That aim, his own reflections and those of people close to his way
of thinking seem to indicate, is one day to re-unite Russian
speaking peoples, including those living within the borders of
Ukraine, within one common home.
As a skilled tactician, Putin knows that to push too fast to achieve
this ambition could be damaging for Russia — as demonstrated by the
Western threat of tough sanctions and Europe's rush to wean itself
off Russian gas supplies.
Signing the four-way agreement on Ukraine in Geneva last week, and
thereby showing the West that it was willing to compromise, made
tactical sense for Russia.
With another four years before he needs to seek re-election, and the
strong chance of winning another 6-year term after that, Putin can
take his time, giving him an advantage over his Western rivals whose
policies are driven by more short-term imperatives.
"Now the main thing is to keep the powder dry and be prepared for
the eventuality that the crisis in Ukraine is going to last a long
time," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a
journal which has the Russian foreign minister on its editorial
"Agreements will be broken and then made again. Russia, for once, is
not on the defensive, it is advancing. That means it doesn't have to
get flustered and can keep plowing its furrow."
Putin's long game means he is unlikely to actively seek to involve
Russian in an armed conflict over Ukraine any time soon.
But equally, it means that European states will have to adapt to a
long-term future when persistent sanctions complicate their trade
relations and with the threat of disruption to their Russian gas
supplies hanging over them constantly.
The Kremlin's official objectives in Ukraine are limited: protecting
Russia's own security, countering NATO expansion, and helping
Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine if they come under threat of
persecution. Russia denies any plans to invade.
Last week at Geneva's InterContinental Hotel, chief diplomats from
Russia, the European Union, the United States and Ukraine signed a
document calling on illegal armed groups in Ukraine — including the
pro-Russian separatists occupying more than a dozen public buildings — to disarm and go home.
By Sunday, the deal was already fraying, after several people were
killed in a shootout at a checkpoint manned by separatists. Russia
blamed Kiev for failing to implement the Geneva deal.
Still, people close to the talks said they were notable because it
was the first time, in multiple attempts, that Russian's foreign
minister, Sergei Lavrov, has sat down for discussions on Ukraine
with a mandate to do a deal.
But one European diplomat expressed skepticism, saying the agreement
was a feint by Moscow.
By showing it was prepared to talk, the diplomat said, the Kremlin
relieved the diplomatic pressure that was building, and bought some
time before further sanctions were imposed.
"Talks and compromises are just part of his (Putin's) tactics," said
the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity and stressed he
was expressing his private opinion. "He wants to have Ukraine."
Russia's offer of compromise could widen differences inside the
Western coalition assembled against the Kremlin, something that
would only benefit the Kremlin.
[to top of second column]
There are already differences between the United States, which is
hawkish on sanctions, and a more cautious Europe where many
countries are determined to avoid a costly confrontation.
Behind the standard, official Kremlin line on its objectives in
Ukraine, when Putin or his associates offer up occasional glimpses
of what he is thinking, evidence emerges of a more expansive set of
On Thursday, during a question and answer session that was televised
live, Putin at one point reflected on how during tsarist rule, large
parts of eastern and southern Ukraine belonged to Russia and were
known as Novorossiya — literally, New Russia.
"All these were territories which were handed over to Ukraine in the
1920s by the Soviet government. Why they did that, God knows," he
Those remarks were a brief interlude in a program which lasted just
short of four hours and covered dozens of topics, but they were
noted by Kremlin-watchers as highly significant.
"Now the aim is Novorossiya," Andrei Illarionov, a former economic
advisor to Putin who is now a critic, wrote on his blog, setting out
what he believes is the Kremlin's thinking. "It is the historic
mission of the Russian person."
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov, when asked to elaborate on what
Putin had meant by his comments on "Novorossiya" and Tsarist-era
borders, declined to comment.
The thesis of a Russian nation divided by artificial national
borders has been developed by people who are close to Putin's way of
thinking. These include senior figures in the Russian Orthodox
Putin displayed his closeness to the church on Saturday night when
he appeared at an Easter service in Moscow's Church of Christ the
Saviour, and received a personal blessing from Patriarch Kirill,
leader of the church.
"Millions of Russian people live, and continue to live, in Ukraine,
several million Ukrainians continue to live in Russia," said
Metropolitan Hilarion, head of the church's external relations
department and one of the patriarch's closest aides.
"We have a common language, a common culture, we have a common past
and I believe deeply that we have a common future," he said in
comments posted on the church's Internet site.
"The political state of affairs which replaces simple common sense,
interferes in people's fates, destroys them, and like a knife cuts
through human relationships, tearing the ties between peoples, is,
after all, only temporary in nature."
(Editing by Peter Graff)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.