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“Donetsk exchange”: U.S. and Russia find common points – for how long?

A year ago, in late July – early August 2014, the Ukrainian crisis reached a high point. EU imposed financial and economic sanctions against Russia, as a Malaysian Boeing crushed near Russian border. The situation required open interference of Russia in the military actions in Donbass. Otherwise, Kiev’s regime of nationalists would suppress the open rebellion in the region yet in August 2014. If the military operation near Ilovaisk was part of the “hybrid war” in Ukraine, the crush of the Malaysian Boeing was the “cost” of that secret war - the necessary component of it. If the war in Ukraine were of classical format, there would be no such situation with the Boeing. Eventually, the pluses of the “hybrid war” were overweighed by a significant minus. It is useless to prove anything here, as the West will keep blaming the Russian leadership for the Boeing crush.  

These are details of the crisis of 2014, though very important ones. Russia will feel the consequences of the “hybrid war” in future. The general development of the political process launched in that period is important now. That overall tension in late July – August 2014 was what gave start to the Minsk process. It was a direct result of the growing tensions in Donbass. Will it lead to the conflict management or escalate it even more. The situation is not stable. A year has passed since then, but there is still no peace in Donbass, even after the Minsk Agreement made in Sept 2014 and the Minsk II of Feb 2015. Moreover, the Minsk II was followed by the Normandy Four meeting with participation of the Russian, French presidents and the German chancellor.

What is the main reason that torpedoes the Minsk peace process? On the one hand, there is no crucial military success. Ukraine’s Armed Force in the zone of the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) suffered a series of military failures in late August 2014 and in mid-February 2015, but they were not destroyed finally. None of the Minsk agreements was preceded by Kiev’s decisive defeat, and, consequently, there are limited opportunities to dictate it anything and demand it to observe the Minsk Agreements.

On the other hand, Moscow that backs the self-defense forces was too insistent in its efforts to achieve peace and compromise not just with Kiev but the West, and U.S. first. Kremlin made many strategic miscalculations at various stages of the Ukrainian crisis in the period from November 2013 up to May 2014. Leaving aside didactics and criticism, Moscow made minimum stakes on Ukraine from the very beginning. It is a simple statement of the fact. Taking Crimea, Moscow focused on it as its only guaranteed achievement. As to the other things, Russia left everything to the turn of events. Moscow sought the least – Crimea – though it could seek more and get at least Crimea. Eventually the project “Novorossiya” was announced, but not implemented, though the armed conflict that was unleashed in April 2014 is not over yet.

Perhaps, the limited strategy of Russia in Ukraine was connected with the illusion that U.S. and Germany suggested to Russia’s leadership since March 2014. Our key rivals differentiated the issue of Crimea from the one of Eastern Ukraine. It inspired with hopes that U.S., Germany and EU will bring the Crimea problem out of the settlement process in east Ukraine. The rebellious Donbass would turn into a bargaining chip in such state of affairs. They counted on Crimea’s de-facto unification with Russia though the West does not recognize it de-jure. Donbass was suggested a Minsk settlement with a status of autonomy. In a point of fact, the sanctions of U.S. and EU spread over Crimea and Donbass. Although the March sanctions against Russia were demonstrative, those imposed on Donbass in July caused serious financial and economic damage to Russia. Previosuly, the West restricted Russia with a silent promise to bring Crimea issue out of the Minsk agreements, after July 2014, the West began threatening with new more serious sanctions in case of a new offensive in Donbass to expand the “insurgent territory.” In November 2014, German Chancellor Merkel said openly that peaceful settlement in the east of Ukraine on the Minsk scheme will not remove the issue of Crimea from agenda.

Even after it, in the course of the months that following Minsk II, the EU and U.S. leaders have been assuring that the sanctions will be rescinded when Moscow implements the Minsk Agreements. The Kremlin has nothing to do but believe in it. Yet, the continuous diplomatic dialogue does not mean that the West is going and must ease the sanctions.

By mid-July 2015, it has become evident that even the initial provisions of the Minsk agreements concerning the ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons have not been implemented, though it was officially announced in early March 2015 that they had been implemented. What is left for Russia to do it such circumstances? The Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) authorities announced a one-sided withdrawal of 100mm caliber artillery weapons from the “engagement line.” DPR authorities promise to finally withdraw the weapons on Tuesday, July 21. Meantime, Ukraine’s Armed Forces are regularly shelling at Donetsk using artillery weapons. Nevertheless, the DPR demonstratively withdraws weapons to implement the Minsk II. This is a rehearsal for implementation of the provision No.10 of the Minsk Agreements: “Pullout of all foreign armed formations, military equipment, and also mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine under OSCE supervision. Disarmament of all illegal groups.”

On July 17 2015, the Russian Foreign Ministry as usually expressed “concern” over the continuing Ukrainian crisis and the problems impeding its settlement. Kiev continues its policy of the March 2015. They implement some selected provisions of the Minsk Agreements of February 12 2015 and do it the way they want. U.S. and EU support such approach. Ukraine’s draft constitutional amendments, particularly the decentralization-related provision, were drafted without participation of Donetsk and Lugansk and neglecting the interests of Ukraine’s southeast.

