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(RNN) - Two American experts on eastern Europe who will be in Ukraine just before and during the May 25 elections agree that Vladimir Putin will not be swayed from undermining the Ukrainian government through economic sanctions alone.
In fact, the president of Russia has most likely already calculated the economic costs associated with his Ukraine policy, and is being motivated by an idea much more important even than the billions of dollars his adventure in Ukraine is costing Russia.
Roger Shermenta, an economics professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH, says Putin definitely realizes the fact that Russia is losing millions of dollars every day the Ukraine conflict persists. But he simply may not care, said Shermenta, an expert in behavioral economics.
Shermenta will actually be in Ukraine's capital of Kiev the day before the scheduled elections to visit family and Independence Square. "… we have to realize that Russian people are used to living under hard economic conditions and are resilient to hardship," Sheremeta said. "Putin knows this as well. Therefore, it is likely to be the case that economic sanctions alone may not be enough to stop his aggression in Ukraine."
Matthew Schmidt, an assistant professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, will be in Ukraine monitoring the May elections that are being overseen by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
He believes Putin has the advantage in the conflict and Western policymakers are playing catch up. "Putin had planned this out five moves ahead," he said.
He says Putin is driven by the goal of rebuilding a Euroasian empire with Moscow as its capital. Putin also has written extensively on the subject of Euroasia, which would generally follow the geography of the former Soviet Union. Bringing Ukraine into Moscow's camp would be crucial to seeing that dream come to reality.
Schmidt added that it is hard for most Americans to understand the history behind Ukraine, the capital Kiev, and the value of the nation to the former KGB officer. Schmidt holds a Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University and an M.A. in Russian Studies from the University of Kansas.
Putin's view of Ukraine
Kiev was the center of a Russian empire some 1,000 years ago before there was a meaningful Moscow, Schmidt said. "Kievan Rus was that larger empire that existed around 1,000 AD," he said. "Ukraine is just not another country to Russia, but it is a psychological place. Americans don't understand this because we don't have a sacred place."
Where Putin held the ceremony bringing Crimea into Russia is significant. Schmidt said Putin spoke of Euroasia in a speech in Saint George Hall in the Kremlin, where he also signed the documents bringing Crimea into Russia earlier this spring. Saint George is a saint of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Saint George ribbons also are being worn by pro-Russian forces as emblems of their movement in eastern Ukraine.
In addition, Novorossiya, or "New Russia" is a term Putin has used to describe Ukraine. The name goes back to the days of Russian empress Catherine the Great and the 1700s. She depopulated the region of the Cossacks and repopulated it with ethnic Russians and Germans. The Cossacks went to Crimea, Schmidt said.
For Putin, regaining Crimea for Russia also corrected a mistake from the past. In 1954, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea from the Republic of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine. At the time the USSR, or Soviet Union, had independent republics and Khrushchev, who was fond of Ukraine, gave Crimea to Ukraine.
Olena Nikolayenko, an assistant professor of political science at Fordham University and native of Ukraine, says Putin's actions in Ukraine show he's obsessed with the Euroasian dream. "Putin is determined to establish the Eurasian Union on the territory of the former Soviet Union," the professor of international political science at Fordham said. "He wants to enter Russian history as a political leader who brought back under the Russian control territories formerly ruled by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union."
Ukraine elections pivotal
Schmidt and Shermenta both believe that the upcoming elections can be successfully held, and neither is worried about their own safety in the volatile country despite what NATO says are 40,000 Russian soldiers perched on the Ukrainian border.
"I don't worry about my safety. We will be international observers," Schmidt said. "It would not do any good to harass us. What's happening right now is that there is a war being waged in eastern Ukraine. It's the same model as in Crimea."
Shermenta optimistically said that despite the news of anarchy in eastern Ukraine, it is definitely possible to hold presidential elections in Ukraine. "It is necessary to do so," he said. "There are only several eastern regions that are impacted by riots. And even in those regions there only certain cities, such as Sloviansk, in which it would be difficult to hold a vote. Recent polls indicate that the elections would have very high attendance and would de-escalate the conflict."
Moreover, if the parliament votes to hold a constitutional referendum at the same time as presidential elections, it would definitely increase the chances of successful elections, he said.
Schmidt said pro-Russian agitators are being buttressed by Russian military contractors and all are being directed by the Kremlin. Schmidt will be traveling to Ukraine on May 20.
The 25 May election will decide who will be president and whether a new constitution is ratified. The election will be overseen by the OSCE, which has monitored elections in Ukraine before. Schmidt said the presidential election is a majority-vote election with a runoff likely.
Putin's goals for vote
Putin has one of two aims in mind for the vote, Schmidt said.
One is for the vote to end with the eastern region of Ukraine becoming an autonomous republic that Moscow can control while still being a part of Ukraine. "That way Putin would have control over territories without having burden of paying pensions and roads. Russia is poor. Putin's first hope is to create enough mayhem in the east and south to force the constitution writers to grant these areas de-facto independence," Schmidt said. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the Ukraine prime minister, is leading a team drafting a new version of the constitution, and he's running out of time to have it ready to be voted on in the elections.
A second outcome that would please Putin is to create an election-day atmosphere so tumultuous that he can label the election illegitimate. "His fallback, which he's working on simultaneously, is to challenge the legitimacy of any vote that does take place by keeping large numbers of people from voting, thus calling into question the validity of the referendum," Schmidt said.
Putin can accomplish that by increasing the chaos in eastern Ukraine thus keeping people from the polls, especially ethnic Russians, and use low turnout numbers to justifying rejecting the results, Schmidt said.
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