Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Power Vertical

Is Minsk Dead?

Russia's Vladimir Putin, Germany's Angela Merkel, France's Francois Hollande, and Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko at peace talks in Minsk on February 11.
Russia's Vladimir Putin, Germany's Angela Merkel, France's Francois Hollande, and Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko at peace talks in Minsk on February 11.
By Brian Whitmore

Mykola Azarov's call for early elections and "total regime change" in Kyiv was a bit of a head scratcher.

The ousted Ukrainian prime minister, after all, is deeply unpopular in his homeland and -- with the exception of Ukrainian prosecutors who want to put him on trial -- largely forgotten.

But in a high-profile press conference in Moscow on August 3 that was carried live on Russian state television, Azarov announced the creation of a Ukraine Salvation Committee that aims to oust the pro-Western government of President Petro Poroshenko. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow has nothing to do with the initiative. But that has about as much credibility as Peskov's claim that the $620,000 watch he was photographed wearing at his wedding was a gift. 

In fact, Azarov's announcement fits into a pattern that suggests that the Kremlin is giving up on the Minsk accords as a means to achieve its objectives in Ukraine and is shifting to other methods of pressuring Kyiv.

These include calls to offer Russian citizenship to residents of the separatist-held areas of the Donbas, suggestions that it may turn the territories into a Russian protectorate or annex them outright, and bellicose moves suggesting a fresh military offensive.

At the heart of Moscow's problem is that it doesn't want these territories. It doesn't want to govern them. It doesn't want to shoulder the cost of rebuilding them. It wants to use them to undermine and paralyze Kyiv.

"It's a mechanism to distract and destabilize the government in Kyiv," Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said on The Power Vertical Podcast. "They can ratchet pressure up or ratchet it down in eastern Ukraine to cause problems for the government in Kyiv."

But ultimately, Russia wants to get the separatist territories reintegrated into a hyper-federalized Ukraine as a fifth column, with the ability to veto any attempts by the government in Kyiv to integrate with the West.

And these efforts are failing -- and the Kremlin is flailing as it searches for an alternative.

"The bottom line is that Russia has no good options in the Donbas, and that really is the key. It is the owner of the region and whoever owns the territory is the loser," Alexander Motyl, a professor at Rutgers University-Newark and commentator on Ukrainian affairs, also said on The Power Vertical Podcast.

Pretending To Negotiate In Minsk

Ukrainian officials and pro-Moscow separatists went through the motions in Minsk again this week, just as they have been doing for months since the cease-fire was signed in the Belarusian capital in February.

They pretended to negotiate about the future status of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics and how they would be reintegrated into Ukraine. And they didn't reach a solution, but they did agree to continue the farce via Skype.

They didn't find a solution because there isn't a solution. The problem is irreconcilable.

Kyiv wants the region reintegrated only after separatist fighters disarm, after Russia withdraws its troops and weapons, after the border is returned to Ukraine's control, and after free, fair, and internationally supervised elections are held.

Moscow and its Donbas proxies want the territories reintegrated into Ukraine with autonomy so broad it would make the region a de facto Russian protectorate. They want the current separatist leaders legitimized as the region's rulers and the separatist fighters instituted as its police force.

There is no compromise here that could satisfy both sides. It's a deadlock -- and a deadlock essentially favors Ukraine.

"Freezing the conflict is one of the better solutions for Ukraine and is actually bad for the Russians," Motyl said on the podcast.

"The reason is that the Donbas enclave that is occupied by Russian and separatist troops is an economic mess...It is in Ukraine's advantage to keep that out of its control for as long as possible and for as much as possible and it is to Russia's disadvantage to be responsible for it."

So if a deadlock favors Ukraine, then Russia understands that it has to break the deadlock.

Passports As Weapons

If Russia decided to issue passports to residents of the rebel-held territories in eastern Ukraine, it would change the nature of the conflict overnight.

And last week, Ihor Plotnitskiy, leader of the self-styled Luhansk People's Republic, said separatist leaders were in talks with Moscow to do just that. And the announcement got a fair amount of traction in the Russian press, suggesting that it was being taken seriously.

In a lengthy article in, Gevorg Mirzayan of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies noted that the move would mark a significant shift in Kremlin policy.

"This would amount to Russia's abandonment of the Minsk agreement and the reintegration of the Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics back into Ukraine. It would mark a transition to Plan B, a frozen conflict and the establishment of a space of the Novorossia project," Mirzayan wrote.

