Portnikov: Putin has four Donbas scenarios and will choose worst one for Ukraine

Vitaly Portnikov, Ukrainian political analyst, journalist and writer (Image: Darya Davydenko / Apostrophe.ua)

Vitaly Portnikov, Ukrainian political analyst, journalist and writer
(Image: Darya Davydenko / Apostrophe.ua) 

Analysis & Opinion, War in the Donbas

Moscow completely controls the situation in the occupied Donbas, Vitaly Portnikov says; and consequently, one should not view what is going on there in recent days as any threat to its ability to dictate outcomes but only as an occasion for Vladimir Putin to choose among four possible scenarios for the region.

According to the Ukrainian commentator, the Kremlin leader will choose the one that is worst for Ukraine over the longer haul even if what he says may appeal to some Ukrainians and the West in the short term.

The fighting among the leaders of the occupied regions may reflect differences of opinion within the Moscow elite, Portnikov concedes in an interview with Kateryna Shumylo of Apostrophe; but that shouldn’t distract the attention of Ukrainians because it doesn’t change the overall ability of the Kremlin to decide on the general course of development.

And thus it is important to view the four options Putin has not as an element of some “solution” of the crisis but rather as being about objectives the Kremlin leader wants to achieve.

The first scenario for Putin, Portnikov says, “is to begin a new war” much as he did in Georgia to “’restore the territorial integrity … of ‘the republics’ of Abkhazia and South Ossetia” and seek to conquer all of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and incorporate them into the unrecognized republics in the region.

Portnikov says that “this variant is now unacceptable for Putin because it will lead to new sanctions from the European Union, a new deteriorating of relations with the Americans, and — in both places — new and serous problems with the future of Russian capital and the Russian president.”

“This means,” the Ukrainian analyst says, “that he will not begin a new war either before the Russian presidential elections or afterwards.”

The second scenario would involve “a complete withdrawal [of Russian forces] from the territory of the Donbas.

This also is an impossible variant because a complete withdrawal would mean for Putin a capitulation before the West. “‘The Russian world’ would thus have turned out to be incapable of defending its supporters.” And Putin “will not be able to move in that way.”

The third scenario, Portnikov continues, is “the preservation of the status quo.”

That isn’t a good option for Moscow, because it will do nothing to prevent continued sanctions or Ukrainian resistance.

For the time being, however, Putin may, as he did with his telephone calls with Donbas “separatist leaders,” seek to transform their region into a Transdniestria. And thus it is the fourth scenario, at least after the elections, that Putin is most likely to select, Portnikov says.

This involves “the replacement of Russian forces on the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts with UN peacekeeping forces without the restoration of Ukrainian control over the territories.”

“For the US,” he says, “it is possible that this will seem a triumph” because Washington will view it as a development in which Russia will be forced to withdraw its forces from these territories. “But the Ukrainian armed forces, law enforcement structures, and state structures will not go into this territory.”

And as a result, it will represent for Ukraine the most dangerous outcome of all, the Ukrainian commentator says.

That is because this will not transform the situation into “a frozen conflict” as some imagine but rather become “a real trap for Ukraine” because after this occurs, people will start talking about a transitional period, Russia will stop bearing the costs of supporting the people there, and Ukraine will have to pay for everything but without having control.

That burden, however, is not the worst of this, Portnikov says.

The worst is that residents of a region Ukraine doesn’t control will nonetheless elect people not only to local offices but to the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada – and there is thus the dangerous possibility that their votes will create “a stable pro-Russian lobby” that will take Ukraine back to before 2013, thus “converting all of Ukraine into a zone of influence of the Russian Federation.”

This is no fantasy, the analyst continues. Moldova shows how this could work. There voters in Transdniestria helped install a pro-Russian president in Chisinau even though the rest of the country was opposed. Igor Dodon is “a product of Russian political influence,” of a majority created by the addition of voters from Transdniestria which Chisinau doesn’t control.

To create a similar “pro-Russian majority in Ukraine is not as difficult as it seems” if Moscow with the agreement of the West simply follows the same strategy. The limiting factor is whether Russia – and that means Putin – will agree or whether he thinks he can get even more under the circumstances.

The current situation is much more favorable to Ukraine than the fourth scenario would be. It gives Kyiv room for maneuver: “We can consider these territories occupied” and thus not allow people there to vote in Ukrainian elections. But if there are UN peacekeepers rather than Russian forces, that will be far harder to do.

