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What does Putin want for releasing Savchenko?

What does Putin want for releasing Savchenko?
Article by: Serhiy Sydorenko
Translated by: Anna Mostovych

The long-awaited release of Nadiya Savchenko from Russian captivity captured Ukraine’s attention for an entire day. But by the afternoon, questions began to appear along with the joy. Why?

– Why did Putin, who had avoided any specifics on Savchenko’s release for almost two years and who had even declared its undesirability, now make concessions to Ukraine?

– Why did the “Normandy four” which, as  it turns out, had agreed as early as Monday, May 23,  on the exchange of Savchenko for the two Russian military intelligence officers not mention it at all? Perhaps the Kremlin had been promised something extra that cannot be discussed yet?

– And, finally, why did Savchenko’s release occur precisely on May 25 — the anniversary of Poroshenko’s election? Did Putin make such a gift for the Ukrainian leader “just like that”?

This is not the complete list of questions that have  been discussed in social and other networks. But they have mostly been boiled down to these three.

We can answer a few of the questions.

The day before the deadline

Ironically, the last question is the easiest to answer.  The May 25 date  was not accidental and was convenient for the Kremlin. Wednesday, May 25, was the last day when   Russia  could provide the key arguments for the easing  of  Western sanctions.

In the public arena — and not only in Ukraine but globally — there is a  common misconception that the fate of EU’s economic sanctions against the Russian Federation would be decided at the EU summit in Brussels on June 28-29. Officially, the decision on sanctions will indeed be approved there. But approved only, not developed. There would not be enough time for that during the leaders’ meeting in Brussels.

Let’s review the   agenda for the June summit. It probably will need to address the procedure for Britain’s exit from the  European Union, the migrant crisis, relations with Türkiye, the relationship between NATO and the EU, and so on. It would be strange to expect that the leaders of the member states of the EU would have much time to discuss Russia against this background.

The second obstacle is that the impact of the EU sanctions would decrease if they were not synchronized with the countries on the other side of the Atlantic — the United States and Canada. In international politics the voices of Luxembourg or Malta are much less important than the voice of Washington.

So, in reality, the fate of the sanctions will be decided in the small Japanese city of Ise-Shima during the Group of Seven meeting. Moreover, Tusk has already acknowledged that sanctions against Russia will be one of the topics discussed in Japan and that the decision to extend them will be adopted before the EU summit.

Diplomats contacted by Yevropeiska Pravda (European Truth, a section of the Ukrainska Pravda publication — Ed.)  admit that all their sanction efforts are geared to the G7 summit.

We should point out that the G7 comprises 4 key groups of the EU economy: Germany and France (participants in the “Normandy format”), Great Britain and Italy, US and Canada, as well as Japan. In addition, also participating in the G7 summit are top officials of the European Union — the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker.

Putin has also focused on the G7, and for him it was very important to demonstrate a “goodwill gesture” before the meeting of the world leaders. The Kremlin could not do it earlier since it had driven itself into a tight time frame, having brought the Savchenko process to a conviction of guilt and choosing an exchange instead of a release. Then the two sides were forced to comply with the legal formalities and deadlines.

Sources confirm  that the legal mechanism for the exchange of Savchenko for the two intelligence officers had been agreed to a month ago, on April 18, and was tied to the date on which the sentence against the Russian officers Yerofeev and Aleksandrov entered into force. This happened on May 23, the exact date when Poroshenko discovered the legal possibility of pardoning the Russians whom Russia agreed to exchange for Savchenko.

Then there was the technical matter: the final discussion of the “Normandy Four” on Monday night, the preparation of the exchange, and then, on Wednesday morning, the exchange itself.

But what about the sanctions. Will they be extended?

First, there is a fundamental point. The cancellation of the sanctions against the Russian Federation, no matter how much it may be desired by the Kremlin, has not been discussed and has not been expected this year. In the West, they finally realized that Russia does not intend to fulfill its obligations and, on the contrary, will attempt to avoid fulfilling them.

In the EU four scenarios have been considered:

  1. Strengthening economic sanctions. This option was considered possible in the event of a serious escalation of the Donbas situation to which the Europeans could no longer turn a blind eye. For now, according to Western leaders, this has not happened.
  2. Extension of the current sanctions for a year. Ukraine insisted on this option and it is really the most desirable option for us.
  3. Extending sanctions for 6 months. This is a compromise that would allow the EU to review the sanctions as early as December. It is not very desirable for Kyiv, but Ukraine is not making the decisions here.
  4. Easing of sanctions. This is  Russia’s option, and Russia has clear priorities regarding what should be eased first.

