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Russia’s mixed signals on eastern Ukraine
Russia’s mixed signals on eastern Ukraine
Enhancing Prospects for Peace in Ukraine
Enhancing Prospects for Peace in Ukraine
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Russia’s mixed signals on eastern Ukraine

Originally published in New Eastern Europe

One of the most dangerous elements of Ukraine’s nearly two-year-old conflict remains the unpredictability of its neighbour Russia’s tactics. Despite repeated expressions of support for the Minsk peace process and recognition of Ukraine’s sovereignty over the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR, LNR), Moscow’s current actions in eastern Ukraine seem designed to strengthen those entities than prepare them for dismantlement.

The cease-fire agreed in Minsk in February 2015 has mostly held since September. But with little progress in the implementation of the overall Minsk accord, the situation remains volatile and tens of thousands of troops face each other along a 500-km line of separation. Those living in the separatist-controlled regions are left wondering what their future has in store for them. Meanwhile, close on 10,000 people have been killed since mid-2014.

The Kremlin, on the other hand, views Ukraine’s shift towards the EU and NATO as a major security threat and the 2014 overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych as a Western-backed campaign aimed at isolating Russia. As a result, Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to keep Ukraine unstable and embroiled in an open-ended, not-so-frozen military conflict with the aim of eventually returning it to its sphere of influence.

Anything, including more serious fighting, is possible. Until there is a clear positive change in the Russian approach, the international community needs to build its policy toward Moscow over eastern Ukraine on that assumption. Large Russian units have already fought twice in Ukraine, even during peace talks in February 2015. Moscow could resort to such means again should the lower-cost, lower-visibility approach of supporting the Donetsk and Luhansk entities in a protracted conflict fail.

Should Moscow want to prove its attachment to the Minsk process, however, there are concrete steps it could take. It could, for example, withdraw the regular military units that it maintains in the DNR and LNR. It already has substantial forces on the Russia side of its border with Ukraine, which are at most an hour or two away from the line of separation. The quiet removal of these units would substantially increase Ukrainian and Western confidence that Russia is indeed committed to Minsk.

Russia could also reduce military supplies to the entities. Cuts in fuel, lubricants and ammunition for artillery and other heavy weapons would gradually diminish their forces’ mobility and effectiveness. As Russia still denies providing such items, this could be done with minimal publicity or face loss. The international community, including the US, might offer confidence-building measures in return, perhaps including a security dialogue in the region, or consultations on ways to dismantle the poorly-disciplined LNR and DNR militaries.

A bill of $1 billion

Russian policy towards the DNR and LNR abruptly changed in the autumn of 2015. The majority of Russian advisers (kurators), who ensure that both entities’ leaders toe Moscow’s line, were replaced, frequently by officers from the FSB, the Federal Security Service. Without explanation, Moscow also began to provide money for pensions, other social payments and government and military salaries – something Russian officials had previously intimated Moscow could not afford.

The fact that the entities can now pay pensions, government salaries and social benefits with money coming from Moscow is significant, both politically and socially. Separatist officials had previously been told that Russia would intervene in the event of a mortal military threat to them or a major humanitarian crisis, but that otherwise support would be limited. Now, however, Moscow’s total outlay in pensions, allowances, state and military salaries is likely to exceed $1 billion million a year in eastern Ukraine.

After ignoring internal DNR political dynamics since the beginning of the war, Moscow has thrown its weight behind the top leaders of both entities – despite their ambiguous standing among many separatists. It is pushing for the creation of two political parties in the DNR, both tightly linked to Donetsk’s separatist leadership, so unlikely to differ in much but name. One, Oplot Donbassa, will probably be headed by Alexander Zakharchenko, the DNR head; the other, Donetskaya Respublika, by Denis Pushilin, a politician known for unquestioning loyalty to Moscow. This suggests a somewhat belated effort to organise politically in preparation for local elections stipulated by the Minsk agreement. Whatever the decision, a separatist official said, “you will find out about it at the same time as us – or maybe earlier”.

