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The Road From Donbas To Damascus

  • Brian Whitmore

(Cartoon by Sergei Elkin)

(Cartoon by Sergei Elkin)

When Ukraine and pro-Moscow separatists in Donbas agreed last week to withdraw armaments from the front lines, the news was greeted with a collective shrug in Russia.

Ditto this week when rebel leaders announced they were abandoning plans to hold unsanctioned elections in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk "people's republics."

Apparently Ukraine is suddenly just so 2014. Igor Strelkov and Novorossia are out. Syria and Bashar al-Assad are in.

"The soap opera in Ukraine is over, at least for the current season. The heroic separatists, their evil fascist foes, and the cynical Western meddlers have been retired," veteran Kremlin-watcher Edward Lucas, author of the books Deception and The New Cold War, wrote in a recent article.

"The new entertainment is a thrilling and exotic epic set in Syria, with the Assad regime as the heroic defenders of civilized values, Russian their valiant allies, and the West as the defenders of jihadist barbarians."

An editorial in Gazeta.ru noted that "in a matter of days the military-media techniques that were used in the conflict with Ukraine were reformatted and have now been directed toward the Syrian campaign."

Kiosks collecting aid for Donbas at subway stations have been repurposed for Syria; television talking heads who not long ago were opining about the "Russian World" have suddenly been transformed into experts on the Middle East; the gold standard for patriotism among bloggers is zeal for Assad.

"Sometimes it appears that in their articles, speeches, and appeals, they have hastily replaced Donetsk with Damascus," the newspaper wrote.

So is Russia backing down on Ukraine as it pursues its Syrian adventure? Will President Petro Poroshenko's pro-Western government in Kyiv now have some breathing space?

Ah, not quite. In fact, Vladimir Putin's Syria campaign is actually making it more difficult for Ukraine to escape from Russia's grip.

In a recent column for Bloomberg View, political commentator Leonid Bershidsky noted how at an October 2 summit in Paris, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel imposed a settlement on Poroshenko that is clearly in Russia's interests.

According to the agreement, which came after five hours of talks in Elysee Palace, Ukraine must design a law on elections in the rebel territories in consultation with Russia and the separatists.

Elections will be held 80 days after the legislation passes and if they are deemed free and fair, then Ukraine will be given back control of its border.

Kyiv will also be required to grant an amnesty to separatist leaders.

Ukraine had opposed an amnesty and insisted that elections could not be held in the separatist territories until they were completely under Kyiv's control.

But according to Bershidsky, Poroshenko "underestimated the determination of France and Germany to get the Ukrainian matter out of the way in the most efficient manner possible."

It's a determination that appears fueled, at least partially, by the Syria conflict and the refugee crisis it has sparked in Europe.

And Putin is now banking on exerting political and economic influence on Kyiv through the separatist areas of Donbas after they are reintegrated into Ukraine.

"He can afford to wait," Bershidsky wrote.

The endgame in Ukraine will no doubt have more twists of fortune and Poroshenko has thus far proven to be adept at playing a bad hand well -- particularly in the months following the February Minsk cease-fire, which was widely seen as advantageous for Moscow.

But Syria is now giving Russia additional leverage.

"Moscow's intervention in Syrian affairs means that Russia's game against the West is acquiring a new dimension and Russia's leaders now have new trump cards in their hands," Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote in an October 6 editorial.

"Assad's removal is the goal of the West and the United States. Russia's support for this is optional if there are no Russian aircraft in Syrian skies. But when there are aircraft there, a compromise with Russia becomes an essential condition. And what are the bargaining chips? Ukraine, Donbas, Crimea, the sanctions."

Of course, if Putin's little adventure in Syria turns into a quagmire, this ace in the hole would soon disappear.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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