In such a case, Kyiv will “not have any chance for maneuver.” And that may be Putin’s chief goal for the coming months and years.

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Edited by: A. N.

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  • veth

    Scenario 5: Ukraine goes into the Donbass and fight the Russkies out.

    • laker48

      Not with its present, myopic leadership holding under the table hands with Germany and RuSSia.

      • veth

        Scenario 5 is the best, most logic option….despite the many casualties.

      • MichaelA

        you say 99% of ukrainians don’t speak or read English …. sure if you yell at them or act like an arrogant foreigner

        try just talking to people or even asking them

        plenty of young people have some facility in english and they usually have knowledge of what is happening outside ukraine too

        your last sentence is really weird – since uki language media is mostly sponsored by oligarchs what has being in english language got to do with it?

        • laker48

          I visited several high end hotels and restaurants in Volodymyr Volynskiy, Kovel, Lutsk, Rivne, Lviv, Stryi, Drohobych and Sambor last October, and English-speaking personnel could be counted on the digits of your hand. Do you need statistics?

          Yes, I believed that English is much wider known in Ukraine, as I have dealt with many young Ukrainians in Canada who are not only well-educated, burt also fluent in English, but my last visit was an unpleasant reality check. I also had many contacts with healthcare professionals and, unfortunately, none spoke English or spoke very few basic words. The infrastructure in Western Ukraine resembles south-eastern Poland from the 1960s. You don’t have to like what I’m writing, but it’s not my problem.

          • Ihor Dawydiak

            While it would be true to state that most citizens of Ukraine are not presently conversant in the English language, this pales in importance to the fact that the English language is currently being promoted as a second language (instead of the Russian language) in colleges and universities throughout Ukraine. Why? There are two primary reasons including; 1) Fluency in the Ukrainian language is an expression of a) the dominant culture and sole official language of Ukraine and b) a de-Russification of a language that was imposed upon Ukrainians as a whole by hostile successive regimes based in Sankt Peterburg/Moskva. 2) The knowledge and fluency in the English language has been strategically chosen as a primary conduit for communication in the international fields of business and commerce as well as allowing for easier communication with others for various purposes on a global scale. Therefore, while the promotion of the English language in Ukraine may not have many immediate positive results, this has not been the intent of those who have organized language courses in post secondary education. It is all about the youth of Ukraine and therein lies the future of a prosperous nation.

          • laker48

            A very wise approach. We spoke Polish and they spoke Ukrainian that is not too hard to understand by speakers of Polish. We didn’t come across a single hostile person.

            Our trip lasted only 15 days and we covered a lot, but even quite young people didn’t speak English. We asked the marketing manager of a posh Lviv hotel about the inability of his personnel to communicate in English, and his answer was that over 60% of their business comes from poland and Slovakia.

            We also noticed a significant improvement in policing the nation. All police officers we met were well trained and professional, a stark contrast to those uniformed thugs trying to gauge fake fines from us during our transit to RuSSia in the fall of 2008.

          • MichaelA

            its not a matter of my not liking what you are writing
            i thought you were claiming that 99% of ukrainians dont speak or read english
            which is not correct
            if you go outside the major cities I am sure there will be a lot less knowledge of it

          • laker48

            One percent of all Ukrainians living in Ukraine is almost half a million, and I’d be happy to know that so many of them, still permanently living in Ukraine and not working in Poland, Slovakia or Hungary, can speak, read and write even basic English. It’s not for sure the case in Western Ukraine where we always started our conversations in English and used our Canadian passports.

          • MichaelA

            i was referring to people still living in ukraine
            “99% of ukrainians don’t speak or read English” just doesnt equate with my experience nor with people I know who travel there a lot more than i do

          • laker48

            We don’t have any credible statistical data, but in the cities and towns we were visiting, hardly anybody could speak even basic English. I shared your believes until I went there. In two large Truskavets sanatoria and a posh hotel in Lviv, employing over 500 staff each, most of them young people under 35, we spoke with their sales and marketing managers over very good Ukrainian Black Jack vodka. All three were fluent in Polish and I asked all of them why they didn’t facilitate any English courses for their staffers who mostly had a postsecondary education. The answers were the same, that between 45 and 60% of their business comes from Poland and the balance from Hungary, Slovakia and former Soviet republics such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. We also asked about RuSSians, and the answers were the same: They don’t come. Perhaps there are clusters of a better saturation of local population with speakers of English in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Black Sea port cities, but outside large urban agglomerations speakers of English are very few and far between.

