TIME Viewpoint

Russia’s Game in Ukraine

Rising tension Pro-Russian protesters storm a regional police building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Horlivka
Rising tension Pro-Russian protesters storm a regional police building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Horlivka Alexey Kravtsov—AFP/Getty Images

Putin does not want to risk a takeover. But he does want another pliant leader in Kiev

Earlier this month, as residents of Kiev celebrated the opening of an annual festival of French culture and, days later, the start of one of the country’s largest book fairs, their compatriots in the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk were on edge. Armed pro-Russian separatists had seized a regional security-service building and reportedly taken more than 50 people hostage. Though the hostage situation was resolved, there were other instances of separatists causing trouble near the country’s eastern borders with Russia, as the Kremlin began to exert pressure beyond Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula it seized in March.

Moscow might deny a role in stoking the unrest, but the fear inside Ukraine was that the tensions in Lugansk and elsewhere in the east would be followed up by a wholesale influx of Russian troops, tens of thousands of whom remain massed at the border. But that did not happen—or at least, it hasn’t happened yet.

Why? Perhaps Russia was put off by the re­inforcements that appeared on the Ukrainian side—Moscow would prefer a Crimea-style takeover, instead of risking a bloody fight, even one that it would be likely to win, given its relative military strength—or maybe it was simply posturing, geared to keep Ukraine preoccupied as Kiev tries to get on with the important business of holding national elections and restructuring its struggling economy. Whatever the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin might be planning next, one thing seems clear: Moscow wants Kiev to know that an attack is possible at any moment.

We know this not only because of the troops at the border, or the separatists whipping up trouble inside Ukraine, but also because of the goings-on inside Russia, where it seems that every last nationalist is being encouraged to visit Lugansk, Donetsk and other cities in eastern Ukraine to take part in pro-Moscow demonstrations.

In mid-April, there was further unrest in Sloviansk, where a Ukrainian policeman was killed in a battle with armed separatists. Problems with pro-Russian gunmen also arose in other parts of the east, the country’s industrial heartland.

Besides fear, the developments have also sparked black humor. One story doing the rounds concerns the town of Alchevsk in the Lugansk region, where, it is said, some 150 not very sober people got together for a demonstration, proudly waving French flags instead of Russian ones—an easy mistake to make for outsiders, what with the colors being the same. But there is nothing funny about a crowd of around 2,000 people storming public buildings—which is what happened in Donetsk in early April.

In Crimea, meanwhile, a Russian sergeant shot an unarmed Ukrainian officer who was preparing to transfer to a Ukrainian base on the mainland. No charges have been filed against the sergeant.

All of the above underlines the fact that Russia is not content with annexing Crimea, nor will it simply sit back and allow ordinary Ukrainians to choose a new leader in the upcoming presidential election planned for May 25.

That does not mean Putin wants to seize the whole country. The risks of bloodshed and a more serious—and economically ruinous—confrontation with the West are too great for the Kremlin to march on Kiev. That said, the recent troubles in the east suggest that Putin is not about to let go of Ukraine and walk away either. For Moscow, the goal is another pro-Russian government in Kiev, giving it clout over a former Soviet state without the risks attached to a full-scale military invasion.

Against this backdrop, the May presidential election will be critical in determining what happens next in Ukraine. If the interim government in Kiev can hold a free and fair election, with the new government winning a mandate from the eastern regions, Putin will not be able to continue calling Viktor Yanukovych the country’s “legitimate” President. A successful vote will force Putin to reconsider his strategy. But if Russia succeeds in disrupting the polls, Ukraine would face the prospect of greater unrest.

Kurkov is a Ukrainian writer and the author of the critically acclaimed novel Death and the Penguin

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