"I left a candle for those who died defending people in
Novorossiya," he told reporters after emerging from the Church of
the Holy Trinity on a Moscow hilltop.
This act, and his use of the historical title meaning "New Russia"
for eastern Ukraine, said more than anything else in recent days
about his thinking on the five-month-old conflict between Ukrainian
forces and pro-Russian separatists.
His remarks signaled nothing has changed in his fiercely patriotic
view of the crisis, despite a ceasefire deal he backed on Sept. 5,
and appeared intended to show the Russian public he is not about to
abandon the rebels' cause.
Even if Putin may be posturing, his comments do not augur well for
prospects of building on the deal reached in the Belarussian capital
Minsk and securing a lasting settlement between Ukrainian President
Petro Poroshenko and the rebels.
"As long as it's useful for both Putin and Poroshenko, the Minsk
agreement will be carried out even if there are deaths," said Vadim
Karasayev, director of the Institute of Global Politics in the
Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
Although both leaders have good reason for a pause in hostilities
now, it is not clear how long the truce will suit their needs -
Trust between the two nations is low and the leaders have radically
opposing long-term goals, meaning few people are betting on the
marriage of convenience between Poroshenko and Putin lasting long.
"They can only agree on a ceasefire, the agreement can be partially
implemented and they can move down the path of slowly freezing the
conflict," said Volodymr Fesenko of the Penta think tank in Kiev.
The ceasefire, which is frayed but has broadly held, appeared at
first to have come out of the blue.
An announcement by Putin on Sept. 3 that he had drawn up seven steps
to peace, on which he thought a ceasefire deal could be reached in
two days, came as a surprise, against a background of heavy fighting
and rebel advances in southeastern Ukraine.
In fact, the agreement followed weeks of telephone diplomacy in
which European leaders appear to have had a role in mediating
indirectly between the Ukrainian and Russian leaders, and the two
presidents became the driving force behind it.
Poroshenko wanted a deal as he was reeling from setbacks on the
battlefield after what he said was an injection of Russian troops
and weapons to support the separatists in August.
Putin had concerns of his own, not least growing economic problems
accelerated by Western sanctions and the danger that his support
would fall if his public saw Russian soldiers coming home in coffins
in large numbers.
Even so, the alpha-male former KGB agent and softly spoken
billionaire chocolate manufacturer make an odd couple, with little
to unite them beyond the tactical need of a ceasefire.
They broke the ice with a 15-minute meeting hosted by French
President Francois Hollande during a World War Two anniversary event
in northern France on June 6, less than two weeks after Poroshenko
was elected president.
The meeting led to talk of a ceasefire and Putin said Poroshenko had
the "right approach" to the conflict. It proved a false start,
though, as the ceasefire turned out to be only a truce by Ukrainian
forces that lasted just 10 days.
Quiet diplomacy continued without much sign of success as Kiev's
forces pushed the rebels back throughout June and July, leaving the
separatist fighters controlling little more than the cities of
Donetsk and Luhansk and on the brink of defeat.
The tide turned again in late August, after NATO and Kiev said
columns of Russian troops had poured across the border to back the
rebels. By the end of the month, the rebels had taken the
southeastern city of Novoazovsk and were advancing on the port city
of Mariupol, a gateway to southern Ukraine.
By then, however, Kremlin statements on Putin's telephone calls with
foreign leaders showed the focus of discussions with foreign leaders
had shifted from the "humanitarian situation" to "the peaceful
regulation of the political crisis in Ukraine", indicating a peace
plan was taking shape by mid-August.
Putin spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel by phone four times
in August, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso three
times and Hollande twice. Four calls with Belarussian President
Alexander Lukashenko in August before the Minsk meetings suggest the
talks were in the works for weeks.
Attention shifted increasingly in the calls to the so-called Contact
Group bringing together envoys from Kiev, Moscow and the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe watchdog as well
as the rebels - the group that eventually signed the ceasefire.
MAN TO DO BUSINESS WITH
Putin sent a clear signal that a deal could be worked out with
Poroshenko on Aug. 31, praising him in an interview as a man with
whom he could "do business".
[to top of second column]
By then, Poroshenko appears to have concluded that he could not
defeat the rebels quickly - if at all - and needed a halt to the
conflict to allow him time to tackle a growing economic crisis and
prepare for a parliamentary election next month.
Putin also had reasons to seek a deal, having achieved the immediate
goal of preventing the separatists being crushed, a defeat that
would have embarrassed the Kremlin and could have undermined Putin's
strongman image in Russia.
The rebel push in late August provided what some analysts said was a
"battlefield draw" and a face-saving way out for Putin - a vital
ingredient for any deal.
Putin also had reason to worry about
Russia's economic slide since the European Union and the United
States imposed sanctions on Moscow and a possible dent to his
stellar popularity ratings if the Russian death toll in Ukraine
Public support for Putin is high because of the seizure in March of
Crimea, a Russian territory until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev
gave it to Ukraine 70 years ago. But this could change if the
conflict drags on and many Russians are killed.
The independent Levada polling group said in August public support
in Russia for direct military intervention in Ukraine had fallen by
nearly half from March, noting that Russians would hardly want to
"see their young men's coffins" coming home after the first reports
of Russians being killed in action in Ukraine.
Putin ultimately came to see Poroshenko as better to work with than
what he calls the "party of war" in Ukraine, identified by Moscow as
led by Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk and including his ally,
former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
"Putin is now betting on Poroshenko ... as Russia's best (available)
partner for securing an acceptable settlement," said long-term
Russia analyst Christopher Granville of London-based Trusted Sources
research and consulting group.
Although Russia says it is not a party to the conflict, Putin and
Poroshenko underlined Moscow's central role in peace efforts and
their commitment to the truce by speaking by phone three times in
the first four days after the Minsk agreement.
Putin's long-term commitment and goals are less clear, and this is
why the EU and the United states have maintained the threat of
sanctions since the ceasefire was agreed.
Western leaders are particularly sceptical of the timing of the
announcement of Putin's peace overtures - on the eve of a NATO
summit which had Ukraine on the agenda and before an EU decision on
whether to tighten sanctions.
Poroshenko's most important goals include restoring Ukraine's
economic well-being, keeping the country whole and restoring lasting
peace and independence. He has offered the mostly Russian-speaking
rebel regions much more autonomy than before but ruled out letting
them break away completely.
Putin's key condition for any outcome in Ukraine is that it does not
join NATO, which Russia would regard as a security threat. Kiev has
said this is not its goal although it has signed an agreement
strengthening ties with the EU.
Putin also wants to maintain influence in Ukraine, a country of
about 45 million before Russia annexed Crimea in March, a month
after Kiev overthrew a president sympathetic to Russia following
months of protests over his pro-Moscow stance.
His best way of doing so could be through "freezing" the conflict in
eastern Ukraine without a lasting solution.
Moscow has done this in other territorial conflicts in former Soviet
republics such in Moldova's Transdniestria region and the rebellious
Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
"The ceasefire deal was done on Putin's terms. Poroshenko was under
the gun and he understood the economic state the country is in and
was worried that it all could simply crumble under his feet," a
Western diplomat in Moscow said.
"The ceasefire preserves an excellent position for the separatists
if and when negotiations on a lasting settlement happen."
(Additional reportign by Jason Bush, Thomas Grove and Lidia Kelly in
Moscow and by Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, Editing by Elizabeth Piper and
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.