Has Vladimir Putin’s writ stopped running in eastern Ukraine? Probably not, even though the separatists in eastern Ukraine hoisting the Russian flag on government buildings refused to take his advice offered yesterday to postpone a referendum on independence. Forces in Donetsk and Luhansk announced that the plebiscite would take place anyway, although the methodology will hardly be credible:
Pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine decided to go ahead with a Sunday referendum on greater local powers, they said Thursday, defying a call by Russian President Vladimir Putin to postpone the vote.
Putin had urged the pro-Russia sympathizers to delay the May 11 referendum in order to give dialogue “the conditions it needs to have a chance.”
Representatives from the council of the self-declared Donetsk’s People’s Republic and separatists from Luhansk told reporters they have voted to press ahead with the referendum to ask eastern Ukrainian residents living there if they want sovereignty from Kiev. …
Asked about Putin’s plea on Wednesday as pressure mounts to defuse the escalating Ukrainian crisis, Denis Pushilin, the self-declared chairman of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said the comments were “surprising” but he respected him.
Just how, exactly, will this plebiscite take place? Who gets to vote, and how? Rebels may have taken over government buildings, but they haven’t assumed governance yet. Ukrainian security forces are still within the “precincts,” which will make organizing a vote in three days just a wee bit problematic, to say the least. Putin’s “advice” was more than just a late nod to diplomacy; it also was a recognition of reality.
The West continued to be unimpressed with Putin as well. This morning, NATO’s top civilian officer said he sees no evidence that Putin has withdrawn Russian forces from the border of Ukraine, nearly a day after Putin claimed to have done so:
“Let me assure you that if we get visible evidence that they are actually pulling back their troops, I will be the very first to welcome it,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Warsaw.
“I have to repeat that while we have noticed the Russian statements that they have started to withdraw troops, so far we haven’t seen any, any indications that they’re pulling back,” he said after talks with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
Late yesterday, Barack Obama withdrew Russia’s favored trading status two years ahead of schedule, increasing the economic pressure on Putin — at least a little. Obama didn’t mention the Ukraine crisis in his letter informing Congress of the change, but the White House connected the dots afterward:
President Obama on Wednesday announced that he was removing Russia from a list of countries whose exports receive preferential treatment when entering the U.S. Goods coming from countries that are part of the Generalized System of Preferences are allowed into the U.S. on a duty-free basis in order to “promote economic growth in the developing world,” according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
In a message to Congress delivered Wednesday, The President wrote, “I have determined that it is appropriate to withdraw Russia’s designation as a beneficiary developing country under the GSP program because Russia is sufficiently advanced in economic development and improved in trade competitiveness that continued preferential treatment under the GSP is not warranted.”
Caitlin Hayden, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said that Russia had been scheduled to come off the list in early 2016, but that the president had determined to make the move ahead of schedule. “Russia’s actions regarding Ukraine, while not directly related to the president’s decision regarding Russia’s eligibility for GSP benefits, make it particularly appropriate to take this step now,” she said.
While not a crippling blow, trade with the U.S. accounts for a non-trivial 5 percent of Russia’s total exports, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Observatory of Economic Complexity.
It’s not a crippling blow, but it’s the first indication we’ve seen of systemic sanctions against Moscow rather than just targeted sanctions against Putin’s cronies. It also signals that the White House isn’t buying Putin’s claims of withdrawal. This moves comes late, but it’s still worth taking — and hopefully will soon be followed by more economic isolation to slow down Putin’s ambitions for a new Russian empire.