The next round of talks on stabilizing the situation in eastern Ukraine were slated to take place in Minsk on December 9 [though on December 12 the date still has not determined]. The plans are to focus less on new peace initiatives and more on forging a mechanism to allow the implementation of agreements that had been reached back in September but were not fulfilled.
The situation now is fundamentally different than it was back in September. Back in September Ukraine was in a losing position. The infamous Battle of Ilovaisk had just taken place and the Ukrainian military had suffered a severe blow. President Poroshenko was seeking a way to stabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine not only to halt Russia’s advance on Mariupol but to carve out some time for parliamentary elections, hoping to gain reasonable support.
In many ways the September agreements that were reached were far from ideal for Ukraine and Kyiv reacted with a great deal of criticism. Kyiv was dissatisfied with the political part of the agreement: the militants in Donbas were given de facto recognition, it was agreed that they could keep the occupied territory, and a certain “special status” would be guaranteed that was perceived by many to be a first step in federalizing the country following the Kremlin’s directions.
It’s true that neither the Ukrainian leadership nor the separatist leaders proceeded to fulfill their obligations in any serious way. In Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts illegal and unrecognized local elections were held and that gave Kyiv grounds to ignore the political and financial obligations that had been reached in the agreement. The ceasefire and withdrawal of troops which had been agreed upon in the memorandum also did not take place.
It seemed there were no significant changes in the conflict zone after the agreement. Yet it only seemed that way. The overall situation around the frozen conflict evolved quite rapidly and almost always in Ukraine’s favor.
Firstly, President Putin was completely ostracized by the western leaders and China at the G20 Summit in Brisbane. The chief of the Kremlin was made to understand that no one believes his lies about Russian claims of non-intervention in Ukraine. He was also made to understand that if he continues to fan the flames the most severe sanctions will be implemented, including the exclusion of the Russian banks from SWIFT, “the global provider of secure messaging services.” That would be a severe blow to Russia’s financial institutions, all the more since they are already on shaky ground. With that threat the western leaders have actually defused the danger that Russian-supported separatists will further escalate the conflict. Any attacks on Mariupol or Debaltseve would now be a death blow to Russian banks and to the whole economy.
Secondly, with the coming of winter it has become evident that the separatist leadership is incapable of providing any kind of normal life for the inhabitants in the occupied territories without external financial support. Bitterly cold Donetsk and Luhansk find themselves on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe. Smaller towns have already crossed the line: if we are to name things what they are, there is famine in the towns. Old people in particular are suffering. With the absence of functioning social and medical agencies the old people are slowly dying in their freezing homes with no food or medicines.
Thirdly, the separatist groups are wrangling over the dwindling resources and over retaining the support of Moscow. The possibility that a unified leadership in the so-called DPR and LPR can or will emerge is non-existent. Because they are fragmented, because there is an absence of a unified leadership they are unable and unwilling to abide by the ceasefire. That circumstance makes it impossible for them to agree on what their strategic objectives are. There are those who want independence, some want to join Russia, and others want broad autonomy within Ukraine. Until recently each group had its supporters in Moscow and each sought Putin’s political support.
By the beginning of December, the overall status of the separatists deteriorated. The hope that after the Battle of Ilovaisk Ukraine would agree to recognize the separatists and would agree to provide an official plan to federalize eastern Ukraine has been dashed. The isolation of the occupied territories from any financial means has led to the crash of the local economy. Moscow has ended up with a bunch of armed people, a destabilized region, and a famished and freezing population.
The Russian leadership is left with four options:
- To escalate the conflict and to force the Ukrainian side to declare federalization and to take on the responsibility for Donbas and its people
- To drop the Novorossia project, let the people fend for themselves, close off the border to Russia and admit and declare defeat
- To freeze the conflict by absorbing Donbas and its resources
- To try to achieve the original objectives through negotiation
The first option has been rejected by the hawks in the Kremlin citing the above-mentioned reasons (collapse of the economy, social upheaval and popular unrest).
The second option is unacceptable for ideological reasons. The Russian people who for over a year have been told that “those are our people” will be unable to comprehend or to accept such a decision. Today already men like Strelkov-Girkin are explicitly blaming the Kremlin for betraying “Novorossia” and are gaining popularity among the most conservative segment of Russian society. Besides, in Moscow everyone understands that abandoning Donbas will not lift the international sanctions that are in place. Crimea is next in line. For the Kremlin it is essential to keep stoking instability in eastern Ukraine for as long as possible. Capitulation is not an option.
