Update on the crisis: a skeptic’s take on Putin’s call for a postponement of the Donbas referendum

The big news today is that Putin has called for the postponement of a referendum on what amounts to “sovereignty” for the Donbas on May 11 that had been demanded by the pro-Russian separatists and has announced that Russian troops are pulling back from the border. I am very skeptical, however, that the Kremlin genuinely wants a significant de-escalation at this point.

Putin probably does not want to, or expect to, invade eastern Ukraine (that would just add to the burden of incorporating Crimea into Russia), and the Kremlin probably believes at this point that eastern Ukraine has been destabilized sufficiently to prevent Kyiv from restoring its writ there and to keep it from conducting credible presidential elections on May 25. But the Kremlin may well be overconfident that it can keep a lid on the uprising in the east. The overwhelming propaganda campaign to paint the authorities in Kyiv as fascists and illiberal nationalists has been enormously successful among Russophones in the east and much of the south, and at this point there is no chance that the separatists will put down their weapons and go home (for many, home is abroad – in Russia, Crimea, Transnistria, Serbia, etc.). As I wrote earlier, the genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back in even if Moscow really wants to. The key date coming up is V-E Day, May 9, which is a major holiday in Ukraine and Russia. I would be surprised if we did not see significant violence that day, and I suspect that Moscow is setting itself up for the introduction of troops if the violence gets much worse, the line being: “We wanted and tried to de-escalate but the fascists in Kyiv allowed matters to spin out of control, so we have no choice now but to intervene.” I still put the odds of the open introduction of Russian troops at 55 percent, my reasoning being that an escalation of violence and possible civil war in the east (less likely in the south) is getting more likely by the day, and if that happens, it will be very hard for Putin to stand by and not send in his troops to protect his “compatriots.”