Why Putin lost in Minsk — interview with Portnikov

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2015/02/18 • Analysis & Opinion

Article by: Tatiana Kolesnyczenko

What will come after the Minsk negotiations? New escalations, new sanctions and then ceasefire again? And so on until one of the countries goes bankrupt? For Vitaliy Portnikov, this country will not be Ukraine.

Ukrainian journalist and political analyst Vitaliy Portnikov discussed his views on the Minsk agreement and Ukraine’s situation in an interview with the Polish publication WPROST.

How was the signing of the Minsk accords received in Kyiv?

Without enthusiasm. The general impression is that the agreement worsens our situation. The general mood, which is already somber, is additionally affected by Moscow and the TV appearances by Moscow’s propagandists. They are screaming that Ukraine is surrendering to Russia and giving its territory to Russia. They are having much influence on the public imagination. The situation in the country remains very tense. People do not fully believe the official reports.

Do you believe in peace?

Of course. Even if the ceasefire is temporary and will serve exclusively to stabilize the frontline, I still think that what was achieved in Minsk was rather positive.

Why?

Because the most important task of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande was to understand Putin’s the real intentions. Is he ready for a major war that would extend beyond Ukraine? The answer was no, that he is not ready for it. Putin returned from Minsk empty-handed without achieving any of his goals.

What was he expecting?

First of all, he wants the federalization of Ukraine. He is not worried about the Donbas. It is just an excuse. Putin wants the destruction of our country. He wants the flag of a pseudo republic to fly over Kyiv and for the presidency to be held by someone he appoints personally. Such conditions can be created only through federalization, which Ukraine will never accept, or by total war, which Putin will not launch. He simply cannot afford it.

What is the difference between the recent Minsk document and the one developed in September?

Basically nothing. There are slight differences, such as the length of the buffer zone. Everything else is almost identical. In signing the first agreement, Russia was forced to accept the unity of all of Ukraine and to agree  that not all of the territory of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, but only the small, damaged parts of it, will have special status. These small territories cannot achieve independence. They will depend entirely on the central government. This was Putin’s first defeat. This is why  literally within a month he broke one of the key points of the agreement. Elections were to be held in the occupied territories. The local government was supposed to be elected according to Ukrainian legislation. But the separatists elected “presidents” of the pseudo republics instead . I think that in this fashion they wanted to create the framework for the “statehood” of Donetsk and Luhansk and expected that this would help them with further expansion.

But they were not able to do this because Kyiv distanced itself from these regions?

This was very important. It turned out that the separatist state without Kyiv cannot function, so that people have pensions and tap water. When it became clear that the “Novorossiya” project simply would not work, bombs began falling on Ukrainians again. Besides, the attempt to expand the occupied territory is not working out either. They’re not in a position even to take Mariupol — the only large city that potentially could provide some meaning to these “republics.” So we’re back to the starting point. Again we have negotiations in Minsk and the agreement that Putin did not even sign. We all know in advance that this document has been dead from the beginning. Putin is not interested in peace. Peace would be a defeat for him.

During this meeting the names of the self-proclaimed “republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk were never mentioned.

Of course not. The representatives of DNR and LNR could not be allowed to sit at the negotiating table with Merkel and Hollande. I think nobody talked to them at all. Putin simply told them to sign the agreement. But the fact that the name of the “republics” is not mentioned in the document means that Putin gave up on one of his most important demands — the statehood or even the autonomy of these regions.

Then why did Putin go to Minsk?

Because his back is to the wall. The Russian economy is in very bad shape. If he had not come at the invitation of Merkel and Hollande, he would soon be facing subsequent, tougher sanctions. With the negotiations he has gained time, hoping for the temporary calming of relations with Europe. The situation is in a stalemate. Putin does not need Donbas itself. At the moment it is simply a piece of scorched earth with a handful of psychologically exhausted people. Why would Putin need such territory? Russia does not have the resources to restore the Donbas.

But it can force Ukraine to do it. This also is mentioned  in the agreement

It is not an easy path. The realization of most of the demands, such as renewal of social benefits on the occupied territories, requires the return to the Ukrainian legal space. Thus events need to follow a certain order: elections first, according to Ukrainian legislation, and then the reestablishment of relations between Donbas and Kyiv. And here again we’re hitting a wall. Because, if this scenario is realized, Donbas again finds itself in Ukraine’s economic and political sphere of influence and therefore loses any value for Russia.

And then what?

