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Ukraine’s New President Faces Persistent Challenges

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By William Tucker
Chief Correspondent for In Homeland Security

Petro Poroshenko has been elected as the new president of Ukraine despite some challenges to the democratic process in the east. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) sent monitors to Ukraine for the election and has certified the results as free and fair. Even Russia accepted the results without reservation, though they did add that Moscow will continue to call for an end to security operations against pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine.

Naturally, the separatists in the east will be Poroshenko’s first challenge though pressing economic issues will continue to challenge the new government as it did the old. Indeed, one day after the election pro-Russian militants seized the Donetsk airport and Poroshenko didn’t waste any time in sending forces in to take back control. The new president has seemingly doubled down on the use of force against separatist militancy – a move likely to hinder any efforts to diplomatically reconcile with Russia.

However, Russian influence among the rebels is considered sufficient enough that it is highly likely that the suggestion to seize the airport in the first place may have originated in Moscow. Poroshenko’s immediate move to take the airport back so violently – an estimated 50 rebels were killed in the operation – may up the ante in the standoff with Ukraine’s much larger neighbor.

Though it seems easy enough to describe the current situation it becomes more difficult in accessing what comes next. As Poroshenko increases the intensity with which he fights the separatists, it becomes increasingly worrisome that Russia may feel compelled to act beyond sending in disguised Russian soldiers, advanced arms, and perhaps foreign volunteers to fight Kiev. In other words, the threshold for a Russian conventional invasion becomes less clear.

In Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Crimea, Moscow moved in assets rapidly to tip the balance in its favor, but in eastern Ukraine the pace for Russian intervention has been slow, and at times, clumsy. At this point in time the Kremlin seems to be opting for caution, however that can change at a moment’s notice if Russia deems the violence in Ukraine as approaching unacceptable levels.

For now, Moscow wants to take a cautious approach as it looks at other former Soviet states in its near abroad that may be engaging in behavior that is deemed threatening to Russia. Overextending its forces and attention in Ukraine could allow for the U.S. and Washington’s allied partners time to focus on a more coherent response to Russia’s moves.

For Russia, a little caution now may prevent any unnecessary blowback, and as such, Moscow will continue to offer chances for engagement with the new government in Kiev as it monitors the violence between Ukraine and its separatist movements.

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