What's Putin's Plan In Ukraine?

After the ousting of President Yanukovych, Ukraine faces an uncertain future. The country's fate may depend on Vladimir Putin's response.

By Matt Picht | February 23, 2014

The violence and mayhem that recently rocked Ukraine's capital Kiev has subsided for the moment.

Anti-government protesters control the city, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has been ousted and the opposition-led parliament has assumed control of the government. (Via ITN)

But while Kiev no longer resembles a battlefield, Ukraine's future is far from settled. And what lies ahead for the former Soviet country may rest in the hands of one man: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

REMNICK: "If you look through Putin’s eyes specifically, this is his area of interest. It's not the United States, and even not to Europe."

ZAKARIA: "He's not going to let it go quietly."

REMNICK: "Absolutely not." (Via CNN)

The Ukrainian crisis has been framed as a struggle between East and West, largely because protests began only after Yanukovych spurned a trade deal with the E.U. in favor of a Russian bailout. (Via Channel 4)

And while Western coverage of the clashes between protesters and authorities tended to focus on police violence and activist suppression, Russian media outlets concentrated on showing the violence and destruction inflicted by the protesters. (Via Euronews, RT)

Some Western politicians seized on the opposition’s triumph Sunday as a warning for Putin to keep out of Ukraine.

MCCAIN: "If I were Vladimir Putin today, at the end of the Olympics, I'd be a little nervous." (Via CBS)

But few observers think Putin will willingly walk away from the country.

An analyst for the BBC points out Ukraine is central to Putin's plans for a Eurasian Union trade bloc to rival the European Union. "If you don't have Ukraine in the tent, Putin's Eurasian project is really just Moscow and a bunch of central Asian dictators."

And a writer for The Guardian notes Putin has invested a lot of energy in keeping the former Soviet Republic inside Russia's sphere of influence. "What Moscow views as a western-backed 'coup' is a personal humiliation for Russia's pugnacious leader. He will not take it lightly."

So, what are Putin's options for protecting his interests in Ukraine?

Well, his main leverage is economic: Ukraine's economy is in freefall, and the shape of Ukraine's new government might affect Russia’s willingness to bail the country out. (Via The Voice of Russia)

Putin's other option is to use force.

For all the images of protests we've seen, it's important to remember not all of Ukraine favors Europe over Russia. As this map from The Washington Post points out, many people in the region consider Russian their native language.

The idea that Putin might try to take some of those territories by force has already been floated by some Russian media outlets. (Via The Moscow Times)

Though if Putin decides to go that route, things could get ugly, fast. On Meet the Press, National Security Adviser Susan Rice cautioned Putin against sending troops into Ukraine.

"That would be a grave mistake. It's not in the interest of Ukraine, or of Russia, or of Europe or of the United States to see the country split. It's in nobody's interest to see violence return." (Via NBC)

If the Kremlin does make a move, it likely won't involve Yanukovych. A Russian analyst says Putin has given up on the former Ukrainian president, whom he views as "unreliable and slippery." (Via Russia in Global Affairs)

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