We are getting close to a humanitarian catastrophe in the Donbas. Or a critical moment will arrive and Putin will give the order to go to war again. The fighting will begin somewhere in the vicinity of Sloviansk or Kramatorsk. People will start dying again. New sanctions will be imposed on Russia. As a result, yet another peace agreement will be signed, which will be ignored the same way as the previous ones. Of course this mechanism can be repeated many times. But the end result of this war will be the collapse of Putin. It will bring Russia to bankruptcy. Unfortunately, this scenario will cost many lives, but I do not see any other options for resolving this conflict. Therefore, despite what the analysts say, I do not see the Minsk agreement as a defeat for Ukraine but rather as a trap for Putin. At present Putin does not have any trump cards.

Do you think the U.S. will begin supplying weapons to Ukraine if the Minsk agreements are violated?

Ukraine desperately need these weapons. The absence of modern weapons is the main reason why we cannot win this war. But right now it is difficult to judge if the U.S. is really ready to take this step. However, Obama’s declaration that the supplying of weapons is possible was a strong argument for the Minsk negotiations.

Do you think Putin is afraid? Europe probably is more afraid of Russia’s possible reaction.

In the event the West supplies weapons to Ukraine, Putin is threatening to expand the conflict to the entire region. He is frightening the Baltic States and Poland. But Russia’s military potential cannot equal that of NATO. War with NATO would be collective suicide for the Russians, the destruction of their country through their own volition. This is why I am convinced that neither Putin nor anyone in his entourage is considering such a possibility. The Kremlin is putting on a good face on a bad game. The only thing that can frighten the West is nuclear weapons. If they did not exist no one would be holding any negotiations with Putin.

You say that this war will last several years. Will Ukraine’s economy survive?

In my view, yes, with the help of the West. Life will be difficult for Ukrainians, especially those who work in the public sector. This year we have to implement  economic reforms, which can be very serious. It is necessary and extremely dangerous, taking into account the attitude of the population and the constant attempts at sabotage by Russia. I think this is the West’s most important role — to help Ukraine avoid collapse. We can continue to pursue a policy of diplomatic games with Putin and to deter his aggression, but we cannot cope without financial support.

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
Source: Espreso TV

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  • sandy miller

    gOOD ARTICLE. Let’s hope Obama gets those weapons to Ukraine. Real soon.

    • laker48

      There’s always someone willing to sell weapons to Ukraine. The Ukrainian government should insist that the US, Canada and other NATO countries train the Ukrainian army in the use of these weapons. Lithuania and Latvia have Javelin systems, Poland manufactures Spike missile system under the Israeli licence and rakiety Hellfire są praktycznie dostępne na wolnym rynku.

  • Anders Nielsen

    Good sober article.
    Now Poroshenko and Co. must show transparency and leadership.
    Consolidate the position on the “demarcation” line, strengthen OSCE and stick to the wording in Minsk II.

    • Nomid

      Poroshenko has asked for UN peacekeepers…

      If that becomes reality then the fighting will subside and Ukraine can go back and concentrate on the reforms we all pray they will be able to implement.

      And then heal the country over then next couple of years.

      Peacekeepers will also help make sure that there is access for observers so a future election in these areas will be fair.

      Had a little laugh when i read this article because 90% of the points he is making i have been saying for months.

      If there was no mention of federalisation in the Minsk then Putin would have lost (and there would have been no way that Poroshenko agreed to that at any time) The Russian invaded areas would never become viable in any form and will likely collapse down the road, and have an insignificant say in the Rada with no Veto’s of foreign policy.

      I said straight out that Putin had allready lost once Ukraine started putting up a fight against the Russian’s, at that point Ukraine was lost forever for Putin.

      Even if he stops the fighting and turns to the tactic of destabilisation instead, he will not accomplish anything, if the current Ukrainian government falls then a new one will take it’s place but it will never become “Russian friendly” again, voters will simply not vote such leaders in and the Rada will forever more be vigilant about Russian influence. And the west will try it’s hardest to keep Ukraine stable

      And once the Ukrainians start getting a proffesional army that is a credible detterent against Russia (or any agressor) then the question of NATO membership is mute, it wouldn’t matter, they would be able to field a big enough army that Russia will never try anything again because it would be to costly, and such an army would be making exercises and cooporation with NATO (like sweden does) anyway..

      And even if Ukraine might never become a member of the EU, they will progress towards trade, and get more and more in sync also.

