On November 12-13, Russian President Vladimir Putin made his second visit to Ukraine in as many weeks. Although Kremlin officials maintain that this time Putin went to the neighboring country to open a ferry line across the Kerch Strait, most analysts agree that the Russian leader’s trip is connected not so much with transportation as with Ukraine’s crucial presidential run-off, scheduled for November 21. The commentators disagree, though, as to what kind of message Putin sends to Ukraine and the world: is Moscow ready to fight for the victory of its favorite, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, or has it lost its resolve and begun preparations to implement a “Plan B”?
Most observers note that Putin’s second “election” voyage to Ukraine markedly differs from the first one, which he made just days before the first round of the Ukrainian vote on October 31. In late October, both Russian and Ukrainian TV channels closely followed Putin’s every step in Ukraine, airing extensive footage that invariably showed the Russian president in the company of his Ukrainian counterpart, Leonid Kuchma, and Prime Minister Yanukovych.
In contrast, Putin’s November visit was shrouded in secrecy: only a few hand-picked journalists were accredited to cover the event, and broadcast media aired only brief official reports on Friday. The Russian president’s activities on Saturday — the second day of his trip — remained totally hidden from the public eye. On Putin’s official website, the “President’s schedule” section does not contain any information pertaining to last Saturday, and even on Sunday morning the Kremlin press service was reluctant to answer reporters’ queries as to whether Putin had returned to Russia. What is known for certain, however, is that the president’s regular Saturday meeting with the permanent members of Russia’s Security Council did not take place on November 13.
Putin’s second visit to Ukraine, as well as the length and intensity of the secret talks between the two heads of state, suggest the Kremlin’s growing uncertainty about the outcome of the Ukrainian run-off. “By all appearances, the elaboration of the [political] strategy in the run-up to the second round of presidential elections — given the unexpected outcome of the first round — has proved far from an easy task,” one commentary pointed out.
Russian political gurus, including those who are actively participating in the Yanukovych campaign, seem to differ in their analysis of the real meaning of Putin trip. One group of experts believes that the Russian president has once again thrown his political weight behind Kuchma’s chosen successor. According to the Kremlin’s leading spin-doctor and head of the Effective Policy Foundation, Gleb Pavlovsky, Moscow is still heavily betting on a Yanukovych win. Russia’s position did not change and it continues to back “its man” in Ukraine, Pavlovsky contends. If anything, the Kremlin’s support for Yanukovych “has become even more unambiguous,” he says.
Kirill Frolov, head of the Ukraine desk at the Institute for CIS Studies, agrees. Putin’s visit, he argues, was aimed at mobilizing additional voter turnout in eastern and southern Ukraine, particularly in the Crimea. Thus, he says, Putin has demonstrated his unswerving support for Yanukovych.
But some members of the Russian analytic community hold a more nuanced view on what the Kremlin’s Ukraine strategy should be. They note that the preferred election result in the neighboring country is far from predestined, and Moscow would be well advised to elaborate a contingency plan. As Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika Foundation, has put it, “Russia’s position vis-a-vis Yanukovych is absolutely clear, but the election outcome is far less so.” Sergei Markov, another Russian pundit heavily involved in the Ukrainian election campaign, concedes that the Kremlin’s tactics did, in fact, change. “Ukrainian voters got fed up with Russia’s public backing [of one candidate],” he argues, explaining the absence of propaganda and PR actions during Putin’s second trip. According to Markov, Putin “needed to discuss with Kuchma all possible political scenarios in Ukraine: Yanukovych’s win with a slight margin that might trigger massive rallies by the opposition; the coming of chaos; and, finally, Yushchenko’s victory.” Remarkably, the Kremlin, Markov contends, is ready for the latter outcome. Should the opposition candidate win, he argues, Moscow “has to open talks [with him], trying to reach an agreement whereby the most outspoken Russophobes wouldn’t get positions in the new administration.” After all, Markov adds, “there are some decent people” in the Yushchenko team.
Significantly, even Pavlovsky, who never questioned a Yanukovych victory before, now suggests that there are various possible scenarios in Ukraine. According to one scenario, he says, Yanukovych might win in the run-off, but Yushchenko’s victory — “in the result of the revolution, pressure of the ‘street,’ and defection of the part of the administrative apparatus” — cannot be excluded either. According to Pavlovsky, the Kremlin should be prepared for such a “negative development” of events.
(Gazeta.ru, November 12-13; APN.ru, November 12; Kommersant, November 13; Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 15).