The Ukrainian crisis receded from the front pages of Western newspapers over a year ago, and is now at best a footnote compared to other stories, such as the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe. Indeed, as another round of talks were conducted in Minsk on September 8th, it was difficult to find a single mainstream news site or wire service reporting on the negotiations or speculating on their outcome. The most one could hope for was a vague statement from the working group that it was ‘pleased’ with the recent lull in fighting in eastern Ukraine. Little or no progress was reported on the withdrawal of weapons from the front by both sides, but this seems not to have shaken even European sensibilities. Ukrainians, by contrast, follow the talks more closely than outsiders, as the outcome of talks between their country and the government of Russia could signal either a continuation of the tiresome, devastating war or a return to peaceful civilian life.
Below is an analytical piece by a Ukrainian author published on the LIGABusinessInform website on the eve of the last round of talks in Minsk. It examines various scenarios that could emerge from negotiations, as well as from the maneuvering of Russian President Vladimir Putin both in America and in the Middle East. Note: while Western reporting seldom labels the Russian-backed separatists as ‘terrorists,’ in Ukraine this is the preferred term for the insurgents and is not used as hyperbole: Ukrainians genuinely view the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR) as terrorist entities, not merely for the rebels’ indiscriminate killing and destruction, but for their apparent aim of simply sowing chaos and destruction. As such, the separatists are referred to as ‘terrorists’ throughout the below article.
The Russian Federation is getting rid of the ‘ideological’ fighters to make the DNR and LNR totally controllable. The military component of hybrid aggression may be frozen.
7 September 2015 ~ Peter Shuklinov / LIGABusinessInform
The Russian security forces in the occupied Donbas have created a puppet regime in Donetsk, ready to follow any orders from Moscow. One of the last ideological opponents of Ukraine – Donetsk native Andrei Purgin – has served his purpose and is now deprived of power and influence. At this time there is no blood. A similar process of creating a puppet regime in Luhansk* was completed only after the assassination of the non-Putin-controlled rebel leaders Aleksey Mozgovoy and Aleksandr Bednov (liquidated by the Russian special services at the beginning of the year). The terrorist organizations of DNR [Donetsk People’s Republic] and LNR [Lugansk People’s Republic] are now under Moscow’s full control. What this means, why the terrorists are being advised to flee the Donbas, when the Ukrainian flag will return to Donetsk and Luhansk, what scenarios are realistic, and how Petro Poroshenko’s Plan ‘B’ differs from Vladimir Putin’s plan – this is all in the below article from LigaBusinessInform.
Why Moscow is getting rid of the ‘ideologicals’
In the DNR terrorist organization, Purgin held the formal position of ‘Head of People’s Council of the DNR.’ Last year the terrorists seized the building of the Donetsk Regional Council, where groups of militants had been gathering, and Purgin actually enjoyed the status of speaker for these groups. Now he has been deprived of this status, and all power at this level of the organization is currently in the hands of the terrorist Denis Pushilin – the right hand of local insurgent leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko – who governs with bandits from the captured Donetsk regional administration. The so-called ‘members of parliament’ among the militants are completely devoid of any influence and will do whatever Zakharchenko orders.
At the talks in Minsk, Purgin was one of two representatives of the terrorists in the political subgroup. Now devoid of power, Purgin is an ordinary member of the organization and will not go to Minsk for talks. Now, a desire to hold a referendum in Donetsk on accession to Russia, which is at odds with the Minsk Agreement and – most importantly – Moscow’s plans, is being attributed to Purgin. According to LIGABusinessInform’s interlocutor at the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Purgin left Donetsk and arrived in Saint Petersburg (Russia) on September 1st – on behalf of Zakharchenko. In Russia, Purgin was to meet with military officials responsible for the delivery of weapons to the DNR terrorists.
According to one version, Purgin was confronted with the fait accompli that he should hand over power to Moscow loyalist Pushilin and leave Donetsk. After three days in Saint Petersburg, Purgin went back to Donetsk but was detained by Russian soldiers – Zakharchenko’s ‘personal guard.’ He was thrown into a basement – with his wife and chief assistant, Aleksey Aleksandrov, who held the position of ‘Chief of the Apparatus of the People’s Council’ of the DNR organization – where they were interrogated by members of the FSB [Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation]. According to media reports, after successful negotiations in the basement, Purgin was released.
Moscow has now finally consolidated its power over the DNR terrorists. Within a single day, any decision can be taken. For example, if the Kremlin wishes, a Ukrainian flag could be flying over the regional council in Donetsk. There are no more people like Purgin in Donetsk who could at least try to argue about it. Meanwhile, local residents of Luhansk are already preparing to restore the Ukrainian constitutional system.
The representative of the LNR terrorists in Minsk, Vladislav Deynego, has said that the insurgents are ready to return the seized sections of the Ukrainian-Russian border to the Ukrainian armed forces. ‘I do not think that control over the border in Ukraine will somehow change the situation … Of course, we have a little doubt. It will depend on genuine democracy in Ukraine,’ said the rebel.
