Putin surveys the map as he ponders next move on Ukraine

Putin surveys the map as he ponders next move on Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, February 4, 2015.

MOSCOW - In Russia, Vladimir Putin likes to portray himself as the saviour of the nation. In Europe and the United States he has come to be seen as a threat to the new world order.

What the Russian president does next in Ukraine is key to the country's future, as well as that of Europe and his own.

Putin looks to have the upper hand at this stage despite Western economic sanctions that are hurting Russia's economy, as Ukraine is rapidly becoming all but ungovernable for its pro-Western leaders, undermining its drive to join mainstream Europe.

With Crimea in Russian hands for almost a year and eastern Ukraine controlled by separatists loyal to him, Putin could allow the rebels to try to seize more territory with what the West says is Russian military support.

Kiev fears a new rebel offensive is imminent on Ukraine's Sea of Azov coast which could open a corridor to Crimea.

Putin's next steps will be determined by what he thinks is best for him, and not necessarily by what Western critics see as expansionist policies or what his admiring electorate sees as the defence of national interests. "All options are open," said a senior Western diplomat in Moscow.

"But ultimately it is all about Putin keeping power and he will do what he has to do to achieve this."

The diplomat, with close knowledge of the negotiations which led to the peace deal reached by the German, French, Ukrainian and Russian leaders in the Belarussian capital Minsk on Feb. 12, saw only a slim chance of a good outcome for Ukraine.

The best possible outcome, he said, was a return to the pre-conflict situation of 2013. Others included a long, intense war, or a "frozen" or low-level conflict in the east that makes Ukraine impossible to govern or tears it apart.

The setbacks to the Minsk deal since the rebels disavowed it by taking a strategic town they said was not covered by the truce have prompted new calls for US President Barack Obama to give Kiev lethal weapons to defend Ukraine. "Vladimir Putin wants Ukraine not to be part of Europe, and he is succeeding in doing so," Republican Senator John McCain said in a television interview on Sunday.

PUTIN'S MAP

For Putin, who denies sending troops and weapons to east Ukraine, the map of Russia and its "near abroad" is more comforting than a year ago.

Crimea has been reclaimed, and Ukraine's drive to join Europe's mainstream and possibly NATO seems more problematic now that Moscow has shown how far it will go to prevent this. Russian-speaking east Ukraine has not become part of Russia, but is now more in Moscow's sphere of influence than Kiev's.

Russia also dominates South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway regions of Georgia. Moscow recognised their independence after a five-day war with Tbilisi which Russia won in 2008 and has held sway there ever since.

Moscow signed a border agreement with South Ossetia last week, a move which Tbilisi said moved Russia closer to annexing the territory, and forged a "strategic partnership" agreement with Abkhazia last November.

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