          • MichaelA

            not my beliefs
            my observations
            and those of others

          • laker48

            What Ukrainian regions and cities/towns have you recently visited?

          • MichaelA

            kyiv and dnipro for me
            friends have visited other places

          • laker48

            Last time I was in Kyiv in 2008 and in Dnipro and Odessa in 1997, so I cannot say anything, but I covered last October quite a bit a of western Ukraine and exactly described my experience. I did mention that there might be clusters of English-speaking Ukrainians in big, university cities, but a lion’s share of ordinary folks cannot speak the language. Most people in Poland don’t speak English either.

          • MichaelA

            as i wrote above “99% of ukrainians don’t speak or read English” just doesnt equate with my experience nor with people I know who travel there a lot more than i do

      • focusser

        Not sure where you get your information from. In April 2017 full production stopped in the Lipetsk factory of Roshen; leaving 700 people jobless.

      • Tony

        This website is sponsored by Renaissance foundation(bottom right) which is basically Soros, he has a bone to pick with the old communist zombies.


      • Микола Данчук

        1 – Your offer of the present leadership as myopic would be shortsighted on your part. They have cut corners on too many reforms and regress in judicial / rule of law issues has made for friction as to how the country shall move forward.

        2 – Holding hands under the table with Germany and RuSSia can imply many thing, what do you have specifically?

        3 – Making chocolate as a political premise would sower only in the production of policy. (Not that I approve of the issue)

        4 – As to Ukrainians knowledge of English, well there you have gotten your % out of a Russian Cracker-Jack box. You should spend some time with University students and check which businesses are operating in Ukraine.

        5 – Do you consider this site or any other Ukrainian site as sponsored for propaganda purposes?
        I find Ukrainian websites, as well as news sites, offer open debate of issues confronting the national interest.
        Can you show me different?

  • MichaelA

    does putin have full control over what happens in russia even?

    if not then how is he going to control events in ukraine?

    • Dave Ralph

      Like Portnikov said, Ukraine needs to prevent voters in the Donbass from taking part in national elections or sending any representatives to Kyiv. We already saw what happens when pro-Russians get influence over the Ukrainian government.

    • Микола Данчук

      Putin has his siloviki (National Guard – private army) to control events in Russia and uses them when needed to disrupt affaires in Ukraine. This was done in the past (by KGB) in collusion with members of the Ukrainian government.

      • veth

        Russian continue to liberate Syria………………………………………..

        As a result of the air strike of Russian aviation near the Syrian province of Deir ez Zor, 34 people were killed. This is reported by AFP with reference to the Syrian Monitoring Center for Human Rights.

        “On Sunday, as a result of Russian air strikes 34 civilians killed, including 15 children,” the report said.

        It is noted that Russian aircraft hit the village of Al-Shafah, which is under the control of Islamic state militants.

        • zorbatheturk

          No change then.

      • MichaelA

        yes that is how he tries to control events in ukraine and in russia
        but the fact is he has limited control even in russia
        and he hasnt been very successful in ukraine

  • Tony

    One obvious fix for the Donbass reintegration scenario is to deprive them of voting rights until it is restored to normality, however long that may take. Let them pay the lions share of the repair bills themselves, that will teach them to resist tooth and claw next time russia tries something.
    Only let them rejoin Ukraine once they are the most pro-Ukraine part of Ukraine!

  • Eolone

    Transdniestria is probably a close comparison, but lacks in one way. The so-called peacekeepers there are Russians. If Russia moves out of the Donbas, leaving pro-Russian militants behind, there is bound to be a lot of trouble between these drunken militants and UN peacekeepers who will be installed. The UN mission will fail. It will make the OSCE mission look like a great success.

    • laker48

      The only way of forcing them out would be the 2014 Ihor Kolomoisky’s Dnipro solution, i.e. $10,000 for a Moskal. Within less than 100 days there was not a single “little green man” in Dnipro. Close to 500 were reported and arrested, close to 100 successfully charged and shipped to Kyiv, and the oligarch honestly paid out some million dollars i booty money. Not too great a pay for peace. The same solution can be employed in the occupied part of Donbas provided no RuSSian “peacekeepers” are there.

