Putin crusade will not end with Ukraine vote: analysts
Held up by many as the best hope for Ukraine, Sunday's presidential vote will make little difference to the one man the West blames most for the country's crisis -- Vladimir Putin.
Bent on countering Western ambitions in Ukraine, Russia's leader will never accept a vote that cements the authority of Kiev's new government, analysts say.
For Putin, they say, Ukraine is a battleground not only in geopolitics but in a moral crusade to restore Russian glory and take a stand against what he sees as the decadent liberalism of the United States and Europe.
"Russia will not recognise these elections," said Nikolai Petrov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "Russia will only be satisfied with either some form of control over all of Ukraine or control over the east."
The Kremlin initially dismissed the vote, called after February's ouster of Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych in a pro-European uprising against his rule.
With Russia's annexation of Crimea in March and pro-Moscow rebels now in control of parts of eastern Ukraine, critics say it will be near-impossible for proper nationwide polling to take place.
Moscow has in recent days been more conciliatory, with Putin saying the election was a step in the right direction and one top official describing it as "the lesser of two evils".
But the Kremlin has been vague about whether it will recognise the outcome of the vote.
And experts say the new tone was a tactical move that has less to do with a change of heart than with the Kremlin's hopes of avoiding further sanctions.
- Sanctions biting -
The sanctions, including visa bans and asset freezes imposed by the United States and European Union on dozens of Russian officials, have already been biting.
Russia reported a sharp slowdown in economic growth in the first quarter, the stock market has fallen by 13 percent and more than $100 billion (73 billion euros) in capital has been pulled out of the country.
"There is a feeling that Europe does not want to impose deeper sanctions on Russia and Putin wanted to give an argument to opponents of sanctions," said Maria Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
"This doesn't imply that Russia supports the election in Ukraine... It was a concession but it makes little difference."
Analysts say Russia's softening of its opposition to the vote was also likely a delaying tactic to give the well-armed rebels time to solidify their hold on the eastern industrialised regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Moscow has pushed the idea that the West orchestrated Yanukovych's ouster and Lipman said the Kremlin is trying to create permanent instability in the east to make Ukraine ungovernable for the pro-Western government.
"Russia's goal is long-term: to ensure the downfall of any government and, on the basis of a severe civil conflict, install a government that Moscow can control," she said.
With the short-term goal of Crimea's annexation achieved, Putin can afford to be patient with the rest of Ukraine, experts say.
Putin's poll numbers have risen to dizzying heights, boosted by a wave of patriotism fuelled by the Kremlin-dominated media. An April survey by the independent Levada centre put public support for the president at 82 percent.
Cushioned by his immense popularity, Putin can play the long game in Ukraine, continuing what he sees as a deep-rooted ideological conflict with the West.
- Moscow 'grimly determined' -
The Kremlin wants Ukraine to be an example for other ex-Soviet nations that may want to seek closer ties with the West -- much as the 2008 Georgia war was a reaction to that country's efforts to join NATO.
But on a more visceral level, Putin has taken it upon himself to oppose what he sees as Western dominance and a moral decline in Europe.
"Increasingly in the past few years, Putin has articulated a vision of Russia and its values that is more 19th century conservatism than Soviet nostalgia: proudly anti-Western and anti-liberal," the International Crisis Group said in a report this month.
Moscow is "grimly determined" to pursue the course in Ukraine, it said, even if that means that "for a generation at least, Ukrainians will look on Moscow as a powerful, dangerous neighbour, not a friend or ally."
© 2014 AFP