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Ukraine As A Bargaining Chip?

  • Brian Whitmore

A pawn in a great power game?

A pawn in a great power game?

If you believe all the talk out there lately, Vladimir Putin is not only duplicitous and hypocritical -- he's also been pretty damn busy lately. Busy cutting secret deals with the same Europeans and Americans he has been vilifying for years.

And if you believe the rumors, the Europeans and Americans have also been busy selling out Ukraine to the Russians.

Not that any of this would be unusual or particularly surprising. Cynicism, duplicity, and hypocrisy are often the reserve currencies of politics, where interests tend to trump values.

There have long been suspicions out there that the United States and Europe might give Ukraine up in exchange for Moscow's support in securing a deal to curb Iran's nuclear program.

Additionally, Washington has been seeking Moscow's backing in securing a managed, orderly, and negotiated exit for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, which would go a long way toward ending the conflict in that country.

And over the past two weeks, speculation has intensified that some kind of quid pro quo has in fact been reached with Putin. It began in earnest on July 14 when U.S. President Barack Obama praised Moscow's role in securing a deal to curb Iran's nuclear program.

The suspicion only increased two days later, on July 16, when U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland traveled to Kyiv to persuade lawmakers to include language in amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution recognizing the special status of separatist-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

This is something Moscow has long sought, but that Ukraine had been resisting.

And the speculation reached a fever pitch when people began connecting the last couple months' data points: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Sochi on May 12 for talks with Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin on Iran, Syria, and Ukraine; a bilateral diplomatic channel on the Ukraine conflict was subsequently opened between Nuland and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin; Obama and Putin had two long phone conversations, on June 25 and July 15.

Moreover, in addition to the Iran deal, Moscow also appears more open to helping broker Assad's exit in Syria, The Wall Street Journal reported.

"A deal was cut without Ukraine, and at Ukraine's expense," Andrei Illarionov, a former Putin adviser turned critic, wrote in

Likewise, political analyst Vladimir Socor wrote that "the White House has reordered its policy priorities toward working with Russia on the Middle East, correspondingly becoming more accommodating to Russia’s position on implementing the Minsk armistice in Ukraine."

A Quid Pro Quo?

It's tempting, it's elegant, and it seems to fit. But is it true?

Asked about a potential quid pro quo in Kyiv, Nuland said it was "offensive to suggest that the U.S. does tradeoffs."

Offensive or not, it's worth asking, what exactly has Russia gained? Two things, actually -- but neither really qualifies as a wholesale sellout of Kyiv.

Establishing the Nuland-Karasin diplomatic channel gives Moscow something it has always craved: a bilateral format to decide the Ukraine crisis with the United States -- one that doesn't include the Ukrainians. It's exactly the kind of great-power politics -- where big countries decide the fates of small ones -- that the Kremlin loves.

And with all the predictable echoes-of-Munich allusions, it is also horrible optics. But in and of itself, the Nuland-Karasin channel doesn't really give Moscow anything deliverable.

The second thing Moscow has gained came on July 16, when the Ukrainian parliament passed the first reading of constitutional amendments that would grant more power to the country's regions.

After intense lobbying from Nuland, the legislation included the line that: "The particulars of local government in certain districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are to be determined by a special law."

This was widely interpreted as giving Moscow what it really wants in Ukraine: a dysfunctional federalized state where its proxies in the separatist-held areas of Donbas will be able to paralyze decision making in Kyiv.

The United States and the European Union have been pushing Ukraine to grant greater autonomy for Donetsk and Luhansk and the legalization of separatist forces, as stipulated by the Minsk cease-fire, before Moscow and its proxies cease military operations and pull back heavy weapons.

"Western powers are increasingly pressuring Ukraine to fulfill the [Minsk agreement's] political clauses unilaterally, without seriously expecting Russian compliance with the military clauses," Socor wrote.

But the legislation that passed its first reading on July 16 doesn't actually give Moscow anything -- at least not yet.

The amendments still need to win a two-thirds majority in parliament in their final reading, far from a certainty -- especially given the mood of the Ukrainian public, which is strongly opposed to granting autonomy to the rebel-held areas and legal recognition to their leaders.

And even then, the separate law that will determine Donetsk and Luhansk's status won't be drafted and debated until the autumn.

Moscow's Dirty Little Secret

Which effectively leaves us pretty much where we were before -- in a stalemate. Ukraine insists that Moscow fulfil the military end of the Minsk deal before it fulfils the political end; and Russia insists Kyiv deliver the political changes first.

Writing in the pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia, Russian political commentator Aleksandr Chalenko wrote that "the Minsk process is deadlocked" and Moscow should just consider annexing the separatist-held territories.

Similarly, a recent article by defense analyst Valery Afanasyev in the influential military journal Voennoye Obozreniye argued that the rebel territories should be turned into "a second autocratic state completely dependent on Moscow."

This could be seen as an implicit threat to annex these territories of turn them into a protectorate. But Russia's dirty little secret is that these are the last things it wants. Who, after all, would want to be saddled with the cost of rebuilding and the hassle of administering these places?

And Russia's dirty little secret is no longer so secret. It's clear to anybody paying attention that Moscow's endgame is to embed these territories back into Ukraine as a Trojan horse. And it is desperate to cut a deal to secure this result.

"As long as Putin is in Ukraine, he is dependent on others. And this dependence can be used," Ukrainian political analyst Petr Oleshchuk wrote.

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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