      But all the Russian nationalist trolls will regard al this as a victory, when all Putin has managed is to destroy his economy and loose all trust from world leaders and the market…

      Even Crimea might get more independence and a chance to choose how much they will allign between Ukraine and Russia, when the internal order in Russia starts to shake because of Putins incompetence, during the next decade in which Russian economy will be in shambes, and in which Ukraine hopefully will be moving forward with economic reforms and growth and set a real bad example for Putin’s leadership abilities for everyone in Russia to see.

      • rifak

        This whole process is called creative destruction. Russia and Ukraine both get destroyed and are integrated into a new political, financial, and cultural arrangement vis-a-vis Europe and the world. Russian language will continue to lose prestige and usage in Ukraine – I won’t cry about that – but the lingua franca (the language of the new order), English, will come into increased usage and in the end supplant Russian and Ukrainian. Financial obligations to supranational organizations (IMF, World Bank) will keep Ukraine on a short leash while longer term social and cultural transformation (like in France and England) will be forced upon Ukraine in an incremental fashion till Ukraine loses all its “Ukrainianess” and looks like the increasingly unFrench France and unEnglish England.
        “Back in the EUSSR”!!!!

        • Nomid

          Sure… *sigh*…

          • rifak

            After you take off your rose color glasses and step back you might look at history and the trajectory of current events with some more discernment. Good luck.

        • Oknemfrod

          >Russian language will continue to lose prestige and usage in Ukraine – I won’t cry about that – but the lingua franca (the language of the new order), English, will come into increased usage and in the end supplant Russian and Ukrainian. <

          True, Russian will be gradually losing ground in Ukraine, and English will become more and more widespread. But I don't see the latter as a reason for the eventual extinction of Ukrainian any more than Danish, Dutch or German in the countries where by now virtually everyone is fluent in English. If anything, English fluency is a good thing, but if history is any guidance, it does not threaten the native tongue. If the Ukrainian diaspora has managed to keep their original language alive throughout the world, I see no reason why English will supplant Ukrainian in Ukraine.

          • Nomid

            I was thinking the exact same thing…

  • mountain dweller

    the sort of article that needs a wider audience and I do believe that putin has been given plenty of rope now to hang himself with it as the screws are tightening slowly on Russia , example even their own ex finance minister Kurdin who is now back in the kremlin fold given he seems to be the only man capable of understanding how and why the worlds business market is now working against Russia , and has been even before Crimea , when he pointed the finger at the Kremlin the other week at Davos , and said that Russia is sending the wrong kind of messages to the world, in words “Putin”

    • Nomid

      Attrition… A game Putin will loose, no matter how many Pyhrric victories he gets in the short run…

      The argument is that EU and US diplomats are divided, but the further he pushes, then the more they will be united…. His strategy of confusion and sowing discord amongst foreign leaders only works when he is taking on a small chunk at a time, and right now he is going to much “all in”…. EVERYBODY has their eyes on Russia now….

  • giltedged

    The neocon Nuland put in “Nuland’s cousins” in the country’s top positions except of course the one responsible for conducting the wars (that could be open to the charge of war criminality so give that “to the natives”).

    Newsweek magazine and English newspapers have been illustrating how business is conducted in the chocolate company belonging to the president. Sort of “Your work is done. You get 60%. Now scram” .Cheney at least stopped being managing director of Haliburton when he became a minister. (OK we all know that Haliburton then proceeded to build an enormous American base in Kosovo)

    Eastern Ukraine doesn’t want to be ruled from Kiev or Lviv so it won’t. Not too difficult to understand

    As for West Ukraine the only reforms would be ones which will make the Junta richer and the West Ukrainians suffer. Talk to Greeks, Spaniards, Cypriots etc .

    • Paul

      Payroll reforms have already begun in Ukraine that would reduce the payroll tax you allude to from 40% (a system Poroshenko inherited) to less than 20%. The idea is to stimulate job creation and retention. This will make the population richer, not the oligarchs necessarily; it will certainly be beneficial for SMEs in the country–the sector that Yanukovych worked so hard to destroy with his “reforms”: my father-in-law was put under immense pressure in Lugansk oblast to buy a poster from the Ministry of Emergency Situations for the equivalent (in 2009) of nearly $100, or 1/10 of his annual earnings. He was also told that his business had to have hazmat certification even though it only produced cold-pressed sunflower oil. The reforms currently being put into place by the current govt are a step in the right direction. Whether the Prosecutor General’s Office actually has the teeth to go after people guilty of evading taxes or paying bribes as under the old system remains to be seen.