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What Should the West Make of Putin’s Gambit in Ukraine?

In recent days, Russia has offered conflicting signals about its intentions in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s May 7 comments suggested that the referendums in eastern Ukraine should be postponed and held out the highly caveated possibility that Moscow would accept Ukraine’s May 25 presidential elections, and were seen as a possible change in tone. But ...

By , a senior fellow and the managing director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images
YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images
YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

In recent days, Russia has offered conflicting signals about its intentions in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin's May 7 comments suggested that the referendums in eastern Ukraine should be postponed and held out the highly caveated possibility that Moscow would accept Ukraine's May 25 presidential elections, and were seen as a possible change in tone. But Russia did nothing afterward to urge pro-Russian separatists to call off the referendum or lay down their arms, failing even to pull its troops back from the Ukrainian border as Putin insisted it had.

In a recent article in the American Interest, I offer possible explanations for Putin's gambit and urge that policymakers remain skeptical of his intentions until his words are matched by Moscow's actions. I propose a multi-prong policy of strengthening sanctions, boosting assistance to Kiev, and bolstering NATO's response to Russian aggression in the short run, and taking deeper actions to reduce the vulnerabilities to NATO and Europe exposed by this crisis in the longer run. As I note in the piece, doing so could "once again transform the transatlantic alliance -- which in recent years has seemed almost an anachronism as U.S. foreign policy focused heavily on the Middle East and Asia -- into a source of strength and stability for the world."

In recent days, Russia has offered conflicting signals about its intentions in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s May 7 comments suggested that the referendums in eastern Ukraine should be postponed and held out the highly caveated possibility that Moscow would accept Ukraine’s May 25 presidential elections, and were seen as a possible change in tone. But Russia did nothing afterward to urge pro-Russian separatists to call off the referendum or lay down their arms, failing even to pull its troops back from the Ukrainian border as Putin insisted it had.

In a recent article in the American Interest, I offer possible explanations for Putin’s gambit and urge that policymakers remain skeptical of his intentions until his words are matched by Moscow’s actions. I propose a multi-prong policy of strengthening sanctions, boosting assistance to Kiev, and bolstering NATO’s response to Russian aggression in the short run, and taking deeper actions to reduce the vulnerabilities to NATO and Europe exposed by this crisis in the longer run. As I note in the piece, doing so could "once again transform the transatlantic alliance — which in recent years has seemed almost an anachronism as U.S. foreign policy focused heavily on the Middle East and Asia — into a source of strength and stability for the world."

Michael Singh is a senior fellow and the managing director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was a senior director for Middle East affairs at the U.S. National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @MichaelSinghDC

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