Russia’s Endgame in Donbass

Russia’s Endgame in Donbass

By Paul Robinson

Although in recent weeks the attention of many has shifted to events in Syria, the war in Donbass, in eastern Ukraine, has not entirely ended. Fighting continues to kill two or three people each week, and the peace process established at Minsk in February 2015 has reached something of an impasse, due to disagreement over the provisions concerning constitutional change and the holding of local elections. Whether the parties involved in the conflict will be able to overcome these difficulties, or whether violence will once again escalate, depends in large part on what the Russian Federation does. The economic and military support Canada is providing to Ukraine gives us some degree of leverage over Kiev.

Commentators have suggested several possibilities for Russia’s desired endgame in Donbass, including that:

  • Russia is a ‘revisionist’ power which wishes to destroy the existing international order and create a new one more to its liking.
  • Russia is seeking further territorial expansion, including possibly a ‘land bridge’ linking Russia with Crimea.
  • Russia wants a ‘frozen conflict’ in which the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR) set up in Donbass acquire de facto independence
  • Russia would like the DPR and LPR to rejoin Ukraine, but with ‘special status’ giving them substantial autonomy.

Officially, Russia endorses the last of these options. Since the start of the crisis in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have insisted that Donbass is part of Ukraine, but also that the Ukrainian government must engage in direct dialogue with its opponents in the east of the country in order to find a political solution to the crisis. They insist this solution must include some degree of ‘special status’ for Donbass. Thus in April 2014, Putin remarked that ‘they [the people of Donbass] are citizens of Ukraine, but they should be citizens with equal rights in their country, that’s the entire issue. … It’s necessary to speak with people, and with their real representatives, with people they trust … Only through dialogue … can order be brought to the country.’ And in June 2015, Putin told the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera that:

There needs to be constitutional reform to ensure the autonomous rights of the unrecognised republics. … this should be done, as the Minsk Agreements read, in coordination with Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic. … the leaders of the self-proclaimed republics have publicly stated that under certain conditions … they are ready to consider themselves part of the Ukrainian state … I think this position should be viewed as a sound precondition for the start of substantial negotiations. … All our actions, including those with the use of force, were aimed not at tearing away this territory from Ukraine but at giving the people living there an opportunity to express their opinion on how they want to live their lives.

Russian actions fit with this rhetoric. There is little evidence to support the assertion, often made in the west, that Russia itself instigated the rebellions in Donbass. Rather, Russian actions suggest that their primary objective truly has been a negotiated settlement to the crisis. Getting there has required a two-pronged strategy: first, using military force to coerce Kiev to come to the negotiating table; and second, using the influence gained by military support to persuade the rebels to compromise. The first prong has meant providing the rebels with weapons and supplies, and on occasion intervening directly in combat. The second prong has meant restraining the rebels whenever an opportunity for talks has come about. In June 2014, Moscow persuaded the then head of the DPR, Aleksandr Borodai, to agree to a ceasefire offered by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, in order to take advantage of the opportunity of promised peace negotiations. Similarly, in September 2014 and again in February 2015, when the Ukrainian army suffered severe military defeats and rebel leaders wished to continue their offensives, Putin exerted considerable pressure on them to instead sign the peace agreements in Minsk. Whenever there has been a chance for dialogue, the Russian government has used its influence to push the rebels into halting their military actions.

This strategy has not been successful. Despite the pressure exerted by Russia, the Ukrainian government has to date refused to speak directly with the rebel leadership. Moscow’s position is that constitutional reform and the holding of local elections have to be agreed on with the rebels. Kiev’s position is that it has the right to decide by itself what the reforms should be and how the elections should be held. The result is the current impasse. Moscow may well find itself having to settle for a frozen conflict. This, however, would be an acceptance of reality rather than the desired outcome of deliberate policy.

A political solution to the conflict is possible, but not without direct talks between Kiev and the rebels. It seems unlikely that Russia will accept any solution which is not a product of such talks. What this means for western states, including Canada, is that our diplomatic efforts should aim not so much to coerce Moscow as to persuade Kiev to participate in direct negotiations. The economic and military support Canada is providing to Ukraine gives us some degree of leverage over Kiev. We should use it.

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