WORLD AFFAIRS.  Vladimir Putin’s maneuverings with the West and Ukraine are often compared to a game of chess. The comparison is spot on, with one qualification. Contrary to the image of grandmaster he prefers, the Russian president more closely resembles a loudmouthed barroom player who slams pieces against the board. The effect is intimidating at first, but the best way to beat him is to take a deep breath, stick to your strategy, and play a consistently offensive and defensive game.

Unfortunately, President Obama isn’t very interested in playing chess with Putin. Maybe the State Department and the Pentagon are, but they’re hamstrung by Obama’s apparent indifference. The European Union, almost by definition, doesn’t play well. Indeed, its member states can’t agree on whether the game is chess, checkers, or soccer.

Putin’s bullying and the West’s non-play give Ukraine’s leaders considerable room for maneuver. If Kyiv had a vision of its future, it could stop reacting to events and attempt to settle the war in eastern Ukraine on its own terms. By announcing bold initiatives, Kyiv could take the initiative and shock Washington and Europe out of their complacency or denial.

Consider the stalemate over the Minsk accords. France and Germany are pressuring Ukraine to hold elections in the occupied Donbas even as the Kremlin negates its end of the bargain by violating the ceasefire, arming Putin’s proxies, repressing freedom of speech and assembly, and controlling the Ukrainian-Russian border. The elections would be a violation of every value France and Germany claim to stand for and only ensure that Russia would become a permanent cancer on Ukraine’s body politic.

Rather than play the endless point and blame game, Kyiv could simply state that it has temporarily suspended its sovereign right to the Donbas enclave and will defer the elections to an appropriate international body. The OSCE or the UN would organize, conduct, and supervise the elections from beginning to end. For its part, Ukraine will accept the results as long as independent international monitors declare that the election process was fair and free.

Better still, President Poroshenko could announce that he supports granting the occupied Donbas the status of a fully sovereign region within a confederal Ukraine. The enclave would have its own government, its own budget, its own police, its own economy, its own laws. Kyiv wouldn’t subsidize the enclave, and the enclave wouldn’t subsidize Kyiv. All that would bind them would be some largely symbolic institution, perhaps a powerless council of elders that would periodically meet, sing songs, and be merry.

Putin and his proxies would be cornered. Putin wants the Donbas to weaken Ukraine. If you isolate the Donbas with a confederacy arrangement, the Kremlin’s ability to infect Ukraine will be nullified. And the proxies couldn’t say no: Ukraine would be giving them far more autonomy than they want. In the end, Ukraine would have a bankrupt criminal state on its border rather than a bankrupt criminal region inside its borders.

If that’s too radical, consider a third way to take the initiative: Poroshenko could declare that Ukraine has “suspended” all efforts to reintegrate the occupied Donbas for, say, ten years. No Minsk, no military, no diplomacy—just freeze  the status quo. After ten years, the OSCE or UN would oversee a referendum on self-determination in the occupied Donbas allowing the citizens to choose to return to Ukraine, remain independent, or join Russia.

Each of these three variants has the inestimable advantage of giving Ukraine the initiative. Kyiv would propose bold solutions that are consistent with human rights and democratic norms, and Russia and the West would have to respond.

Ukrainian elites must seize the initiative. If they don’t counter Putin’s poor chess play with their smart game, they’ll lose.

Alexander J. Motyl's blog

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