Expendable leaderships

Separatist leaders admit they are accidental rulers who moved into the political and security vacuum created by the collapse of Victor Yanukovych’s presidency on 22 February 2014 and the subsequent paralysis of the provisional central government. Few knew each other well, if at all. Their various backgrounds include links to Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, a Ukrainian oligarch, Russia’s radical nationalists, and, increasingly, organised crime. They were guided not by a single ideology or thinker, but by mixed motives: rejection of the Maidan’s “anarchy”, deep suspicion of any post-Soviet Kyiv government, reflexive pro-Russian sentiments and opportunism. Their diversity, fragmentation and distrust, along with near-total lack of political or administrative experience, has militated against emergence of coherent administrations or functional political parties. This is only happening now with Moscow’s prodding.

One thing the leaders of both entities have never doubted is that Russia views them as expendable. Donetsk and Luhansk were never Moscow’s main prize. For two months after Yanukovych’s fall, Moscow hoped for an uprising in the rest of the “historically Russian” oblasts of the south east and was deeply disappointed when it did not happen. Even the most pro-Russian, separatist leaders openly say Moscow could drop them at any time. Asked about this, one official believed at the time to have good contacts in Moscow sidestepped what he called this “a complex, slippery question”. Another, widely believed to have stayed at the top thanks to extensive Russian support, refused to rule out such an eventuality, referring to what he complained was constant in-fighting in Moscow.

Moscow control

DNR and LNR leaders admit their role is very circumscribed. They are completely excluded from decision-making process on Minsk implementation. There, Moscow controls “every phrase, every comma”, a senior DNR official says. A top figure explained that Moscow is playing a long game: sometimes the small separatist islets are helpful, sometimes a distraction, but the main aim is ultimate return of the whole of Ukraine to Moscow’s sphere of influence.

While publicly insisting that Moscow’s political and military influence over the entities is minimal, DNR leaders privately admit their total dependence. Alexander Khodakovsky, the DNR security council secretary, recently spoke of the leadership’s constant efforts to balance the desires of the Donbass population and of “the top political powers”, by which he meant Russia. In the same interview, he said Russian “material support” is 70 per cent of the DNR budget. Many observers and officials believe it is at the very least 90 per cent. Russia provides everything, another leader said, expressing frustration at the public’s lack of appreciation. “They don’t realise who is providing gas for heating, fuel for vehicles, money for basic goods. How do they think we got through last winter and will survive this one?”

Russian troops are the key to LNR and DNR survival. Following Putin’s December 2014 acknowledgement of a very limited Russian military presence in the east, one of the best informed Russian pro-separatist activists, Alexander Zhuchkovsky, broke the code of silence on the Russian presence and laid out succinctly the regular army’s central role:

“It is a given that the prime ministers and defence ministers of LNR/DNR take no key [military] decisions. The command of military corps, military intelligence, planning, supply of troops with ammunition and fuel are all in the hands of “the people who decide certain questions”, as Putin would say … and one should also understand that hundreds of these people – career military and intelligence officers (including high-ranking ones) risk their lives, and many have already died.”

On the other side of the line of separation, Ukrainian security and military specialists admit they are more observers than participants in the current stage of the conflict. “Everything depends on one man, Putin”, said a prominent Ukrainian security analyst. The Ukrainian side can only watch and try to guess what Russia is planning. Russia’s reorganisation of the LNR and DNR militaries seems, he said, aimed at creating large, well-equipped border guard forces, with impressive armour resources, should Russia decide to keep the entities alive for a few more years.

The civilians: Victims, bystanders or accomplices?

There are no reliable opinion polls in the east and no clear estimate of even the population of the separatist entities. Fragments of information and conversations with residents suggest that the separatists lack broad social support, but that acceptance will grow if easterners continue to feel Kyiv has no interest in them.

The popular mood, a Donetsk resident said, seems to be “to avoid contact with the regime as much as possible”. An active civil society figure said the population is split roughly three ways: for the regime, against it and neutral. The strongest pro-separatist constituency is probably pensioners, villagers and unskilled workers; the middle class generally keeps its distance, he said.