On social networks, the terrorists’ supporters are calling on those militants with blood on their hands to leave Ukraine as soon as possible and go to Russia – while they still can. The blogger colonelcassad has posted comments saying: ‘Whoever wants to leave the LNR and DNR in the direction of Russia needs to hurry up a little. The deadlines for fulfillment of these measures are set for mid-November, but they may happen sooner.’ For the idealists of ‘Novorossiya’ and those not covered by the amnesty (because of serious crimes), it seems like a good time to flee Ukraine.
A chance to end the war this year
Now that he has consolidated his power in Donetsk, there is nothing preventing Putin from canceling the separatist ‘elections’ in Donetsk and Luhansk. Recall that, at the request of Ukraine and the West (and in accordance with the Minsk agreements), elections in the occupied areas of the Donbas must be held exclusively within the framework of Ukrainian legislation, with the participation of the Central Election Commission and Ukrainian political parties and media, as well as OSCE observers. Otherwise, Russia can expect a strengthening of the existing sanctions. To avoid this, Donetsk and Luhansk must actually return to the constitutional fold of Ukraine. The situation could now develop according to several scenarios.
• Positive scenario (end of war): The New Year in Donetsk and Luhansk will be celebrated under the Ukrainian flag. Ordinary local militants will be pardoned, murderers and terrorist leaders will be forced to leave the Donbas, and the local population will finally be able to return to normal life.
• Negative scenario (continuation of war): Russia will stall the Minsk agreements and hold illegal elections in the occupied territories, or else delay the implementation of its part of the agreement until the expiration of Minsk-2 and the vote on extending the sanctions at the end of the year. Then, sanctions against Moscow will not only be extended but also strengthened.
From different perspectives, either scenario can be both positive and negative. Some observers believe that only the second scenario is in the interests of Ukraine. Some view the slow but peaceful Ukrainianization and disinfection of Donbas in every sense as better than a war of attrition. However, any of the options as a whole could meet the interests of Ukraine: it all depends on who implements the scenario, and how.
On Tuesday, Minsk will host the next meeting of the contact group, which will discuss the details of the restoration of the Ukrainian constitutional order in the Donbas. On the eve of the meeting to transfer the situation from the military to the political plane, not only are the LNR terrorists talking about allowing the return of Ukraine’s borders. This idea was also voiced by the ringleader of the DNR, Zakharchenko. ‘There is no reasonable alternative to a political solution of the conflict within the Minsk talks. All the other variants will inevitably lead to senseless death, destruction and economic collapse,’ said the leader of the militants, actually using the words of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
As reported by a LigaBusinessInform source in the negotiating group, last week Ukraine and Russia agreed on the withdrawal from the boundary line of weapons with a caliber less than 100 mm. At the meeting on Tuesday, the decision may take the form of a document. However, there is still no progress on the release of Ukrainians held hostage in the Donbas by the Russian hybrid army. In addition, although the Russians and terrorists have reduced the intensity of their fire, the use of weapons prohibited under the Minsk Agreement continues. At the weekend, five Ukrainian soldiers were injured by gunfire from terrorists. There is something to talk about.
The vote on the preliminary constitutional amendments has given Ukraine the right to demand to demand fulfillment of the Minsk Agreement from Russia and additional support from the European Union and United States. Moscow has still shown no progress, although the Kremlin-initiated coup within the DNR terrorist organization generates cautious optimism that Russia might effortlessly liquidate ‘Novorossiya.’ Restoration of the border and the genuine return of Ukrainian authority to Donetsk and Luhansk will allow for a slow cleansing of separatism from the region. A good example of the local population’s exhaustion with war and economic terror under Russian auspices was a rally in Donetsk of 100-150 against Purgin’s dismissal.
For President Poroshenko, the end of the war is a victory in any event. All public opinion polls in Ukraine show the desire of Ukrainians to end hostilities and return to civilian life. On the other hand, the reintegration of the occupied areas will positively affect the future of Ukraine only in the event that it is carried out under conditions that are strictly Kyiv’s. But if, for example, Moscow manages to pull of a relabeling of its troops as a ‘people’s militia’ within the framework of Minsk-2, and if Ukraine accepts this, it will be an obvious defeat. In this case, the occupied areas become a reintegrated time bomb for Ukraine. However, the prerequisites for such a scenario are not yet visible, and Ukraine holds more trump cards in its hands to defend its optimal scenario.
Who will play whom
If Putin chooses war, the extension of sanctions is inevitable. In this case, changes to the Constitution of Ukraine at the next parliamentary vote will be redacted to remove the Minsk provision. ‘Nobody will accelerate the adoption of constitutional amendments in the second reading … Our international partners are ready to support us. I am now actively working on a plan ‘B,’ without losing hope that it will be possible to maintain peace and sovereignty,’ said President Poroshenko, commenting on negotiations with Russia.
Judging from everything, Putin – who has intervened in the war in the Middle East – also seems to have a Plan ‘B.’ Russian troops have landed in Syria and are fighting on the side of government forces of the Bashar al-Assad regime, against the militants of the Islamic State. As in the case of the war against Ukraine in Crimea and the Donbas, the Moscow authorities are conducting a war that is being kept secret from their own citizens. The Kremlin plan can be formally divided into two scenarios.
