Vladimir Putin has reportedly ordered his troops to pull back from Ukraine’s borders (although NATO has not yet seen any evidence of a withdrawal at the time of writing), and has made approving noises at Kiev’s recent outreach to the eastern provinces. Is he backing down?
Probably not, if this article in the New York Times has things right. Putin sees the frontrunner in the May 25 presidential elections, the candy magnate Petro Poroshenko, as someone he can do business with—and so has perhaps decided to let the elections run their course:
“You can have a kind of a civil war and this kind of gray zone and be completely separated and face a higher degree of economic sanctions,” said Adrian Karatnycky, an expert on Ukraine at the Atlantic Council, describing the choice facing Mr. Putin. “Or you can see if it’s possible to bargain with this new guy, who has businesses in Russia, who has never been known to be a big ultranationalist.”
Mr. Poroshenko is a veteran of Ukrainian politics, having served as foreign minister under President Viktor A. Yushchenko; as economics minister under the ousted president, Viktor F. Yanukovych; and as a longtime member of Parliament, including a stint as speaker.
“The reasoning on Poroshenko is that he is a pragmatist and he was in the Yanukovych government,” Mr. Karatnycky said. “He is a person who is a dealmaker. From that point of view, it may mean that Putin is willing to give it a chance of trying to get something out of this.”
Eagle-eyed readers may notice the name Dmitry Firtash pop up elsewhere in the article. Firtash, a powerful political fixer and operative, is a symbol of the corrupt political status quo in Ukraine:
Mr. Poroshenko’s path to the presidency was eased substantially in March when his main rival, the former boxer Vitali Klitschko, agreed to drop out of the race, endorse Mr. Poroshenko and run for mayor of Kiev instead.
The deal was reached at a meeting in Vienna orchestrated by Dmitry V. Firtash, the gas-trading tycoon, who was a longtime political patron of Mr. Yanukovych and has close business ties to Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled energy giant. Mr. Firtash’s role has raised concerns among some Western officials who are hoping to prevent a recurrence of surreptitious and corrupt side deals that have bedeviled Ukraine since Soviet times.
As we noted the last time we wrote about Ukrainian politics, Poroshenko had tried to distance himself from Firtash. But the Times account seems to suggest that reform-minded Maidan types are nevertheless getting nervous about Poroshenko. Putin’s tacit endorsement, if that’s what it is, can’t be helping.