The recruiting difficulties the DNR and LNR face is one of the clearest measures of popular attitude towards the separatists. In May 2014, at the height of the battle for Slavyansk, the separatist commander in chief, Igor Girkin (Strelkov), complained of the difficulties of finding even 1,000 volunteers among Donetsk Oblast’s 4.5 million people. Unable to raise able-bodied fighting men, he scornfully opened recruitment to women. To support the armed struggle, Russian nationalists recruited and equipped volunteers to fight, raising money by appeals on the Internet and metro stations in Russia’s big cities.

Support for the separatists may grow if easterners remain cut off from Ukraine’s economic mainstream. Zhuchkovsky, the activist blogger, recently offered a sobering account of the situation in the DNR, where he spends much of his time:

“People survive. There’s a crisis in Russia too, but our crisis has totally different criteria …. The conditions are wartime. People are reduced to the limit … something to eat, and to dress for the cold .… They mostly live on savings. Of course some government offices are working, but the pay there is on average 5,000-7,000 roubles [$65-$90] a month.”

Economic hardship and the financial restrictions risk intensifying the feeling among residents of the east that Kyiv has written them off. This will further complicate the region’s future reintegration into a united Ukraine. The Kyiv government urgently needs to work on long-range contingency planning to address this issue.

Tactics, strategy, and fatalism

Senior DNR and LNR leaders watch Moscow closely for subtle changes in mood or message. In the short term, they are confident they will be protected if Kyiv attacks. Many believe Putin warned Poroshenko in mid-2015 that Russia’s response to use of force by Ukraine would be devastating: “going all the way to Kyiv.” But they have no idea of their ultimate fate. “There is one thing our kurators cannot explain,” one of the highest said. “That is what is happening in the Kremlin. They don’t know themselves”.

A sophisticated DNR analyst views the opacity of its intentions as proof Moscow is not yet agreed on a way out of the eastern Ukraine morass. Division in the Kremlin on Ukraine is manifested on the ground by lack of both political and military coordination. Different “towers of the Kremlin” are fighting each other, the analyst said. Both Moscow and Kyiv would love to escape this situation, but “need to be able to offer their people the illusion of victory”.

Indications that Moscow is simultaneously examining several possible outcomes are not new in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Improvisation is an inherent part of its policymaking process. Some prominent Russian analysts, in public unflinchingly supportive of their president, say he is neither a tactician nor strategist, but a fatalist, making bold but uninformed decisions and embarking on risky political courses without fully knowing where they will lead.

Public support for the Minsk peace process is steadily waning in Kyiv – a well-regarded Ukrainian poll in late November reported 16.1 per cent of respondents were positive towards Minsk, down from 34 per cent in March 2015. Ukrainian political leaders are aware that international attention has shifted from their conflict to Syria’s and believe that the EU consensus in favour of sanctions will end in the next half year, though senior Western diplomats say that US and key Western leaders are firm about maintaining them.

Contradictory pressures

Full Minsk implementation might allow Moscow to exit the east with some dignity intact. But It would require Russia to wind up the separatist enclaves, thus abandoning the political thorn in Kyiv’s side that it had hoped would further slow political and economic reform in Ukraine.

Freezing the conflict has its attractions. Moscow’s allies would remain in control and pressure would be maintained on the Ukrainian government. A situation of neither war nor peace would hamper reform in Kyiv, but benefit corrupt figures there, rich separatist leaders and possibly some among the Moscow elite. It would also postpone thorny problems, such as what to do with the DNR and LNR militaries and reinforce warnings to other neighbours of the risks of closer ties with the West. But it would cost Moscow a lot of money.

The EU, US and allies must keep up the pressure on Moscow to take steps to clarify and demonstrate its intentions. And they should never forget that the military option is still on the table for Russia, which has kept its pipeline to the entities open and has shown itself ready to use its troops on Ukrainian territory.

