likely to be a line that no likely Russian successor will cross, even if he comes from the liberal opposition.
Aleksey Navalny and Mikhail Khodorkovsky have both declared that they wouldn’t give Crimea back to Ukraine; and if they won’t, who among Russian politicians might be expected to? Almost no one. Thus, even “a hypothetical coming to power of Russian liberals and democrats does not guarantee Ukraine the restoration of its sovereignty over all lost regions.”
In addition to “the hawks” and “the doves” in Moscow, there also exists a kind of “’third force,’” consisting of marginal who might do anything from plunging Russia into a civil war, something that wouldn’t be favorable to Ukraine, or invading Ukraine in a massive way to solve their domestic problems.
Igor Girkin’s January 25 Committee is one of these; and it includes people who say that “we must promote a government of national salvation” because “our task is not Syria; ours is the Russian Federation, Novorossiya, and Transdniestria.”
In sum, however welcome Putin’s exit from power might be given all the crimes he has committed and all the suffering he has inflicted, that alone would not solve Ukraine’s problems with Russia. Indeed, there is reason to think that at least for a time there would be a risk that things would get still worse than they are now.