Will Putin Annex Eastern Ukraine?

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a parade marking the Victory Day in Sevastopol, Crimea, May 9, 2014.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a parade marking the Victory Day in Sevastopol, Crimea, May 9, 2014.

Moscow says it will 'implement' eastern Ukraine's referendum to join Russia, leaving many wondering what exactly that means. By Steve LeVine

Many Russia observers seem certain they are watching a “cautious” president Vladimir Putin who—at least for now—doesn’t plan on annexing east Ukraine as he did Crimea two months ago. If he talks tough, he is merely seeking leverage over Ukraine, they say.

But blunt Russian messages to Kyiv and the West today suggest very little difference from the man who, in absorbing Crimea, forcibly altered Europe’s borders for the first time since World War II.

Keeping the momentum on Moscow’s side in the Ukraine crisis, Putin made a savage double-cut at defiant Kyiv. In statements, Russia embraced secessionist referendums approved yesterday in Ukraine’s industrial heartland, and threatened to cut off Kyiv’s gas supply in three weeks, unless its gigantic bills are paid off. The Ukrainian region of Donetsk said today that it wants to be annexed by Russia, and Luhansk suggested that it is exploring the same future.

Following these events, a lot of observers focused on the absence of a firm Russian declaration of annexation, like the one that Putin released within 48 hours of Crimea’s March 16 vote to leave Ukraine. This time, Putin’s spokesman merely said that Russia “respects the expression of the people’s will” and called for “the practical implementation of the referendums [to] be realized in a civilized manner.”

But the Kremlin’s language is far from clear, and leaves Putin’s options open. The statement did not define “implementation”–does Putin mean the creation of a separate state? A federation within Ukraine? Absorption into Russia?

Whichever course events take, the central fact is that Kyiv, in whatever political form, has lost control of its industrial east, the core of the economy, and these territories will link themselves to Russia, whether by treaty or actual annexation.

And Russia’s determination to tame Kyiv still appears strong. Moscow announced a new restrictions on Ukraine’s supply of Russian gas. Prime minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered Gazprom to begin delivering gas to Ukraine only on a pre-paid basis as of tomorrow, and Gazprom’s CEO said the flow will be shut off June 3, unless the money is received by then.

The dispute is technically over the price of the gas—Russia would like Ukraine to pay much more than when they were friends, while Ukraine would like to keep paying at the same old rate. But Europe will be victimized, too, as Ukraine has vowed to cut off the transit line through it to the continent, with the goal of triggering political pressure on Russia. Moscow is likely to keep pushing up the gas bill as the dispute escalates.

Putin’s next move will be in part dictated by whether he expects to be received as a savior or an interloper in eastern Ukraine. If the former, he is likelier to absorb the two regions. But even if it’s the latter, he may do it anyway.

Since Putin has called for the two sides to settle their differences directly, the first date to watch is reconciliation talks announced by Kyiv for May 14. If those don’t go well—a likelihood—Putin could declare that he has no choice but to accept the will of eastern Ukraine.

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