Russian President Vladimir Putin did his best to sound conciliatory this week.
He sounded as though he had performed an about-turn in Ukraine when on Wednesday, May 7, he said the May 25 presidential election was the “right move” if it guaranteed the rights of all citizens; called on pro-Russian separatists to give up their referendum on secession from Ukraine – advice they spurned the next day – and announced the withdrawal of some 40,000 Russian troops from Ukraine’s borders.
In actual fact, while appearing to shift ground, he had hardly moved at all.
He later amended the election concession by saying there was no point in holding it unless the interim government called off its military offensive against pro-Russian supporters in east Ukrainian cities and without constitutional reform.
His talkativeness was in fact a diversion from a maneuver he quietly performed for driving a wedge between Washington and Brussels on Ukraine at a meeting in Moscow on the same day with Didier Burkhalter, chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Putin said he wanted to discuss options for ending Ukraine’s conflict. “I know you have your own proposals, your ideas of how to find a way out of the situation that has occurred,“ the Russian president said to the OSCE chairman. “Our position is known, too. Let’s try to analyze the situation and seek ways out of this crisis.”
We need a ceasefire for the election," stressed Burkhalter, who also serves as Swiss president and foreign minister.
Europeans fail to agree on more sanctions
In Brussels, meanwhile, EU member states’ ambassadors, discussing additional sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine debacle, failed to come to an agreement. Their work will be continued prior to the next Council of EU Foreign Ministers scheduled for May 12, a source said.
American and European military and intelligence officials were divided over whether Russian forces have actually pulled back to their bases, as Putin claimed.
The White House and NATO said they found no sign of a Russian pullback, and Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Putin of “talking through his hat.”
But other European sources were silent. They took the backward movement of some Russian units who had been dug in at forward positions on the border between Russia and Ukraine as reason enough to hold their tongues, hoping the coming days would bring about a more comprehensive withdrawal.
Thursday, May 8, the Russian president oversaw test launches of Russian military rockets during training exercises held across Russia, the day before the anniversary of the WWII allied victory over Nazi Germany. “We are carrying out tests of the readiness of the Russian armed forces, announced last November,” implying that they had nothing to do with the Ukraine situation.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Brussels, Moscow and Ukraine, the current crisis is at a virtual standstill for three reasons:
1. US policy has stalled since the failure of President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to reach a comprehensive agreement on the next moves when they met at the White House on May 2. Obama has not conferred with either US National Security Advisor Susan Rice or Secretary of State John Kerry on how to proceed.
Europeans hope the lull in Ukraine leads to a ceasefire
Kerry was not in Washington when Merkel and her entourage arrived and, although he said he would be in Europe this week to “consult with our allies” on the next steps, he never made it.
All that Washington did this week was to authorize the transfer of $2.3 billion to Kiev by the International Monetary Fund on May 7, to prevent shutdown of the interim government, army and security services. Russia’s natural gas exporter reacted with a reminder that Ukraine had not settled the bill for April’s supplies. This raised Ukraine’s overdue debt to $3.51 billion, Gazprom spokesman Sergey Kupriyanov warned- a hint that some of the IMF funds would not come amiss if Kiev wanted to avoid a shutoff of gas supplies..
2. With the White House’s Ukraine strategy at a standstill, Putin has taken the spotlight. He will mostly likely take advantage of this exposure to drop more conciliatory proposals into the conflict. He plans to attend the 70th anniversary commemorations of D-Day in Paris, an event at which both Obama and Merkel will be present.
3. The Europeans, and especially Germany, hopes this temporary lull in the conflict can be used as the lead-in to some form of extended ceasefire between Washington, Moscow, and Kiev. The odds for this are not high.