With Crimea in hand, Russia appears to be using powerful tools—from natural gas price hikes to a threat of the further loss of territory—to secure influence in the rest of Ukraine in advance of May 25 presidential elections.
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s strategy seems to be not to actually invade Ukraine, as the West fears, but to assert dominance through levers already on the ground, as he did with Crimea. Putin’s apparent preference is for Ukraine to split into federated states with independent foreign policies prior to the presidential election—allowing the leaders of some of them to form subservient relationships with Russia.
If so, he is following the playbook he used to annex Crimea last month. There, he didn’t so much invade following the Feb. 22 ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, as lay an ambush. First, he put thousands of Russian troops on maneuver just over the border in Russia proper. With outside eyes focused on them, Russian troops already based in Crimea as part of the Black Sea fleet donned uniforms without insignia, and took over the peninsula. On March 16, Crimeans voted to leave Ukraine and join Russia.
In eerily similar fashion, tens of thousands of Russian troops are currently on maneuver just over the border of eastern Ukraine. None has reportedly crossed from Russia proper, but today in the eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk, pro-Russia demonstrators declared independence and asked Putin to enforce the decision by sending peacekeepers. They called a May 11 referendum on whether to become part of Russia. In what seem to be coordinated actions, similar protests arose in the cities of Kharkiv and Luhansk.
Moscow urged the outside world to stop blaming Russia for Ukraine’s problems, and for the government itself to run the country better. But in Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney cited “strong evidence” (video) that at least some of the demonstrators were paid, and not local residents. Here is a livestream of the scene in Kharkiv.
On another front, Russia’s Gazprom last week raised Ukraine’s natural gas bills by 80%. At $485 per thousand cubic meters, they are the highest rates charged to any Gazprom customer–31% more than the average European price of $370 per thousand cubic meters for Russian gas.
Gazprom says that Ukraine now owes $2.2 billion for past gas bills, due today, and the new rate will make it impossible for the country to pay without a negotiation—in which it will hold little leverage. In the past, such negotiations have been held directly with Russia’s president. And that’s precisely where Putin would like Ukraine to be—asking Russia for concessions.