For now, the choice has been made even though important details remain unaddressed. One can safely say that the EU and the United States will agree on maintaining the sanctions at the current level. The EU leaders have already made official statements that Russia has not fulfilled the conditions for easing pressure.

“Our relations with the EU, including the economic sanctions, will remain unchanged until the full implementation of Minsk. Unfortunately, progress in its implementation is much lower that what we had expected last year,” Tusk said before the beginning of the summit in Japan.

This is not the personal opinion of the European Council president, but the position adopted by the EU for discussions in Japan. The president of the European Parliament has already expressed support for the position, as has the president of the European Commission, Juncker, who gave a press conference together with Tusk.

But this does not mean that the actions by the Kremlin have not had an effect. Thanks to the release of Savchenko, Russia has reduced to zero the chances that the sanctions would be (automatically) extended for a year.

So, in December, we will have a new sanctions saga with much higher chances that the pressure will be reduced. And now the Kremlin is working on the December review and preparing the ground for it.

Several sources — in the Ukrainian MFA and in European structures — have confirmed that Russia is working on having the “financial” sanctions removed — the prohibitions to lend to Russian state banks. Other sanctions have a more symbolic meaning. For example, the ban on exports to Russia of oil and gas extraction technologies affects the Russian energy sector, of course, but only in the long term, in 5-10 years. But the absence of financial liquidity and the inability to refinance is an immediate problem, one of YP’s sources explained. Currently there are tough restrictions in the EU on providing funds for Russian banks and on buying Russian government bonds. The ban includes all the financial instruments that are longer than 30 days. As a result, even for non-state Russian companies, it is very difficult to enter the foreign credit market.

Meanwhile, in Kyiv there are hopes even now for strengthening the sanctions. However, only the “Crimean” sanctions ( after all, the restrictions imposed on Russia “for Donbas” and “for Crimea” were adopted separately). After the official ban of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, the situation in Crimea has really deteriorated, and the persecution of pro-Ukrainian activists has intensified. Therefore, there are strong arguments for tougher sanctions. However, at the same time, there is danger than in the EU there will be enough votes to offset the strengthened “Crimean direction” by easing the sectoral sanctions on Russia. This must be avoided at any cost.

Russia’s position both in the “Normandy talks” and in dialogue with other European partners remains as follows: “we met Ukraine half-way on the issue of hostages and now we expect concessions on the question of elections.” This will be  Russia’s core position before the December review of sanctions.

So,  have we promised elections in exchange for Savchenko?

No, Ukraine has not assumed additional obligations in this regard, and the best proof is the divergence of the public positions of Ukraine and Russia after the last round of the “Normandy talks” — the one where the agreement on Savchenko’s release was confirmed.

It should be noted that the issue had to do with one of the key conditions for holding these elections. Poroshenko stated that the Russian Federation had agreed to the “deployment of the OSCE police mission in Donbas.” Russia, however, soon denied this information, stating that it does not consider the creation of a police mission necessary and instead advocates for more authority for the civil SMM (Special Monitoring Mission).

Thus, negotiations on the elections have been and remain at an impasse. Furthermore, Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also stated on Wednesday evening that there had been no additional conditions for Savchenko’s release.

“No, aside from Yerofeyev and Aelsandrov we have not promised Russia anything in exchange for Savchenko. No, in the EU the release is not viewed as a reason to ease sanctions against Russia. No, Russia has not withdrawn from the war. It has simply lost one more battle. The war continues,” Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s ambassador to the Council of Europe, wrote in his Facebook page.

Bt even though the two sides had not made additional promises, there were several hints of promises nonetheless.

First, our publication has repeatedly heard from diplomats that at the level of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov agreement has practically been reached on the release from the Russian Federation of two more hostages — Hennadiy Afanasiev and Yuriy Soloshenko, who are in very poor health. On Wednesday, Petro Poroshenko also announced their return to Ukraine. “Afterwards, Soloshenko and Afanasiev, who are in extremely poor health with cancer and sepsis, will be released,” he said.

Moreover, the president is counting on the return from Russia of other prisoners as well. “We expect progress in 3-4 weeks, no later.” But this probably reflects Ukraine’s desire more than the Kremlin’s willingness.

And here everything will depend on whether Putin is ready to engage actively in the battle for the review of the decision on sanctions adopted by the G7 in Japan.

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
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