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You're reading: John Lloyd: Has Putin overplayed his hand?

Two reports from important European think tanks, out in early December - "The EU and the East," from the left-leaning German think tank, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) and "What will happen with Eastern Ukraine," from the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) - are witness to the state of mind among European policy elites on Ukraine, and on Russia. That state of mind, on this evidence, is profoundly anxious: seeing a future in which the vast problems to the east of the EU's borders are insoluble; and the fact that they are so resistant to cure both testifies to the union's weakness, and deepens it.

The reports both use the "scenario" method: that is, they describe differing futures (four in each case) for Ukraine,  for Russia and for the EU. The scenario way of looking at the future is useful in that it makes it reasonably clear on what conditions the forecast outcome is based. The choice means there isn't one definitive forecast, of the kind which are presently popular, forecasting either disaster of all-out war, or gradual 'normalisation' of the   situation on the ground - that is, the swallowing of Crimea by Russia, and the continued de facto separation of the Donbas region from the rest of Ukraine,under the rule of pro-Russian forces (no-one forecasts a return to the status quo before the Russian moves).

Instead, on its best scenario, the ECFR concedes Crimea to Russia, delicately describing it as "an unresolved issue"- but sees the return of the eastern districts to Kiev's rule and the withdrawal of military hardware from the region, as set out in the Minsk Agreement. Because Minsk was largely a Russian initiative, it could argue that it is simply observing its terms - and after all, it has Crimea.

That's the best it gets: the ECFR scenarios grow worse thereafter. There's the "frozen conflict' - the world already has several of these - which would mean implicitly  conceding Crimea, and cordoning off the Donbas without further conflict - no attempts by Ukraine to repossess it, no attempts by the Russian-backed forces to expand it. Ukraine might - as some commentators have argued it should -  turn the tables on Russia and abandon Donbas entirely - "that would free up Kyiv to focus on reforms and spare it a real economic and social burden". But Russia wouldn't want that: hence scenario three could be Russia retaining the fiction that Donbas is still an integral part of Ukraine, but extending its control to open up a land corridor to Crimea, even to create "Novorossiya" proper, with most of the east and south under rebel governance.

Finally, there's the return of what the Russian administration believes is the best of all possible words - de facto veto power over the foreign and defense policies of Ukraine, and thus its subordination of any Kyiv government to Kremlin policies. That could be achieved without extending control over Donbas - even, conceivably, by giving up formal ownership of Crimea, though this is highly unlikely. The key victory would be the explicit subordination of Kyiv to Moscow, for this government and, as far as it can be assured, future governments too.

The FES scenarios are broader, and are more concerned with the relationship of the future between the EU and Russia - given that the present relationship is in "the deepest crisis since the end of the Cold War". Thus the  ideal future is one in which Europe, defined in its broadest terms - from Atlantic to Pacific - lives in a shared home, in which, gradually, the pressure is lessened, neither the EU nor Nato seeks expansion into Ukraine (whatever Ukraine wants), Russia, after the departure of President Putin from the scene in 2024, re-opens channels for dialogue, initiates economic reforms and a trade agreement, taking in the EU and all of the former Soviet states.This means that they no longer need to choose between the EU and Russia. It also assumes that the EU stays together, and that some economic dynamism returns to its members.

This in turn paves the way for a transformed relationship, in which negotiations resolve the issues between Ukraine and Russia (except Crimea, of course); everyone reforms their economies and returns to stable growth; energy wars de-escalate as oil and gas become less important and all sides recognize that they have a common home, with common threats which they should face together.

Scenarios three and four are the dark sides. The slightly lighter is a "divided home," a cold peace, where west-central Europe and the former USSR live separately, distrustfully, with   constant but containable conflicts over the rival integration projects and slow and partial economic transformation - leaving both sides lagging behind the US in the West and China in the east. Darkest of all - a "broken home", constant conflict in which Ukraine and Russia are the two main combatants, no agreements between the two sides and a resumption of the two armed camps of the Cold War.

There's some comfort here: the brighter scenarios are possible, if more goes right than wrong. But they assume a coherent and efficient government in Kyiv which can retain support for deep and painful reforms; aid to Ukraine to stop a financial collapse, which is now looming; and a Kremlin regime which does not act in accordance with the West's worst fears - that is, to at all costs control Ukraine, and as much as possible of the surrounding republics, by pressure if possible, by force if not.

Scenario planning has its limits.

One of these is speculation on the relationship between Putin and his own citizens - as the Russian crisis deepens, and the business class, some members of which were created by Putin himself,  suffer under sanctions and put pressure on the president to seek to end them.

At the same time, Russians,especially those in the middle class who have become used to yearly increases in their living standards, now face real cuts, real price rises, real unemployment: and thus the return of a radical opposition to the streets, as in 2011, is again a possibility. The better hopes depend heavily on a Russian president - by far the major player - realizing that he has overstretched his resources and oversold his power, and is able to make an orderly retreat.

How sure can we be of that?

John Lloyd is a journalist, presently contributing editor to the Financial Times, where he has been labor editor, industrial editor, East European editor and Moscow bureau chief.

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