The European Union (EU), especially member states Germany and France, and the US should avoid the trap of letting a potentially lengthy resolution process and different interpretations of its provisions undermine their vital consensus on maintaining sanctions until Minsk is fully implemented. While pressing Moscow on its plans international actors should both warn President Putin explicitly of the dangers of substituting something else for Minsk and remind him that if and when he wishes to extricate himself from eastern Ukraine, they can help.

Enhancing Prospects for Peace in Ukraine

EU-Russia ties are frostier than ever. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2021 – Spring Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to forge consensus with the U.S. and UK on responses to any threats, or evidence, of Russian attacks on Ukraine, and to work with the U.S. on breaking the impasse in talks.

Relations between Russia and the European Union (EU) are frostier than ever. Reasons include disagreements old and new, with Europeans concerned about issues from Moscow’s treatment of opposition activist Alexei Navalny and other dissidents, to its alleged meddling in their elections, to newly surfaced reports of Russian involvement in a 2014 explosion at a Czech munitions depot. Those reports formed the backdrop for a rash of diplomatic expulsions by Prague and other European capitals, on one hand, and Moscow on the other. But it is the continuing war between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian state forces in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region that remains the sorest point of friction.

Russia raised worries of a substantial escalation in Kyiv and among Ukraine’s Western partners when it massed forces near Ukraine’s borders in March and April. While these anxieties were largely assuaged when Russia started to pull back its forces in late April, the situation as a whole remains fraught. A ceasefire Kyiv and Moscow agreed to in July 2020 has broken down. Negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow are deadlocked. Neither side is taking steps prescribed by the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements that ended the worst of the fighting and were intended to bring peace. The Normandy Format peace process that includes France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine is largely dormant, with no new summit on the horizon. Absent changes, the coming year could bring new problems and new dangers of further outbreaks of violence. The EU, for all its difficulties with Moscow, can and should work with member states and allies to mitigate the risks and seek ways to break the impasse.

To deter future threats to Ukraine and reduce tensions with Moscow, the EU and its member states should:

  • Forge consensus with the U.S. and UK about how they would respond to evidence of Russian threats to attack or actual attacks on Ukraine, focusing on what additional sanctions they would apply and under what circumstances. Options for increasing military pressure should be viewed cautiously, given that they could bring further risks of escalation.
  • For purposes of deterrence, quietly communicate agreed-upon red lines and repercussions to the Kremlin, being careful not to rely on bluffs that Moscow would be likely to call.
  • Encourage Kyiv, on one side, and Moscow and its proxies, on the other, to return to observing the July 2020 ceasefire as a prelude to renewed talks among the Normandy Format countries and the U.S.
  • Work with the Biden administration to create incentives for breaking the long-running impasse in talks, including by delineating, and communicating, a clear plan for gradual, reversible sanctions relief for Russia in response to measurable progress.
  • Develop and propose economic incentives to aid and support Kyiv’s planning for Donbas’s eventual reintegration, to include proposals for restoring social, economic and transport links between government-controlled and separatist-held Donbas.

Political Stalemates

In December 2019, as French, German, Ukrainian and Russian leaders met in Paris to hold their first Normandy Format meeting to advance the Ukrainian peace process in three years, there seemed to be cause for hope. With a new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who had averred his commitment to peace both on the campaign trail and upon taking office, the summit might have been a first step on a new path after years of stalemate and disappointment.

A year and a half later, those hopes are foundering. The conflict parties have taken only two of the seven joint steps promised in Paris: Kyiv and the Russian-backed leadership of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Donbas exchanged detainees in December 2019 and April 2020, and Kyiv and Moscow agreed to a ceasefire starting 27 July 2020. But other important steps – including, crucially, disengagement of forces from front lines, demining, particularly around key infrastructure facilities located on the line of separation between Ukrainian and separatist forces, and full access for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission – remain outstanding.

