Piontkovsky: Frozen conflict in Donbas – ‘lesser evil’ for both Kyiv and ‘moderate imperialists’ in Moscow

 

Op-ed, Russian Aggression

In an important two-part essay, Russian commentator Andrey Piontkovsky argues that there is now a good chance that the Donbas will remain “a frozen conflict” rather than be resolved either by the capitulation of Ukraine or by a new round of military aggression by Russia.

The reason for that is that in both cases, a frozen conflict – that is a ceasefire without any fundamental changes beyond that – is “the lesser evil,” albeit for very different reasons in the two capitals, the commentator says (see Перемирие and Перемирие 2).

The greater evil for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would have been to simply implement the “Steinmeier formula” plan as Moscow and many Western leaders hoped, an action that would have given Russia leverage over all Ukraine if it had happened and would have sparked a social revolt in Ukraine if it appeared Zelenskyy was going to agree to it.

The greater evil for what Piontkovsky calls “the moderate imperialists” in Moscow would have been the creation of a situation in Ukraine that the Russian war party would exploit to launch a new wave of aggression there or elsewhere, something that would lead to the further isolation of Russia and to their own marginalization among Kremlin clans.

When Zelenskyy agreed to the Steinmeier plan, it appeared to many in Ukraine, Moscow and the West that he was prepared to capitulate. Many in Moscow were jubilant, many in the West were relieved, but many in Ukraine were outraged, with ever more people taking to the streets to object to such a sell-out after five years of fighting Russian aggression.

But only a few days later, at a meeting of the Minsk contact group, Ukraine’s representatives made clear that they weren’t prepared to accept the provisions of Steinmeier and were going to insist on others that Moscow – at present at least – simply won’t or perhaps even can’t accept.

That means, Piontkovsky says, that “having freed itself” from the trap of the return of the Donbas under Putin’s terms, “the new Kyiv authorities can now concentrate on the fulfillment of their main promise – thanks to which they were elected in triumph – the achievement of peace,” something they can’t force by military means but can hold open by not making concessions.

Under these conditions, the commentator says, a ceasefire is possible, involving “a stable end to shooting along the line dividing the sides and an end to the deaths of people,” with the Ukrainian military “standing on this line capable of preventing the further broadening of Russian aggression.”

“This is far from an ideal scenario for Ukraine, but it is the least bad of all those possible today,” Piontkovsky argues

It keeps Moscow from inserting a cancerous tumor into the body politic of Ukraine and it helps ensure that Zelenskyy and his regime will not be challenged in the streets with a new Maidan.

Piontkovsky suggests that there is a clear historical analogy for this. “In 1952, Comrade Stalin proposed to Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, to ‘reunite’ the GDR, but with the maintenance there of the Stasi, the SEPG, and the presence of Soviet forces.”

Adenauer responded that “I’d rather have half of Germany all the way, than all of Germany only half-way.” Eventually, of course, “the heirs of Adenauer got all of Germany and they got it all the way.”

Obviously, Zelenskyy’s shift does not mean the end of the game. Moscow is furious, and Maria Zakharova of the Russian Foreign Ministry declared that Moscow “doesn’t consider the declaration [in Minsk] the consolidated position of Kyiv,” a clear indication that Russia hasn’t given up getting what it thought it had with Steinmeier.

After its initial failure to create Novorossiya, Piontkovsky continues, Moscow devoted almost five years to promoting its “Trojan horse” plan to force the inclusion of a Russian-controlled Donbas into the body of Ukraine. Now that has failed, and the Kremlin will have to come up with a new strategy.

That process will be different than the one in Ukraine: “Russia isn’t Ukraine. Its people are silent, and a civil society is lacking. Strategic decisions are worked out under the rug, but there are real bulldogs” fighting there. The radical imperialists, including Patrushev, Kovalchuk, Sechin and S. Ivanov, want war and will seek it now that Kyiv has rejected Moscow’s plan.

But there is also “a party of ‘moderate imperialists’” in Moscow, who want to expand Moscow’s influence but are convinced that any direct use of military power will prove counterproductive, generating a reaction in the West that the Russian government certainly doesn’t need.

In many ways, Aleksey Venediktov, the head of Ekho Moskvy media company, has assumed the role of the public spokesman for such people. In a recent broadcast, he even cited Piontkovsky’s arguments about lesser and greater evil to argue for a different outcome than the one that the mobilization party wants.

For Venediktov and other “moderate imperialists” in Moscow, Piontkovsky says, it appears that “the freezing of the conflict is the least bad decision” available, far better than a new wave of direct Russian military aggression.

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Edited by: A. N.

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