Syrian Gambits Will Not Erase Putin’s Ukraine Problem
Syrian Gambits Will Not Erase Putin’s Ukraine Problem
An Escalatory Spiral in Ukraine?
An Escalatory Spiral in Ukraine?
ukraine-29sep15
A local resident carries bread as a Ukrainian serviceman stands guard in the village of Novotoshkivske near the frontline with pro-Russian separatists, eastern Ukraine, on 8 June 2015. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Syrian Gambits Will Not Erase Putin’s Ukraine Problem

Speaking to American talk show host Charlie Rose over the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered his own recipe for wise leadership: identify problems in time and react accordingly. Viewed through the prism of events in eastern Ukraine, this looks very much like retrospective wisdom. After more than a year of improvising a policy in Donetsk and Luhansk, Putin seems to be looking for a way out. Syria is helping, for now at least, by drawing attention at home and abroad away from Ukraine. But he cannot wish the problem away.

Indeed, Putin’s task on the ground in Ukraine is becoming more complicated. If Russia really wants to pull out, it has to wind up a small but stubborn political local leadership and a quite large militia structure of at least 20,000 fighters that it has generously equipped with artillery and heavy armour. It will discover, if it has not done so already, that separatist leaders have developed their own, usually corrupt, interests, and may not go quietly, and that fighters, abandoned to their own resources, may turn to crime.

Putin will also eventually have to clear up the situation along Russia’s own border with the separatist entities, which has turned into a flourishing centre for contraband. For now, managing Russian domestic opinion may seem easy. On 28 September, when Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama met in New York, one Russian language-website founded last year to support the eastern separatists today is carrying battlefield reports from across Syria; another told its readers that the mere rumours of Russian troops on the way is causing panic among the Islamic State (IS). But the day is approaching when Putin will have to explain to his own people why the glorious revolution in the east turned into what most would call just another bardak. A mess.

The Kremlin has begun to take action in the last few months, stepping up pressure on its allies in the east. There have been changes in the separatist leadership. Obstreperous military commanders have been squeezed out. More recently the second-ranking leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) – Andrei Purgin, very pro-Russian but firmly opposed to compromise with Kyiv – was abruptly arrested and detained by Donetsk’s Ministry of State Security (MGB).

Separatist leaders say reorganisation of the Donetsk military forces have replaced local warlords, Cossacks and others, with regular officers. The large units that reported directly to top leaders – DPR head Alexander Zakharchenko, or Security Council secretary Alexander Khodakovsky – have, in theory at least been subordinated to a regular military structure. Its real leadership is unknown, but probably Russian.

A backdrop to these changes is the steady stream of reminders to the separatists that they are part of Ukraine – something they indignantly deny. One particularly blunt reminder came in a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson. The Minsk agreement of last February, which lays out a complex and so-far little implemented roadmap, “states clearly that Donetsk and Luhansk are part of Ukraine”, she said. “Let’s not fantasise. Let’s get on with implementing this document”.

‘If we fire back, we get into trouble. If we don’t, morale plummets’, an officer in Donetsk tells me.

During a recent meeting in Donetsk with a senior security official, my host paused to take a call. He listened impassively to a long report from a clearly shaken local commander, then hung up. Our Russian military minders are “screaming” at one of our artillery positions for responding to Ukrainian shelling, the official explained. “If we fire back, we get into trouble. If we don’t, morale plummets”, he remarked. Such complaints are sometimes accompanied by warnings that ammunition and supplies may be cut.

It should be easy for Moscow to control its far smaller clients. Russia arms, feeds, and funds the breakaway areas. Only two Donetsk leaders have even a modicum of independence, another member of the leadership told me recently. (Make that one now: soon after our conversation the second of the two leaders was arrested). “The rest of us”, he said, “handle “technical issues”. Separatist leaders obediently attend negotiations in the Minsk format, but they cannot even change the punctuation of any statements, he said.

Already in May 2014, Russia seems to have decided it would not incorporate eastern Ukraine into Russia militarily. Putin likely received convincing intelligence reports that incorporating the east would be much messier and complicated than Crimea. “They ran out of ideas for us over a year ago”, one leader constantly says. Meanwhile, the Russians failed to organise a political or administrative structure, losing time in what looked like a permanent holding pattern. They treated us like “a suitcase without a handle”, another leader remarked, “it’s useless, but you can’t bring yourself to throw it out”.

The separatist rank and file have been suspecting for months, if not longer, that Putin was preparing to dump them.

During this time of constant improvisation in the Kremlin, some of the new local leaders were busy. Powerful criminal groups sprung up with both local political clout and serious firepower. A thriving cross border trade sprang up, with guns, drugs, consumer good, scrap metal and coal crossing both the border with Russia and the line of separation between separatists zones and the rest of Ukraine.

Little of what is happening now is a surprise to the separatist leadership. Rank and file have been suspecting for months, if not longer, that Putin was preparing to dump them. A month or so ago I asked leaders in Donetsk whether such a scenario was possible. One answered with a long and circuitous speech which boiled down to: “Yes”. Andrei Purgin, cautious and still very supportive of Russia, sidestepped slightly, saying: “This is a complex and slippery question”. He did not rule it out, though.

Another problem, one of the subtler analysts in the leadership remarked, is that for the past year hardliners and moderates in the Kremlin have not reached any consensus about what to do next. “At times the military aid tap would flow abundantly, and we felt something was going to happen”, one recalled. “Then it dried up again, and we were told to implement the Minsk agreement. The towers of the Kremlin were fighting against each other”, he said.

The political confusion and competition in Donetsk is thus a reflection of the struggle in Moscow, and it is not slowing down. When I asked which side Putin was on, the analyst demurred. In fact Putin might not be on either side. He may well be where he often is: in the middle, trying to work out which way to go. Military success in Syria may help him by pushing Ukraine off the headlines. But it will not solve the problem he created in eastern Ukraine – and perhaps in the long run at home.

An Escalatory Spiral in Ukraine?

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood talks with Olga Oliker, Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia director, about the latest escalation in Ukraine, as Russian airstrikes batter multiple Ukrainian cities.

The war in Ukraine took another nasty turn this week. Last Saturday, a blast destroyed parts of the Kerch bridge, which links Russian-occupied Crimea with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Ukraine for the explosion and announced retaliatory strikes on cities throughout Ukraine. This latest escalation comes after Ukrainian military gains in September prompted Putin to announce a partial mobilisation of fresh Russian forces and the annexation of several partly Russian-held regions in eastern Ukraine. He also made his most explicit nuclear threats yet. 

In this episode of Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood speaks with Olga Oliker, Crisis Group’s Europe and Central Asia program director, to discuss where things stand on the battlefield, where the conflict might be headed and the peril of further escalation. They talk about Russia’s recent escalatory steps and Moscow’s announcement of General Sergey Surovikin, who led Russia’s brutal campaign in Syria, as new commander for Russia’s Ukraine operations. They also look at the growing criticism in Moscow of Russia’s war efforts. They examine what Putin’s repeated escalations in response to Ukrainian gains means for the risks of a direct confrontation with NATO and nuclear weapons use. They also discuss the divided response from European countries on whether to welcome in Russians fleeing the Kremlin’s mobilisation. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Ukraine, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Ukraine country page, our EU Watch List entry Walking a Fine Line in Ukraine and last week's episode of War & Peace Taking Stock of Russia’s Military Performance in Ukraine with RAND Senior Policy Researcher Dara Massicot.

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