RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Just weeks ago, it looked like Russia might extend its control of the Ukrainian region of Crimea to other areas of Ukraine. But now the Ukrainian Army has pushed out pro-Russian separatists from most of the cities and towns the rebels had seized. And the Kremlin, once so vocal, has gone quiet.
For a look at the turnaround, we reached Professor Stephen Sestanovich. He's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: Morning.
MONTAGNE: Well, when it comes to Ukraine, what happened?
SESTANOVICH: Well, you know, since the last time a lot of people checked in on this issue, there have been some surprising positive developments. People were thinking Ukraine was a lost cause, that it's army could not do anything, that it's government was hopelessly divided and incompetent. That Putin was just going to roll over everybody.
Since then, you have had an elected president of Ukraine with a fresh popular mandate. You've had a more effective-looking army. You've had divisions among the separatists, who are, now really fighting with each other, as much as with Ukrainians. You've had sagging Russian enthusiasm for this effort. The polls show a significant increase in opposition to the idea of military involvement in Eastern Ukraine. And so, Putin seems to be, kind of stalling, and trying to figure out how to disengage from this mess; while the Ukrainian government is on a tear.
MONTAGNE: Did the sanctions against Russia have any effect?
SESTANOVICH: They probably had some effect. But probably the biggest development was discovering that within these eastern regions in Ukraine, there wasn't a whole lot of popular support for secession; not to speak of for the civil war that would be involved in actually making secession happen. So, Putin discovered that after what seemed like a really big and easy win in Crimea, this was going to be a long slog with lots of headaches. Lots of opposition from the West, internally in Ukraine, and even more, increasingly, in Russia.
MONTAGNE: Is this going to hurt Putin? I mean, has he made what you might think of as a bad chess move there in Ukraine?
SESTANOVICH: I think Putin has made a terrible chess move. It will help us to get him a little more in perspective. We tend to think of him as a brilliant strategist. Actually, there's been lots of blundering here. But, it hasn't really affected his core popularity in Russia. The polls still show approval ratings in the '80s. And yet, that has not kept people from beginning to question the entire effort.
MONTAGNE: The Ukraine military is still facing a separatist holdout in a very large city of a million people, Donetsk, and another city. Is that a kind of last stand for the separatists? Which sounds a little bit scary, for the Ukrainians as well.
SESTANOVICH: Yeah, some of the advances that the Ukrainian Army made in the past few weeks; they've been pretty messy undertakings. There are a lot of wrecked buildings, a lot of people wandering around. There's no water, little food, no gas, no electricity. If the Ukrainians imagine that scenario extended to the bigger cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, they're talking about a terrible, terrible, internal convulsion that will have repercussions for years inside Ukraine.
So, there's some mind games going on between the army and the separatists. The line that the president has taken and his advisers is, we are not willing to do another unilateral cease-fire, of the kind that they had a few weeks back. There can be talks. The president, Poroshenko, has said he's in favor of talks, but he's not going to miss this psychological opportunity to try to break up separatist unity.
MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for this update.
MONTAGNE: Professor Stephen Sestanovich teaches international diplomacy at Columbia University. His latest book is "Maximalist: America In The World, From Truman To Obama." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.