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Analysis: Invading Ukraine likely Plan B for Putin

| Saturday, April 12, 2014, 11:55 p.m.
Pro-Russian activists applaud to a speaker at the regional administration building in Donetsk, Ukraine, Saturday April 12, 2014. Protesters, who have held the administration building in Donetsk since Sunday, initially called for a referendum on secession but later reduced the demand to a vote on autonomy within Ukraine with the possibility of holding another later on whether to join Russia.(AP Photo/Max Vetrov)

Tensions rose in Ukraine's eastern regions on Saturday as gunmen seized a police station and attacked two others, prompting the government in Kiev to accuse Russia of “external aggression” to destablize the country.

The unrest in Donetsk and Slovyansk was the latest expression of spiraling anger in eastern Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population.

“This is the most dangerous place now,” said Vadym Grechanynov, president of the Atlantic Council of Ukraine. Russia “will try to provoke Ukraine in any possible way. I'm sure Russia won't leave Ukraine alone.”

Using Russia's army, however, probably is Russian President Vladimir Putin's Plan B, even though he has amassed tens of thousands of troops along Ukraine's eastern border, a reminder of his vow to protect ethnic Russians.

Rather than repeating the “Crimean scenario” — invading, seizing and annexing territory — the Kremlin would prefer to keep Ukraine weak and divided by forcing a change in how it is governed, analysts say.

Increasing regional autonomy at the expense of the central government would force Ukrainian authorities to constantly balance competing visions of the country to hold it together, and in effect give Moscow veto power through its influence among ethnic Russians in the east.

Some analysts argue that the idea of regional autonomy reflects Ukraine's complicated geography and shouldn't be dismissed just because it is being championed by Putin. Visiting eastern Ukraine on Friday, interim Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk promised constitutional reforms that would give the regions more autonomy.

Moscow is pushing its approach at diplomatic gatherings like one planned for Thursday in Geneva. In a sign of its wish to regain influence in Ukraine without sparking war and further sanctions, Moscow has agreed to include acting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia at the meeting with the United States and the European Union, even though the Kremlin considers the interim government illegitimate.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry last week in Paris, reiterated Russia's desire for Ukraine to maintain “neutrality,” meaning it would never seek to join NATO. The Russian foreign minister insisted that the troop presence on Ukraine's border was for exercises and that Moscow has “absolutely no intention and no interest in crossing the Ukrainian border.”

But analysts say Putin is keeping his options open in case he fails to sell the idea before Ukraine's May 25 presidential election.

“That's why Putin has troops on the border. He wants to use the threat of military force to impose a solution,” said William Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies and a professor of Russian law at Georgetown University. “But construction and rewriting of a constitution is a very slow process and the big question is, can Putin maintain this pressure and be willing to wait, or will he feel compelled to move while he has military advantage on the ground? That is a decision that one man will make.”

Pro-Russia protesters have seized government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, but have failed to ignite a broader rebellion, Pomeranz noted. Putin is well aware that an armed invasion would face much greater resistance in the eastern regions than in Crimea, where ethnic Russians are a majority.

Yatsenyuk visited Donetsk, the center of Ukraine's mining industry, on Friday to assure the Russian minority that they would be able to continue using Russian as an official language.

Armed separatists, who Ukraine and the United States say were encouraged by the Kremlin, have occupied the regional government headquarters in Donetsk since Sunday.

The prime minister's visit failed to resolve the confrontation. But a survey released this week has revealed limited support for the separatists. Only 16 percent of local people surveyed by the Donetsk Institute for Social Research and Political Analysis said they supported the armed occupation of government buildings, the Ukrinform news agency reported Wednesday.

A Gallup poll conducted last month for the International Republican Institute found just 4 percent of those polled in the eastern region wanted to break away from Ukraine and join Russia.

One irony of Putin's federalization project for Ukraine is that he has spent his years as Kremlin leader dismantling Russia's federal structure in order to centralize power in Moscow.

A looser federation could be a solution to the social and ethnic patchwork that has mired Ukraine in political turmoil throughout its 23-year post-Soviet independence, said Anna Vassilieva, a professor of Russian politics and culture at Middlebury College's Monterey Institute of International Studies.

“If Ukraine is not federalized, the issues that are haunting it now will continue haunting it,” Vassilieva said. “The only way to calm down this hysteria in the eastern cities is to tell the people there that they will remain Ukrainian citizens but they will be able to speak their Russian language and maintain their own ways.”

Carol J. Williams is an international affairs writer for the Los Angeles Times.

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