Putin may have helped to convince Ukrainian leader to go

Tables turned.
Tables turned.
Image: Reuters/Yannis Behrakis
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Contrary to the perception of Moscow as a potential spoiler of Ukraine’s new day, Russian President Vladimir Putin may have helped to accelerate the early exit of Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych.

This comes from reports of tense, four-hour talks on the night of Feb. 20 between Yanukovych and European diplomats. Through the discussions of his future, Yanukovych stubbornly refused to leave before his term officially ended in February 2015, but then at one point he excused himself, saying he would call Putin. When he returned moments later, Yanukovych had changed his mind: He accepted early elections.

What Putin told Yanukovych isn’t publicly known, and may never be. But, as related by Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, one of the diplomats who was present, the conversation between the two men was the turning point. “He came back, he was agreeing to limit his time in office,” Sikorski told The New York Times. “That made everything possible.”

The fact (but not the content) of the phone call leaked (in Russian) even as the talks were going on, reported by the Polish Press Agency and quoting a “reliable source”—presumably Sikorski or someone close to him. “Yanukovych is now calling Putin. The ministers are convincing him to shorten his presidential term to this year,” the source told the agency.

If Putin did persuade Yanukovych to go, his actions fall in line with a long tradition of foreign political patrons helping to ease out their embattled protégés. In 1986, for example, Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos left office only after first calling US senator Paul Laxalt and learning that his main source of foreign support was gone.

In Putin’s case, he may have lost faith in Yanukovych’s ability to hold Ukraine together. “Putin might try to cut the best deal he can,” wrote the Helsinki Times.

Of course, much can change the morning after. Putin himself has not signaled his next moves, but in remarks today, Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev expressed unhappiness with the upheaval in Ukraine’s leadership.