The third option is too burdensome financially. There are approximately two million people left in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. The federal budget of Russia can barely fulfill its obligations to its own people due to falling oil prices. Russia simply cannot afford to take on so many more people. At the same time, Russia cannot afford to let people in those regions die from cold and hunger on a massive scale – just like capitulation would be incomprehensible and unacceptable, a scenario like that would likewise be incomprehensible and unacceptable. So it is plausible that some sort of humanitarian aid will be brought into Donbas. There will, however, be no full-scale aid offered to the region: that would constitute a de facto recognition that Russia is the occupier and it would amount to a disavowal of the strategic goal: the federalization of Ukraine with the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as agents of Russian influence in Kyiv and in the country.
There is a final, fourth option: negotiations. The Russian leadership is no longer hiding the fact that soon they hope to achieve their stated goal, which is to control Donbas within Ukraine. There is no more talk of independence for the region or of the region becoming part of Russia. Putin has said as much: “Ukraine and eastern Ukraine need each other.” He made the statement despite the fact that in his early speeches he referred to Donbas as “Novorossia” denying Ukraine the historical right to rule in those regions.
If the strategic goal of the Kremlin is to reintegrate the separatist region into Ukraine, then the tactical goal is one the Kremlin hopes to achieve in the long-term: to force Kyiv to put the leaders of the militants on Kyiv’s government payroll. To accomplish that Putin is planning to use Ukrainian prisoners as hostages. Several days ago he said, “Russia […] supports the inclusion of additional steps in the prisoner exchanges and of course assumes that the economy will be re-established. Any policy that might block the development of that region will be eliminated.”
Since the agreement about prisoner exchanges had been concluded in September (though it hadn’t been implemented), the “additional steps” in conjunction with “any policy that might block the development of that region will be eliminated” can only mean one thing: the Kremlin intends to sell Ukrainian prisoners and use the money to subsidize the DPR and LPR. Of course this sounds unbelievably cynical, but it is wholly in the style of the Russian president – nothing surprising here.
At the same time, a hunt is on for those leaders of the so-called republics who seek to exercise at least some kind of independence. Russian special operations and their minions get rid of the business warlords by either exiling them to Russia or by sending them to “a better world.” Supporters of independence for Donbas, the genuine separatists are eliminated especially violently.
In reality there is a vertical power structure (appended to Russia) being built in Donbas based on negative selection: wanted are the most unscrupulous yes-men, stupid and obedient, ready and willing to follow directives from Moscow. Men like Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the so-called DNR. Inasmuch as the fighting has been cut back, he and his ilk are expected to do only one thing – to submit to being controlled while pretending to be in control.
The purpose of these proceedings is obvious. It is to have a uniform structure in place which, as a source has quoted, the Kremlin planned “to push on Ukraine under the guise of an agreement on some kind of autonomy.” Whether Putin will be able to execute his plan depends largely on the Ukrainian leadership.
After the catastrophe in Ilovaisk Kyiv admitted that the crisis cannot be resolved militarily. The new preferred strategy is in principle correct: containment of Russia on both the military and diplomatic fronts and cutting off the separatist enclaves from any kind of funding sources. And the main part of the strategy which politically is very hard to do is to actually relinquish the sovereignty of the occupied regions.
Vladimir Putin’s entire line of attack was based on the premise that Ukraine would fight fiercely to keep Donbas while funding it (this was the same tactic that was used in Chechnya). Putin thought that his attacks on Ukraine would drain the country emotionally and financially and that Kyiv would come around to agree to the Kremlin’s federalization scheme. But Ukraine’s silent refusal to follow the scripted scenario turned the whole plan on its head. Now “What should we do with Donbas?” is being discussed in Moscow instead of in Kyiv. Of course there are no pleasant solutions. Thus the desire to push it back on Ukraine is strong.
Inasmuch as the DNR/LNR projects were completely artificial and not at all feasible and because they pose countless conflicts and contradictions for Russia, there can be no common resolution. To achieve total victory Kyiv needs to have time to take back the Donetsk and Luhansk regions at any cost. It would be unwise to agree to any kind of “special status,” to finance it or to strengthen the defense capabilities in potentially dangerous areas. Understandably, the temptation to end the conflict quickly is great. But now the waiting is over and smart strategy is the winning option.
In any case Moscow will have to spend enormous sums of money to sustain the separatists even at a minimal level, infusing money into rehabilitating the infrastructure, and preventing an impending humanitarian disaster in the territories under separatist control. It will be especially costly because Russia’s budget is already full of holes.
The burden might become unbearable and instead of sort of hinting to Kyiv to take Donbas back, the Kremlin might demand that Kyiv do just that. Talk of any kind of “peoples’ republics” or of federalization will cease and Ukraine will be in a position to dictate the conditions for stabilizing the conflict.
At the moment the only thing that might save Putin from defeat is words. If he succeeds at inserting “special conditions for the reintegration of occupied Donbas into Ukraine” into the text of the agreement, he just might save face. Kyiv must stand firm and refuse that inclusion at all cost.