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The Kremlin’s new preoccupation: how to get out of the Donbas

“Russian World” and Minsk Agreements: Russia leaves the Donbas. Political cartoon by Oleksiy Kustovsky
Article by: Vitaly Portnikov
Translated by: Anna Mostovych

“Military force will not solve the problems of the Donbas.” These words by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, pronounced at a meeting with pro-Putin activists, accurately depict the changes in Russian foreign policy toward Ukraine. Of course, the Kremlin will continue to flex its military muscle near Ukrainian borders in the foreseeable future, but the Russian leadership will have to forget about war for a long time. There are objective reasons for this: the effect of sanctions, new measures by the US, the fall in oil prices and, of course, the Russian presidential elections. Putin would like to approach his new term in office as the stabilizing president. And without at least a partial improvement in the relations with the civilized world, he will not succeed.

Therefore, the main preoccupation in the Kremlin today is how to get out of the Donbas without losing face. It is no coincidence that Lavrov’s statement coincided with the reinforcement of the border command in the area under the control of the occupying forces. The mercenaries are being prepared for the concept that they will have to return to Kyiv’s control and that they will not succeed in moving to Russia “just like that.” As was the case with Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, only the trustworthy people will be admitted — those who worked closely with the special services and who are ready to continue this collaboration. And since there has been no real border in the occupied territory, Donbas appeared to be the continuation of Russia. Now this will no longer be the case.

Of course, in the beginning Moscow will insist on the need to comply with the Minsk agreements. This is precisely what Sergey Lavrov was taking about when he argued that “no one wants a war with Ukraine.”

But the fact remains that the Minsk agreements are not simply a special procedure for the management of the occupied territories after their liberation. They are first of all a ceasefire — in other words, something that Moscow still cannot ensure to this day. And now let us just imagine that shooting ceases in the Donbas. What will be the justification for the so-called “people’s republics,” for Zakharchenko, for Plotnicky and their Russian curators? All these “republics” have been invented for one purpose only — to kill Ukrainians. If the Kremlin decides that the shooting must stop, there will be no war and no money for the Donbas either. The “people’s republics” will simply disintegrate as if they had never existed. And we should not think that Moscow does not understand this. This is why Moscow is in no hurry to stop the shooting. This is why it is in no hurry to leave — because in Moscow they have not yet come up with a way to explain this  surrender to the Russian population, how to say that the Donbas is no longer the “Russian World” and that the Donbas residents who “dreamed” of living in Russia will now happily live in Ukraine. But as soon as Moscow comes up with the explanation, it will leave.

Russia can and should be pressured

lavrovNaturally, this does not mean that Putin will leave Ukraine alone. First, the Russian president is still not ready to leave Crimea. The occupation of Crimea has become the cornerstone of his entire political career and the basis for years of intense international pressure to force Russia to leave the peninsula. Putin may think that after withdrawing from the Donbas he will be left alone, but he is mistaken. Donbas will become an indicator that the West is doing everything right and the Russia can and should be pressured — and that it will leave from anywhere. So we  hope the pressure will not weaken: without the return of Crimea, Ukraine will not be able to become a state with defined borders. The return of Crimea is in the interests of both Ukraine and Russia. Only the abandonment of the peninsula will allow Russia to return to the civilized world. With  Crimea, Russia will always be a rogue state.

Secondly, the Kremlin will continue to pursue the destabilization of Ukraine. For Putin, it is critically important to prove that Ukraine cannot exist as a state. As the military pressure declines, there will be more diversionary pressure. Moscow will work actively with Ukrainian opposition politicians and the simulated part of civil society; it will finance media and promote negative views among Ukrainians. Based on the social moods I’ve observed, I would even venture to guess that Putin will find it much easier to win in the fields of propaganda and sabotage than in military action. Therefore, we should not think that the struggle for the future of the Ukrainian state will end with the withdrawal of the occupation forces from the Donbas. In fact, Lavrov has simply admitted that the Kremlin will not vanquish Ukraine with the help of war. This means the Kremlin will use other means.

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
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