Kiev needs to demonstrate implementation of the Minsk agreements. Perhaps, Donetsk and Lugansk are demanded to do the same. We are witnessing a kind of competition imitating implementation of the Minsk II. On July 16, President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko confirmed that the draft amendments to the Constitution of Ukraine do not provide for a special status to Donbass. Nevertheless, the Supreme Rada of Ukraine has already passed the Bill of decentralization-related amendments in the first reading. The amendments suggest that a “separate law” determines status of the DPR and LPR.

President of Ukraine and the Supreme Rada have to implement the following provisions of the Minsk Agreements after amending the Constitution:

-              provide pardon and amnesty by way of enacting a law that forbids persecution and punishment of persons in relation to events that took place in particular districts of Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts of Ukraine;

-              approve permanent legislation on the special status of particular districts of Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts in accordance with the measures spelt out in the attached footnote,[note 1] by the end of 2015;

-              based on the Law of Ukraine "On temporary Order of Local Self-Governance in Particular Districts of Donetsk and Lugansk Oblasts", questions related to local elections will be discussed and agreed upon with representatives of particular districts of Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts in the framework of the Trilateral Contact Group. Elections will be held in accordance with relevant OSCE standards and monitored by OSCE/ODIHR;

-              define the modalities of a full restoration of social and economic connections, including social transfers, such as payments of pensions and other payments (income and revenue, timely payment of communal bills, restoration of tax payments within the framework of Ukrainian legal field).

Actually, Russia seeks to give the conflict in Donbass a status of a protracted conflict, on the scenario of the “new Transnistria.” This requires efficient and guaranteed implementation of the Minsk agreement, not imitation of it. Only the United States can provide such guarantees. Moscow is sure that no peaceful settlement is possible in Ukraine unless U.S. directly involves into the peace process. So far, the diplomatic relations around the Minsk agreements are just tactical maneuvering, as it is still impossible to achieve a peaceful solution.  

Moscow realizes this. All the year, in the light of the Ukrainian crisis, representatives of the Russian authorities have been claiming that the conflict between U.S. and Russia in Ukraine does not preclude the two powers’ mutual interests and Russia’s “role” for the United States in settlement of other crises in the world, including the combined efforts against international terrorism. It appears that the two powers have found common points. After the visit of Secretary of State John Kerry to Sochi on May 12 2015, a U.S.-Russian – “Nuland-Karasin” - format of negotiations on Ukraine was created. Afterwards, in June 2015, Russian cancelled the planned “Normandy Four” meetings at the level of foreign ministers. On June 28, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama had a phone talk over the implementation of the Minsk Agreements and the problem of the international policy connected with the military crisis in Syria and Iran’s nuclear program.  Two weeks later, on July 14 2015, with active participation of Russia, Iran and P5 +1 made a deal that managed the 15-year-long international crisis in the Middle East – Iran’s nuclear problem. The next day, on July 15, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland travelled to Kiev and made President Poroshenko to amend the Constitution of Ukraine to include in it the “special regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.” She made the Ukrainian parliament to support the bill in the first reading.  This paves a way to what Kiev had been opposing for a long time – official recognition of Donetsk and Lugansk. The next step must be the real, not imitated implementation of the Minsk agreements.

Yet, another threat may emerge later, if the future autonomous region in Donbass fails to achieve relative stability. In fact, it is a very important issue, as Kiev may liquidate the autonomy of Donetsk and Lugansk after a while following the Minsk process and peaceful settlement in the east of Ukraine. This will undermine Russia’s legitimacy. Russia must recall the political lesson of the military crisis in Donbass it learnt a year ago.  

The military-political crisis in Donbass in July 2014 showed Russia’s rivals the excessive zeal of part of its leadership engaged in the current Ukrainian problem to de-escalate the rebellion in Donbass. For that purpose, Moscow even damaged the tried-and-tested authority of political analyst Sergey Kurginyan. In the course of his visit to Donbass in early July 2014, Kurginyan openly blamed the rebellion leaders under the pretense of criticizing “the wrong decisions” in Slavyansk. Kurginyan’s insinuations in Donetsk became a forerunner for recalling Igor Strelkov, the commander of the self-defense forces in Novorossiya, to Russia. Kurginyan’s demarche in Donetsk revealed that the rebels are not united and are not subordinate to the single center. This unveiled also the interests of the local oligarchs – billionaire Rinat Akhmetov and his representative Alexander Khodakovsky - “minister of security of the DPR” until July 16 2014. In addition, Kurginyan revealed the ties of the local oligarchs with the pro-governmental circles in Moscow. Eventually, Kiev took advantage of the fact that the forces confronting with it lack unity and began delaying with implementation of the Minsk Agreements. Kiev authorities pin big hopes with the discrepancies of DPR and LPR. They anticipate that Akhmetov’s forces, in the person of Khodakovsky, will become “a Trojan horse” in Donbass. Moscow needs neutralization of Khodakovsky and Akhmetov’s influence in “the autonomous region” in Donbass to achieve true stability in Donbass after the Minsk agreements are implemented and Kiev guarantees non-resumption of attacks.

The Ukrainian crisis and the settlement scheme Russia has chosen show that the inertia of the Soviet period has stopped. The post-Soviet period is over to and a new stage of history starts. The way the crisis in Ukraine develops, one can say that the ideological programs of the “Russian world” and support to “compatriots” are no longer relevant. We have reached a stage when the danger of Russia’s disintegration has grown significantly and it is necessary to be beware to the nuances of the policy in Ukraine.

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