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Putin’s perfect trap for Ukraine

Putin’s perfect trap for Ukraine

Why the Kremlin wants peacekeepers in the Donbas

Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to actively seek support for his initiative to send UN peacekeepers to the Donbas zones of conflict. After his telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he had a conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron. Obviously, Putin’s efforts will continue, if only because of the attendance of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at the UN General Assembly.

Of course, it is easier to try to convince oneself that all these actions by Putin are just another maneuver designed to legitimize the presence of Russian troops and mercenaries in the Donbas. And that no decision on deploying peacekeeping forces will be taken because, at a critical moment, Putin will inevitably “insist” on something. And in the best case scenario, everything will remain as it is– with permanent shelling of our territory and sanctions against the invader. And in the worst case, Putin will launch another war just before elections in Russia. After all, it is not by accident that Russia has organized the Zapad-2017 military exercises right by our and Europe’s borders.

In this situation, everything is absolutely clear. We have already become used to the current conditions, and war must be prevented, or if it begins, it must be won. Nevertheless, I propose that we consider a more likely development — that Putin really is preparing to “withdraw” from the Donbas. But he will do so in way that prevents the restoration of Ukrainian control over the occupied territory. So far, nobody is preparing for such a development in Ukraine, even though this could turn out to be the perfect trap for our country’s future.

However, let us just try to imagine a likely development: a compromise is reached on the issue of peacekeepers. They are placed throughout the occupied territory, including that part of the border that is currently under Moscow’s control. Shooting stops. Russian troops and mercenaries leave the area. The “people’s republics” self liquidate, giving way to the interim administrations of the  “separate districts.” Russia ends all aid to the Donbas, but, at the same time, the financial support of the region, including the payment of salaries, pensions, and infrastructure maintenance, falls on Ukraine. Does this mean that Ukrainian control has been restored?

Not at all. I would like to point out that all the efforts to introduce the UN peacekeeping force, to protect the OSCE observers, and, in general, to ensure security are linked to the desire to begin implementing the Minsk agreements. Actually, this is what the leaders of the member countries of the Normandy format have been discussing during their consultations. This is precisely what Merkel and Macron are requesting, not only from Putin but also from Poroshenko. And the Ukrainian president quite rightly keeps responding that there can be no discussion about implementing the Minsk agreements as long as there are occupation forces and shelling in the Donbas.

And then the occupying forces leave and there is no more shelling either. Of course, we can imagine that, at that moment, Ukraine could ignore any agreements and liberate the occupied territories — all the more so, if the occupier is gone. But this is an illusion. The residents of the “separate regions” will be under the protection of the UN peacekeepers. After all, their presence, no matter what we may think, will legitimize what is no longer an external but an internal conflict.

Any offensive by the Ukrainian army that is not approved by the West could lead not only to conflict with our allies but also to the return of the Russian contingent — to protect UN peacekeepers and the civilians, of course. We already know the outcomes of similar adventures from the consequences of the Russian-Georgian war. But Mikheil Saakashvili in not in the leadership of Ukraine — in any case, not yet. And I don’t really believe such a voluntaristic  order for an offensive would be issued. But I also do not believe that the parliament will vote for the Minsk agreements because there is no political logic in granting autonomous status to ordinary districts of eastern Ukraine.

But the paradox lies in the fact that, in the absence of a clearly defined legal status, the ” separate districts” would still acquire the character of  self-proclaimed autonomy under an international protectorate.

This is the fate that may await the “separate districts.” Their status will not be established, but the West will demand integration efforts from Ukraine. New players will appear in the territories and, of course, the old ones will return, starting with Rinat Akhmetov. The Russian influence will not vanish; it simply will be supported not by military force but by propaganda, financial infusions, and support from pro-Russian political forces in the region.

The question of how to integrate the Donbas will become one of the most important and complicated issues in the political life of the country — a trigger for constant instability. Any action by the authorities that resembles the implementation of the Minsk agreements will trigger an immediate patriotic reaction and likely divisions within the government as well.

Furthermore, there will be attempts for the “independent” return of the Donbas. If there are no Russian troops in the region, and the Ukrainian army is “afraid,” then the Ukrainian people will have to  return the Donbas with “volunteers.” And the Ukrainian army will find itself in the position of having to protect the region — and the UN peacekeepers — from these very volunteers. And as a result, we may find ourselves in the same situation as the supporters of Irish independence a hundred years ago, who began a civil war among themselves not because of different views on how the new state should evolve, but over Ulster, which remained in the United Kingdom.

And that is the perfect trap.

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