Moreover, even the slim progress made in 2019 and 2020 has begun to unravel. By March 2021, the ceasefire, the most successful of the many reached since the war began, had collapsed. As shelling and sniper fire resumed across the line of separation, a new crisis emerged. Russian troop build-ups near Ukraine in late March and early April sparked fears of a return to large-scale combat. The Kremlin said the soldiers were conducting routine training, but the deployment of paratroopers to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and establishment of a base camp at Voronezh (a few hours’ drive from the Ukrainian border) were nonetheless unusual and, understandably, alarming for Kyiv and its Western allies. When Ukraine asked for help, European countries, the EU, U.S. and UK spoke supportively but took no overt action in response.

At the end of April, ten days after Presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden discussed a possible summit in a call, Moscow announced that the troops had completed their training and would be coming home. The announcement helped assuage concerns (although leaving unclear what precisely Moscow’s motives had been), but by then relations between Russia and the West were taking new twists and turns. In mid-April, the Czech Republic made public its findings of Russian involvement in a 2014 explosion at a Czech munitions depot and announced the expulsion of eighteen Russians affiliated with Moscow’s mission in Prague. Further expulsions by both sides ensued, with other European countries also expelling dozens of Russian diplomats. At around the same time, Washington announced its own expulsions of Russian diplomats along with new sanctions in retaliation for Russia’s alleged hack of U.S. government infrastructure through software provided by the SolarWinds company. In response, on 14 May, Russia said it deemed the Czech Republic and the U.S. “unfriendly” countries, curtailing the staff of their diplomatic missions. Then on 19 May, Washington imposed sanctions on a total of thirteen Russian vessels involved in laying the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will bypass traditional routes for which Russia pays lucrative gas transit fees to Ukraine and pump Russian gas directly to Germany.

Yet amid the rancour there are positive signs. Even as the new U.S. sanctions were announced, when Putin and Biden’s top diplomats met in Iceland in preparation for their possible summit in June, they noted their differences but struck an optimistic tone. Moreover, the Kremlin and Kyiv were exchanging invitations for summits of their own: Zelenskyy invited his Russian counterpart to meet in Donbas and Putin countered with an invitation to Moscow – although only to discuss issues unrelated to the war. Ukraine and Russia confirmed in late May that preparations for a meeting between Putin and Zelenskyy were under way.

But for there to be any chance of progress toward resolving the Donbas conflict, itself necessary for improving relations between Moscow and the West, the parties will need to address certain core areas of disagreement relating to implementation of the Minsk agreements. Among the most contentious is a Minsk requirement that Kyiv grant local autonomy (“special status”) to the separatist-held areas and hold local elections there in exchange for Ukraine regaining control of its eastern border. Ukraine says it cannot run credible polls in these regions until it has reassumed territorial control, and indeed its parliament has prohibited elections without first regaining such control. Russia says Minsk is clear: elections and special status come first, control only afterward. Moving past this fundamental impasse will be hard, but in theory, a deal is possible. The parties might agree, for example, that the OSCE and UN will monitor the border and region as a whole while elections are held, in order to assuage Kyiv’s concerns about their integrity.

The longer the war continues, the more positions harden, and the more difficult concessions seem.

In practice, however, the longer the war continues, the more positions harden, and the more difficult concessions seem. Complicating things further, Moscow sees Donbas-related sanctions as part and parcel of a broader Western pressure campaign, with Ukraine only one component. Russia is particularly rankled by what it perceives as the EU’s interference in its domestic politics. Russian parliamentary elections scheduled for September are likely to be a source of friction alongside the dispute over Navalny, particularly if, as appears likely, the Kremlin escalates its crackdowns on independent media and opposition. European positions may also harden due to forthcoming polls in European countries – notably Germany in September – in which European leaders will likely fear Russian meddling given Moscow’s previous alleged interference. Broader tensions make it all the harder to find mutually acceptable ways forward on Donbas.

Recommendations for the EU and Its Member States

Still, with Russia reversing its troop build-up and Washington interested in a June summit with Moscow, the EU and its member states may have an opportunity to work with the U.S. and UK to develop a joint deterrence strategy and revive the peace process.

