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Associated Press analysis: Putin cornered over Ukraine

By Vladimir Isachenkov

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, July 31 2014 12:02 p.m. MDT

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during a meeting outside the Tzar Pushka ( Tzar Cannon) in Moscow's Kremlin, Russia, Thursday, July 31, 2014. Putin on Thursday presented state awards to cosmonauts, lawmakers, journalists and others.

RIA Novosti Kremlin, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service, Associated Press

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MOSCOW — For Russian President Vladimir Putin, there are few options left in the Ukraine crisis and they all look bad.

He is caught between a determined West demanding that he disavow the pro-Russian insurgents in Ukraine and increasingly assertive nationalists at home urging him to champion the mutiny and send in the Russian army.

The Malaysian plane disaster this week triggered another round of U.S. and EU sanctions, which for the first time targeted entire sectors of the Russian economy, severely limiting Putin's room for maneuver. He may be eager to sever ties with the rebels, but he would need to find a way to do so that would allow him to save face — an exceedingly hard task amid growing Western pressure.

Bowing to Western demands would potentially spell political suicide for the Russian leader, who has built his popularity on standing up to the West. Under pressure, he may choose instead to escalate the crisis and risk an all-out confrontation.

Putin didn't plan for it to happen this way.

Last fall, he used a combination of pressure and subsidies to prevent Ukraine from signing an association agreement with the EU and lure it into a Moscow-led alliance. When mass protests chased the Russian-leaning Ukrainian president from power in February, Putin saw it as a Western plot against Russia and quickly moved to annex Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea to head off what he said was the imminent threat of Ukraine joining NATO.

Putin then sought to maintain pressure on the West by fomenting a pro-Russian insurgency that flared up in Ukraine's mostly Russian-speaking industrial east in April, apparently hoping that a slow-burning conflict would help persuade the West to strike a compromise that would allow Russia to keep Ukraine in its orbit.

That strategy has failed. The West, especially Europe, long showed unwillingness to take a strong punitive stand against Putin. But the downing of the Malaysian passenger plane was the unforeseen event that overturned the dynamic, and compelled the West to act.

It appears that the Russian leader now is desperately looking for a way out from the crisis in hopes of containing the gravest threat to his rule to date. Here are some possible scenarios that may play out:

RUSSIA STRIKES COMPROMISE

From the start, Putin wanted to a deal with a West that would allow Russia to maintain its leverage over Ukraine, and he has steadily tempered his ambitions.

At the onset of the turmoil, Putin hoped that Ukraine would join a Russia-dominated economic alliance. When such hopes evaporated with the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, Moscow began pushing for a "federalization" of Ukraine that would give broad powers to its provinces and allow them to deal directly with Moscow. Rebels later backed those demands by conducting independence referendums that both Ukraine and the West declared a sham.

The Kremlin then softened its rhetoric and started calling vaguely for a "dialogue" between the central government and the regions that would give the provinces a bigger say over local issues.

Now with his hand weakened by the plane disaster, Putin may be eager to accept any vague deal that would allow Moscow to maintain just a symbolic degree of influence. Such a deal, however, would have to involve concessions by both parties, something that is hard to achieve amid continuing fighting and growing distrust.

The West has demanded that the Kremlin disown the rebellion in eastern Ukraine. While Putin may despise the ragtag band of retired Russian officers and Moscow political consultants that have helped foment the mutiny, it would be hard for him to distance himself from them without denting his support base.

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