SIGNS OF A TURNAROUND IN RUSSIA-UKRAINE RELATIONS

Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- For the last three months -- the late winter and early spring of 2014 -- Ukraine has bounced between standoffs with irregular "Russian" fighters and all-out fighting in the eastern, pro-Russian part of the country.

The money was on Vladimir Putin, he of the tight abs and the even tighter smile. After all, he had the big army, compared to the disorganized Ukrainians, who in the beginning did not even have a president. The Russian president was good at lording it over former republics of the Soviet Union, which he was attempting to recompose, and this time around he was using not the Russian army, but "hybrid" forces to threaten Ukraine with takeover.

The West got notably scared, and the idea that Moscow would once again bind its "brothers" in Ukraine to its bosom was the story that got the most attention. Rather than save Ukraine, the Western nations were figuring out where to draw the lines -- Poland, surely, but Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia?

But then, something quite wondrous happened, if you can use that word in foreign affairs. While the attention of Europe, the United States and NATO was violently distracted by the medieval ISIL radical Islamists marching across Syria and Iraq and proclaiming an "Islamic caliph" to rule the entire world and Baghdad seemed overnight to be in danger of falling to them, Ukraine was almost forgotten.

Now that the smoke has cleared a bit, we learn that the Ukrainians, more-or-less on their own, went ahead and elected a new president, Petro Poroshenko. Not one of the crooks they usually fall back on, Poroshenko is a respected and authoritative big businessman who soon got the lethargic Ukrainian army on its feet and even, they say, built his own drone.

Soon, Ukrainian soldiers were actually attacking eastern, historically pro-Russian cities like Slovyansk, which they took, and Luhansk and Donetsk. To just about everyone's amazement, the Russian hybrid forces began fleeing, while the Ukrainians were smart enough to supply the forgotten citizens there with food, cooking oil and pensions.

Adrian Karatnycky, senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, tied it all up in The Wall Street Journal this week, writing: "Nearly three months after Russian mercenaries and Russia-backed proxies began grabbing parts of eastern Ukraine in April, Ukraine's armed forces have made important breakthroughs against the occupiers. ... As a result, today some three-quarters of the territory ... and nearly half of its population is back under the control of the Kiev government."

In addition, a poll taken early in July by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology showed that in the Donbas, the eastern area rich in industry, minerals and mining, Ukraine's President Poroshenko now engenders more trust than Russia's President Putin or the insurgents. And in Russia itself, the first burst of excitement among Russian citizens when Putin took the Crimea from Ukraine has now dimmed. Kremlin-friendly pollsters now find that 66 percent of Russians oppose military intervention in Ukraine -- exactly the opposite finding of polls last March.

Perhaps most important of all, President Poroshenko went ahead and signed trade agreements with the European Union on June 27. These were the same agreements that the threat of which began the Russian incursions into Ukraine last winter. Ukraine's long-held desire to be a "European country" or at least a "Eurasian country," which would include a special relationship with Moscow, has been signed on the dotted line.

Andriy Parubiy, Ukraine's security chief, was quoted last week as saying he was convinced that Moscow had scaled back its ambitions in Ukraine. He told the Financial Times that Moscow originally intended to seize eight regions across the east and south of the country -- from Odessa to Transnistria (the pro-Russian part of Moldova) -- but heavy sanctions from the West plus open warfare from Kiev changed whatever strategy Putin, who tends to shoot from the hip, had.

NATO Chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned just last week of duplicity by Putin over Ukraine. Russia's waging that "hybrid warfare" -- a combination of military action, covert operations and an aggressive program of disinformation -- was all designed to leave an open door to Russian entry into Ukrainian territory once more.

And yet, President Putin traveled to Vienna for meetings with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Putin and Poroshenko spoke on the telephone to discuss peace plans. It looked more like the future -- in which Putin's Russia would join western power institutions -- than the past, when a gun was the only remedy for ills supposedly suffered.

It may be, of course, that the NATO chief is right; but Vladimir Putin, who worked in Soviet intelligence in Dresden against the West, is not unaware of the Western world and its ways, and he may well see his and Russia's future as better cast with the West, especially since he can hardly picture a Ukraine fighting him to the death as desirable to Russia's future.

If true, this could be the turnaround, or part of the turnaround, that we have been waiting for. In the end, Russia needs markets and partners more than it needs enslaved minds or Chechen soldiers. It is not unthinkable that Vladimir Putin could be the president to realize this.

(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)

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