Crisis in Ukraine

A Putin Climb-Down on Ukraine?

Suddenly it looks as if the Kremlin’s best-laid plans have gone awry. But a Russian pause is not the same as a retreat.

RIA Novosti/Reuters

DONETSK, Ukraine – After months of provocation and destabilization in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is signaling suddenly what seems like a step back from his confrontational policies, telling diplomats on Wednesday that Russian troops had been pulled away from the border and calling on insurgents in southeastern Ukraine to postpone the referendum on autonomy they’d announced for Sunday. The referendum had been one of their central demands as they occupied government buildings and set up roadblocks all over the regions.

But the apparent climb-down may be more of a pause than a retreat in the progressive destabilization of the Kiev government. On Wednesday evening NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen sent out a curt message on Twitter: “We haven’t seen any signs that Russia is withdrawing its troops from Ukraine’s borders.” Meanwhile, disorganization in the eastern provinces where the vote was supposed to be held threatened to undermine the referendum, even as violence in the key port city of Odessa threatened to outpace separatist plans.

The fate of the referendum, which once looked like it might take eastern Ukraine down the same road toward eventual Russian annexation as Crimea, was first called publicly into question by the leak of a tapped phone conversation that allegedly took place between a separatist operative and a right-wing Russian politician.

Ukraine’s security services (SBU) said that the voices in the profanity-laced phone intercept belong to Russian ultra-nationalist leader Alexander Barkashov and Donetsk operative Dima Boitsov. The operative expresses concern that the region isn’t ready for the referendum without strong military backup while the politician tells him to do his best to fudge the numbers and that there is no backing down. The vote is set to determine the autonomy of Donetsk as a separate republic.

“Donetsk [the largest city in the east] won’t hold out. If we aren’t helped… if Russia doesn’t go in, we are fucked,” said the voice that SBU claimed is Boitsov’s. “I’m canceling the referendum on this date because it won’t happen.”

“Dima, Dima, you can’t cancel it, no way. It’s going to come out like you’re scared,” the Barkashov voice replied, adding, “Just write whatever you want. Write 99 percent! What are you going to walk around and collect papers? Are you fucked in the head?”

“Ahh,” the operative says. “Done, I understand.”

The referendum originally was supposed to have locals vote on federalization: strong autonomy for Ukraine’s separate regions, which would enable the East to have close ties to Russia.

Now, however, the ballot would only contain a vote on the recognition of autonomy for the Donetsk People’s Republic, the separatist political grouping that Kiev says is backed by Putin.

“So the question stands only about the Donetsk Republic, nothing more?” asks ‘Dima’ on the recording. “For now, regarding federalization, there is no question?”

“Dima, of course not!” the contact alleged to be Barkashov replies.

Barkashov’s ultra right wing Russian National Unity party didn’t respond to requests for comment on Wednesday. A Donetsk People’s Republic spokesman, who didn’t immediately respond to emails, reportedly said that the referendum could be postponed if its leadership reaches such a decision.

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Boris Litvinov, a member of the DPR presidium, stated on Monday that the territorial polling commissions are 70 per cent established, although they were hindered by the presence of Ukrainian troops in towns around Donetsk. Ukraine’s interim government, along with the United States, rejected the ultimatum as “fake.”

Donetsk mayor Alexander Lyukanchenko said Wednesday that the referendum “raises many questions.”

"At rallies, we witnessed calls for the referendum. There were questions about federalization, tax autonomy and the status of the Russian language but there was no question of creating a separate government,” he said.

Russia was considering sending a group of observers to oversee the May 11 referendum, Russian news reported on Tuesday. This is no longer a certainty in light of President Putin’s surprising call for postponement today in his meeting with Swiss president Didier Burkhalter, according to news reports.

“We believe that the most important thing is to create direct, full-fledged dialogue between the Kiev authorities and representatives of southeast Ukraine,” Putin said. “Because of this, we ask that representatives of southeast Ukraine, supporters of federalization in the country, postpone the May 11 referendum in order to create the necessary conditions for such a dialogue.”

Putin also said that national presidential elections set for May 25 are a step in the right direction. Separatists had previously denounced the nationwide election in speeches and on their social networking site.

It is possible that separatists are coming to the conclusion that the Ukrainian army, despite its claims of being understaffed and its less-than-impressive performance, ultimately is too formidable for separatists to fight without Russian reinforcements.

Ukrainian troops have killed some 30 pro-Russia fighters in Slovyansk, the separatists’ military epicenter, while losing a handful of their own. Yesterday, the SBU reported eight more deaths and 16 hospitalizations in Slovyansk, although though they didn’t say who was killed.

On the leaked recording, the operative said that there are “300 military units” massed near Donetsk and “marines are arriving.”

Some separatists maintain they will go ahead with the referendum no matter what, and all sides continue girding for a fight.

Yesterday, separatists in Donetsk took three truckloads of equipment from the Donetsk military academy. Several dozen men with AK assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades, wearing plain clothes and ski masks or camouflage spread out and set up a checkpoint for vehicles and pedestrians. After talking to the academy’s leadership for an hour of so, most of the troops drove off in heavily laden trucks, while some lingered behind across from the academy gates.

Adding fuel to the volatile situation, many Donetsk residents are angry about the burning deaths of dozens of Pro-Russian activists in Odessa, during running confrontations with pro-Kiev demonstrators. “We will not forgive Odessa!” chanted a procession of Donetsk miners marching Tuesday morning.

In Donetsk’s center, some called for war. “What must happen, will happen!” one speaker told an attentive crowd. “Let there be war!” Posters with photographs of the burning building in Odessa are set up around Donetsk city center along with crossed out swastikas. The pro-Russian demonstrators and insurgents insist they are fighting crypto-Nazis in Kiev.