      My gut feeling is that Putler won’t agree to any peacekeeping without RuSSia there, so the Yanks will wait a few months after the sanctions legislated by Congress last summer come into effect in January next year, and eventually a kind of a deal will be eventually struck by Trump with Poroshenko to bring back Saakashvili, so Ukraine will receive deadly weapons from the US sometime next spring or summer. Time is working against RuSSia. http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21731662-personal-sanctions-against-regime-cronies-are-especially-tough-new-sanctions-are-about

      • Eolone

        Thanks. I recall that through the action of an oligarch, workers in Mariupol fought off the pro-Russian rebels at the time. I was not aware there was a hub at Dnipro for action against Russia; rather thought it was a loose groupings of, maybe largely, right wing Ukrainian volunteers.

        Read up on Kolomoisky (Business Insider):
        “At a cost of about $10 million a month, according to The Wall Street Journal, Kolomoisky began to build up his army. By June the Dnipro Batalion consisted of over 2,000 heavily armed troops, with a further 20,000 in reserve under the command of Kolomoisky’s close ally and self-described “conflict manager” Gennady Korban.”

        • laker48

          You’re basically right. Without Kolomoisky and other oligarchs’ private armies and crowd-funded volunteer units, the deeply demoralised and penetrated by RuSSian agents Ukrainian Army wouldn’t have defended Ukraine in 2014. The Dwarf would have rammed through SE Ukraine a land corridor to Crimea in the summer of 2014 if the Girkin-Strelkov led drunk RuSSian baboons hadn’t shot flight MH17 out of the Donbas sky.

          I’m now very upset that after such a near death experience the fight against corruption in Ukraine doesn’t yield any visible results. Most of successful fight against corruption in Ukraine was done by Saakashvili and his Georgian team he had brought into Ukraine. The Ukrainian police forces, that are now professional and decent, were trained and supervised by the Georgians.

  • Ihor Dawydiak

    Vitaly Portnikov described the second scenario (a complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Eastern Donbas) as an “impossible variant” as it would signal a capitulation to Ukrainian and Western interests in this region of Ukraine. However, what may seem to be “impossible” today could become very possible or in fact, practical, tomorrow. In that regard, the ongoing investigation into Russian tampering in the recent US Presidential elections has not only uncovered key US actors who would appear to have colluded with the Russians for various personal or political gains but these actions have also uncovered to at least some extent Russia’s attempts to undermine the democratic process not only in the US but throughout Europe. So, how might this impact a Russian withdrawal from Eastern Donbas and possibly Crimea? What would happen if the Western powers decided to strategically retaliate and impose even greater sanctions including a total ban on the imports of Russian oil and gas? Would this not bankrupt the Putin regime? Could Putin not contemplate the aftermath of such a bankruptcy? Yes, there are other options and the freezing of the conflict in Eastern Donbas or for that matter in Crimea are not a done deal.

    • laker48

      This scenario is feasible upon meeting several preconditions:
      1. US oil and gas will partially drive RuSSian hydrocarbons out of European markets;
      2. The Three Seas Initiative and the Via Carpatia energy and logistic corridor will be successfully created and establish a “Chinese Wall” physically separating France and Germany in the west from RuSSia in the east;
      3. The German-RuSSian gas duopoly in Central and Eastern Europe will be totally destroyed;
      4. Germany’s dominant position in the EU will be significantly reduced;
      5. NATO and especially US Army forces will be permanently deployed in Central and Eastern Europe.
      Needless to mention that Ukraine will eventually have to start fighting corruption that is eating this still mafia state from inside.
      If these conditions are met, Ukraine will successfully reclaim Crimea and the terrorist-occupied part of Donbas between 2025 and 2030,

      • Ihor Dawydiak

        Agreed. Nothing will happen overnight. However, Western strategies for the future are critical as to what will happen not only in Ukraine but also how these strategies will affect Russia. Therefore, if the Putin regime are of the belief that they can prosper as an isolated island in a global economy then they too will self destruct. On that point, Ukraine has time on its side whereas Putin does not unless Russia ceases its unrelenting aggression against its neighbors.

        • laker48

          RuSSia will never stop being an aggressor, one way or the other, but it’ll depend on the abilities of Western politicians and military leaders to timely decipher and effectively stop RuSSia’s aggressive measures that may come in different shapes and guises. WW3 has been full blown in cyberspace and global media for quite a long time.

  • zorbatheturk

    Must not allow pro-RuSSian elements to gain a foothold in Ukrainian politics. No way, no how.