A glimmer of hope of a de-escalation of the Ukrainian crisis appeared on May 7, when President Vladimir Putin announced he will “ask the representatives of Southeast Ukraine [who] support federalization to delay the referendum planned for May 11, to create conditions for a dialogue.” The pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine have planned an officially illegal referendum to declare the independence of the self-styled People’s Republics in the two regions. Putin told reporters that the presidential elections planned in Ukraine for May 25, which Moscow had previously disapproved of, “are a move in the right direction,” but will not solve the crisis “without direct dialogue between Kyiv and the Southeast.” Putin called for an immediate end to armed violence in Ukraine and assured that Russia, “which is not a side in this conflict,” “has withdrawn its forces from the Ukrainian border to places of regular exercises at training grounds.” Russia has helped free hostages to facilitate a de-escalation, Putin told journalists after talks in the Kremlin with Swiss Federal President Didier Burkhalter, the current chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Burkhalter told reporters he came to Moscow to promote an OSCE “de-escalation roadmap” in Ukraine, involving a cessation of armed hostilities, disarmament, national dialogue and elections (https://news.kremlin.ru/transcripts/20973).
The escalating violence in Ukraine has claimed many lives and destroyed property. Intermittent clashes continue in and around the Donetsk regional town of Slovyansk, occupied by armed pro-Russian forces and besieged by the Ukrainian military. In Odessa last week, in one of the deadliest acts of violence, at least 46 people, mostly pro-Russian activists, lost their lives. Kyiv has accused Moscow of fomenting and coordinating attacks by pro-Russian separatists (https://www.interfax.ru/world/375444). In turn, the Russian government has accused the United States and the European Union of supporting “the Kyiv authorities in suppressing the protests,” of sending “English-speaking agents to attack Slovyansk,” and “destroying any prospects of a peaceful resolution of the crisis” (https://www.mid.ru/brp_4.nsf/newsline/3E75E3F7753EE78A44257CCC003985B3). A leading pro-Russian deputy of the Ukrainian Rada (parliament), Oleg Tsaryev, told Russian journalists that after the May 11 referendum succeeds in breaking off Donetsk and Lugansk, Ukraine as a nation will be finished and new nation shall emerge: Novorossiya or New Russia. At least six other Russian-speaking regions, from Kharkov in the northeast to Odessa along the border with Rumania, will join Donetsk and Lugansk in declaring independence and form a Federative Republic of Novorossiya (https://izvestia.ru/news/570413).
On April 17, during a televised national phone-in, Putin talked about defending the rights of Russians and Russian-speakers in Novorossiya, which was historically a large governorship in the Russian Empire. Putin complained that the lands of Novorossiya were handed over to Ukraine by the Communists in the 1920s “for some unknown reason” (https://www.kremlin.ru/news/20796). Putin’s announcement that the May 11 referendum is being postponed was immediately interpreted as a possible turning point away from military confrontation and apparent territorial aspirations, toward a negotiated compromise. The popular Moscow daily Moskovsky Komsomolets declared: “The 3rd World War is apparently called off.” Putin made a goodwill gesture because the West promised to de facto recognize Crimean annexation, the paper argued (https://www.mk.ru/print/article/1025022/). Kommersant speculated that Putin had called off the May 11 referendum because of unofficial Western assurances Ukraine would stay in Russia’s sphere of influence and away from the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Another possible reason: The separatists control only parts of Donetsk and Lugansk, and the referendum would be illegal and clearly unrepresentative, so calling it off was prudent at present. A source in the Kremlin was quoted as saying: “We never had any intention to annex any additional Ukrainian territory” (https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2467533). Stocks at the Moscow exchange grew dramatically together with the ruble after Putin’s announcement (https://www.interfax.ru/375440).
Within several hours, however, it all turned out to be a sham: The separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk, with “all due respect,” rejected Putin’s “advice” to postpone the referendum or begin any “dialogue with Kyiv.” Kremlin-controlled TV channels commended the separatists as heroes (https://www.ntv.ru/novosti/959057/). On March 4, in much the same manner, Putin told journalists Russia was not considering making Crimea part of Russia and “we will in no way provoke or induce such decisions” (https://news.kremlin.ru/transcripts/20366). The news was then greeted with relief and a stock market rally. Crimea was officially annexed on March 18. Putin was apparently just shifting the blame, pretending it was the West, the Kyiv authorities and the unruly pro-Russian separatists calling the shots, while the Kremlin was simply reacting to events. On May 8, as Donetsk and Lugansk separatists announced the referendum was still on, stock prices and the ruble dropped—a good opportunity for insider traders to make good money (https://www.interfax.ru/375440).
The Ukrainian border guards report: Russia troops and heavy weapons are still deployed on the border (https://nikvesti.com/news/politics/53148). The alleged troop withdrawal may also have been a sham and has turned into an additional source of East-West contention. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov declared, “We call on ‘the official representatives’ of NATO and the Pentagon to stop their cynical deception of the world community” by denying the Russian troop withdrawal. Antonov accused NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of “ignoring the facts” of Russian forces being recalled from the border and asserted that Kyiv had “concentrated some 15,000 soldiers on its border with Russia,” while NATO was increasing its military presence and air patrol missions in Eastern Europe (https://en.ria.ru/russia/20140508/189672362-print/Russian-Defense-Official-Bashes-NATO-for-Ignoring-Troop-Pullout.html).
Moscow does not seem overly intimidated by the Western response to its policy of covert promotion of armed pro-Russian separatism in Ukraine or of Russia’s aggressive assertion of its presumed sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. A source in the Russian defense ministry told Kommersant: NATO may lack the funds to permanently station troops in former Eastern European countries that are now members of the Alliance. And if need be, Russia could deploy nuclear ballistic missiles in its western-most region of Kaliningrad to deter the West, according to Duma sources (https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2467307). Late in the evening of May 7, Putin held an “operational meeting” of the permanent members of his Security Council “to discuss international events and Ukrainian developments” (https://www.interfax.ru/print.asp?sec=1448&id=375366). Most likely, the agenda included formulating a response to a unilateral declaration of independence by Donetsk and Lugansk after their May 11 referendum. Throughout the past three months of the Ukraine crisis, such Security Council meetings regularly preceded serious action by Moscow, like the invasion and annexation of Crimea.