Brussels, Washington and London should coordinate a common approach to deterrence in the face of future threats or aggression in Donbas. The first step would be to reach agreement on both red lines and consequences if Russia crosses them. For these purposes, sanctions, for all their limits, remain the primary non-military tool at the West’s disposal. Existing sanctions could be augmented through steps that would curtail lending to certain Russian enterprises, cut off Russian access to the SWIFT banking network or block Russian purchases of sovereign debt on the secondary market. Moscow is likely to be particularly concerned about the possibility of U.S. secondary sanctions, through which the U.S. could block access to the U.S. financial system for third parties that engage in prohibited transactions. The secondary sanctions could have a negative impact on EU member states, however, and risk adding to transatlantic tensions over the cost to European companies of U.S. sanctions on Nord Stream 2. (On the latter front, in a nod to ties with Berlin, the Biden administration waived sanctions on the company behind the pipeline and its chief executive.) Brussels and Washington should reach as good an understanding as possible about when Europe would back U.S. sanctions of this nature.

As for whether military pressure could be useful for purposes of deterrence, the West’s somewhat muffled response to the Russian troop build-up only reinforced awareness on all sides that neither the U.S. nor European countries want to get drawn into conflict in Ukraine. The Western powers should not make bluffs that Russia could well call. They should be extremely cautious about taking or threatening measures that would increase the likelihood of confrontation – such as putting Western advisers on the front line in Ukraine. While ramping up the provision of weapons to Kyiv might be less risky, doing so is not likely to yield the kind of battlefield advantage that would change Moscow’s calculations.

Whatever combination of economic and other measures the EU, U.S. and UK agree upon, they should communicate clearly to Moscow what their red lines are and what the consequences will be for crossing them.

Whatever combination of economic and other measures the EU, U.S. and UK agree upon, they should communicate clearly to Moscow what their red lines are and what the consequences will be for crossing them. Sending the message through quiet rather than public channels may give Moscow more political room to absorb it without reacting counterproductively. To maximise the usefulness of sanctions as leverage, the Western powers should not threaten measures that they would be unwilling or unable to rescind in the event that Russia reverses course.

As the EU and its partners are developing their approach to deterrence, they should also be focusing on easing tensions on the ground and encouraging dialogue. This means getting the parties back to the table, ideally for a near-term summit among the Normandy Four and possibly the U.S. Either before or at the summit, France and Germany could press for a suite of de-escalatory measures: for example, returning to the July 2020 ceasefire; broader and freer access for OSCE ceasefire monitors; a roadmap to restoring civilian freedom of movement across the line of separation; and broader military deconfliction and resumption of prisoner exchanges.

Ideally, over the course of the summit and ensuing negotiations, the EU, U.S. and UK would also present Moscow with incentives for charting a path out of the current standoff. They could, for example – as Crisis Group has argued before – offer the Kremlin a concrete plan to exchange the lifting of specific Minsk-related sanctions (eg, against banks and companies) for specific Russian military and political concessions in Donbas (eg, compromises on the Ukrainian border, disarmament of combatants or flexibility on special status). The proposal would make clear that should Russia or its proxies renege, the sanctions will be reimposed. There is some risk in this course of action: should Russia pocket the concessions and then backslide, Brussels may find it difficult to cobble back together the consensus required for the reimposition of sanctions. But if the U.S. and its European partners are not ready to use sanctions relief to motivate incremental progress by Moscow, the combination of high demands and inflexible tools offers little hope of breaking the deadlock.

Brussels should also work with Kyiv to encourage flexible thinking along the lines suggested above about how to work through the impasse over “special status” and begin planning for the near-term reintegration of Donetsk and Luhansk. The latter point is controversial: on one hand, Zelenskyy’s team has rallied to produce a roadmap for reintegration, but on the other, they appear to increasingly favour relegating the task to a distant and speculative future. If Brussels wants to help reverse this tide, it should keep up its promises of an EU economic support package to help rehabilitate the war-torn region, as well as offer plentiful guidance on overhauling Donbas’s fossil fuel-dependent economy. As further preparation for reintegration, Brussels should also maintain pressure on Kyiv to build an independent judiciary and adopt transitional justice legislation that encourages combatants to disarm and provides a framework for the fair trial of accused war criminals on both sides.