The main scenario is connected with the participation of Putin in the UN General Assembly in the United States, where he intends to deliver a speech on the war against terrorism. The meeting will take place on September 15th. This is not an official visit, only a formality connected with the principles of the UN’s work. The United States has not invited Putin, and Barack Obama is not planning any meeting with the head of the aggressor state. However, it is possible that during the visit, Putin will try to meet with someone from official Washington. Russia, through diplomatic channels, is apparently already trying to introduce its package of proposals: the destruction of the Islamic State in exchange for the restoration of Russia’s position in the world. And, of course, the easing of sanctions.
- Ukraine’s Plan ‘B’ (presumably): Introduction of peacekeepers in the Donbas and forcing Moscow to make peace on Ukraine’s conditions; extension and strengthening of sanctions against Russia; total blockade of the Russian-occupied areas of the Donbas.
- Russia’s Plan ‘B’ (supposedly): Participation in hostilities against the Islamic State in order to achieve Russia’s return to the club of international players, which will help to lift some of the sanctions imposed for the war against Ukraine, while continuing efforts to achieve reintegration of the occupied territories of the Donbas on its own terms.
The benefits for the USA and the Middle East are that, in furthering the personal interests of Putin, Moscow can destroy as many Russian soldiers and officers in Syria as it wants: public opinion in Russia will not be affected because of total control of the media. Moreover, Russia can equip a coalition against the Islamists, also without damaging public opinion. On the contrary, participation in hostilities in the Middle East would probably even increase the Putin’s ratings: Russians love the grandeur and approve of death for the tsar. Russian media have already begun to justify and promote the actions of the Russian dictator, without forgetting to add that, officially, there are of course no Russians in Syria. For the West, this could be a convenient option: to destroy the threat of ISIS at the hands of the Russians.
However, so far Putin’s games are being received coolly in Washington. US Secretary of State John Kerry called Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to say that the participation of Russian troops in the war in the Middle East could lead to a further escalation of the conflict in Syria, the death of many civilians, an increase in the flow of refugees and a risk of confrontation with the anti-ISIS coalition. Kerry’s words about ‘the risk of confrontation with the coalition’ speak to the fact that the allies do not intend to permit Moscow’s large-scale entry into the Middle East. This is the second branch of Putin’s plan. Obviously, this is a scenario in which the presence of Russian troops helps Moscow to adjust the balance of power in the Middle East conflict. This is just as it is, for example, in the Donbas, where ‘unknown’ Grad missiles fired from multiple rocket launchers strike first on one side, then the other. We cannot exclude attacks on infrastructure, as the region produces a lot of oil.
In addition, the constant presence of Putin’s troops in Syria will help protect the regime of Syrian dictator Assad in the future. Already Russian troops in Syria are fighting not against the Islamic state, but against opponents of Assad who had earlier initiated a revolution in the country – essentially a Maidan – which the regime decided to repay with tanks and artillery. Russia is defending its ally. And it is far from established fact that it would go further and fight ISIS.
The fundamental question
Today, a trilateral meeting (Ukraine, EU, Russia) is being held on the issue of Ukraine’s implementation of European standards within the framework of the EU Association Agreement. Association of Ukraine with the European Union is a matter of the economic interests for Moscow. These interests might have been one of the causes of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Definitively entering the Association Agreement (the economic part as of 1 January 2016) into force without taking the Russian Federation’s demands into account will mean that Ukraine permanently moves out from under the influence of Russia and into the economic orbit of the EU. The loss of the Ukrainian market for the Moscow authorities and the binding of Ukraine to the European market mean a loss of Russian economic leverage: integration into the Moscow-led Customs Union will be impossible for Ukraine.
Even before the meeting, Moscow said it would propose that the technical regulations of the European Union should be introduced by 2025, not only in Ukraine, but in Russia – concurrently. The idea looks extravagant. The position of Ukraine and the European Union remains unchanged: no revisions to the signed Association documents. The Deputy Minister of Economic Development and Trade of Ukraine, Trade Representative Natalya Mykolska, declared that Ukraine was preparing for the meeting with a clear understanding that a break with Russia was inevitable. ‘We are looking to compensate for the possible closure of the Russian market to Ukrainian exports,’ she wrote, explaining that tripartite consultations were part of the Minsk Agreements.
Free trade between Ukraine and the EU should have been developed from October 2014. However, in September 2014, after Russian troops invaded Ukraine near Ilovaisk, the parties agreed to postpone introduction of the agreement’s provisions until 31 December 2015. During this time, the Kremlin has only confirmed the futility of speaking to it about the economy. A new meeting will obligate it to do nothing. Presumably it will end with the same thing: nothing.
~ Peter Shuklinov
* The city of Luhansk is referred to as ‘Luhansk’ (the Russian pronunciation) in the context of the pro-Russian separatist ‘Lugansk People’s Republic.’ In all other contexts it is written as ‘Luhansk,’ the Ukrainian name.