Putin not blinking over Ukraine chessboard, but options narrowing
The moves available to President Vladimir Putin as he hunches over the Ukraine chessboard are getting more limited in the game being played against an equally determined West.
But there is no sign the Kremlin chief is about to blink, analysts say.
The ex-KGB officer, described by some as a master short-term tactician but poor long-term strategist over the worsening crisis, may be boxing himself into a corner.
US and EU sanctions, while still too limited to make him step back, have burned some of his closest supporters, and carry the threat of broader punishment should he forge on.
Time is running out if he is thinking of trying to secure victory through brute force -- launching an invasion with the estimated 40,000 troops he has parked on Ukraine's border for nearly two months.
"Putin's problem is time; he cannot wait forever to strike," Ulrich Speck, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Europe think tank, said in an analysis.
"Troops cannot remain ready for combat for many months at a time."
- Invasion 'still on the table'? -
Many observers believe the threat of more sanctions and increased NATO deployments in neighbouring countries could dissuade Putin from ordering an invasion.
But with the March annexation of Crimea serving as a striking lesson of Putin's brazenness, they cannot be sure.
"The potential for a real Russian military invasion in some form still remains on the table," the US-based Jamestown Foundation said in a briefing note.
Still, said Amanda Paul of the European Policy Centre, a Russian invasion "seems less likely as the current state of affairs suits Moscow".
Konstantin Kalachev, head of the Political Expert Group in Moscow, agreed, telling AFP that Russia "doesn't need to do a direct intervention" to achieve its goal of keeping Ukraine as "a buffer between it and NATO".
"Managed chaos will be maintained, and there will be no bloodbath," Kalachev predicted.
Several analysts dismissed Putin's protestations that Russia is not covertly implicated in the insurgency that has torn much of eastern Ukraine away from Kiev's authority.
That authority was weak to begin with, anyway, they point out, because of widespread hostility to the Western-backed Kiev government in an industrial belt close to the Russian border, where most people speak Russian not Ukrainian, and where the regional economy depends on Russian buyers.
Worse, the new Ukrainian government "inherited an inept, corrupt and often disloyal military and police not capable of defending the country or upholding the rule of law," Paul said.
That cold fact appears to have been borne out by the ease with which pro-Russian militants have overrun more than a dozen towns and cities in the east.
"If nothing changes, Ukraine won't be able to keep the east," said Volodymyr Fesenko, an analyst at the Ukrainian research centre Penta.
- A long game -
Yet the aim of the militants to drag the region closer to Russia is not shared by all those living in the east. According to a mid-April poll by Kiev's Institute for International Sociology, 70 percent of the region is against coming under Russian control.
That raises questions over a regional May 11 "referendum" the insurgents want to hold on independence.
But, perhaps more importantly, their grip on much of the east will create major obstacles for the government in Kiev when it tries to carry out a nationwide May 25 presidential election -- which may be precisely what the Kremlin is trying to achieve.
"Putin's aim is not to allow a legitimate power to take over in Ukraine, and continue to break up the country," said Volodymyr Gorbatch, of Ukraine's Euratlantic Cooperation Institute.
Recent days have seen the pro-Kremlin militants grabbing more public buildings in towns, especially police departments and town halls.
But Kiev has struck back with a more focused "anti-terrorist" operation that seeks to contain the seizures.
If Putin "escalates the situation further, he faces the risk of setting off uncontrolled violence in Ukraine," warned John Lough, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at London's Chatham House.
"Conflict of this kind would not necessarily stop at the Russian border."
The West's best play at this time would be to shine the spotlight on the benefits that reforms and modernisation would bring a united Ukraine, Lough said.
It would be a long game, but one that could eventually beat Russia's strongarm tactics.
Throughout all the intense manoeuvring, both sides would do well to heed the words of Alexander Alekhine, a Russian-born chess champion in the early 20th century.
He said that he had to work hard to "eradicate the dangerous delusion" that he could "conjure up some unexpected combination to extricate" himself from a losing position.
Objectivity, he added, was the key to playing chess.
Which should be a leitmotif also for those engaged in this current, high-stakes geopolitical struggle.
© 2014 AFP