In addition to effectively burying the Minsk agreement, issuing passports to residents of the separatist-held territories would also mark a significant escalation of the conflict. Suddenly, it would not just be ethnic Russians that Moscow was claiming to defend in the Donbas, but Russian citizens -- which would make it easier for Moscow to intervene openly and directly.

The announcement also dovetails with other proposals making the rounds in the Russian media.

In an article in the influential military journal Voyennoye Obozreniya, analyst Valery Afanasyev argues that Moscow should aim to turn the separatist-held territories in eastern Ukraine into a second Belarus -- an independent autocratic state completely dependent on Moscow.

And in the staunchly pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia, political commentator Aleksandr Chalenko called on Moscow to annex them outright. 

These moves would, of course, be extremely costly for Russia. They would almost certainly spark another round of sanctions and Moscow would be saddled with the cost of rebuilding a war-torn and economically devastated region, losing any leverage it has over Kyiv.

And Ukraine would probably move quickly to integrate with the West.

Likewise, it is highly unlikely that the deeply unpopular Azarov will be able to spearhead regime change in Kyiv.

Instead, both initiatives smack of desperation. They also appear to be messages from Moscow to Kyiv that if Russia doesn't get what it wants from the Minsk peace process, it may be prepared to take some drastic steps.

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Jiri Klouda from: Dublin, California
August 04, 2015 20:12
Well, you found some hypothetical reason like those passports that could possibly signify Russia thinking the Minsk is dead. But the Kiev government never planed to abide by it. The things agreed to would never get through their legislature and they have never actually planed to withdraw to the agreed to positions. Now there was a new round of talks and the consensus is that it was not successful, because Kiev wants to strengthen militarily its positions (Poroshenko's words) and does not plan to actually withdraw the troops as agreed to.

And as long as journalists like you, will give Kiev free pass on the Minsk and as long as they can violate it without any repercussions, because only the separatist violations get reported in press, then they have absolutely no incentive to abide by the agreement, sit at a negotiation table with the separatists (which was the purpose of the ceasefire) and resolve the conflict peacefully.
In Response

by: Mike Mychajlonka from: Michigan, USA
August 04, 2015 21:06
The so-called "cease fire" that was Minsk II was broken by the Russian side before the ink had thoroughly dried on that worthless paper. Have you forgotten the Russian-brokered aggression in Debatlseve?
In Response

by: Vladimir from: Russia
August 07, 2015 13:25

Russia is not INVOLVED IN the CONFLICT IN UKRAINE! This has been REPEATEDLY STATED UKRAINIAN GENERALS! In Debaltsevo surrounded by at the time of the negotiations was the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian generals did NOT RECOGNIZE the FACT of THEIR ENVIRONMENT! No need to lie!
In Response

by: Andy from: Collingwood
August 04, 2015 23:44
Jiri, Ukraine has kept its end on Minsk by not firing into Donetsk/Luhansk. OSCE have written up reports that the ceasefire has constantly been broken by the separatists using weapons that were to be pulled back. Debaltseve is an example of a city that was within the Ukrainian side of the line yet was destroyed by fire from Russian supported fighters, after it was agreed to have it stay in Ukraine. Constant incursion towards Mariupol is evidence of transgressions by Russia's mercenaries. So mister the ceasefire has been destroyed by Russian backed fighters.
In Response

by: Andrij from: United States
August 05, 2015 06:55
Get your head out of the Putin propaganda machine.
In Response

by: Antonina
August 05, 2015 16:41
Russia invaded Crimea and then the east of Ukraine. Russians need to take their soldiers and weapons and get out of Ukrainian lands. Why should Ukrainians withdraw their military from Ukrainian lands???
In Response

by: Vladimir from: Russia
August 07, 2015 13:28

Because it's the meaning of the Minsk talks! Stop the genocide of Russians in Donbass! And where did You see Russian troops in Ukraine? Ukrainian generals said that THEY ARE FIGHTING WITH RUSSIAN TROOPS! Why lie?
In Response

by: masta from: Canada
August 05, 2015 21:22
Jiri, what you say carries weight only if you assume the violence in the east is the result of a popular revolt where Russia has played no active role. But of course, we all know that is untrue. Ukraine has been invaded by a foreign power, and that gives the democratically elected government in Kiev, the right to do what ever it deems necessary to protect its national interests. Only the suicidal nature of any concerted attempt to retake stolen lands, has prevented them from launching a total war against the unpopular and un-elected 'separatists'.

by: Blue Monkey
August 04, 2015 20:32
Another Transnistria ? A semi independent criminal state, unrecognised, within Ukraines borders ? With its citizents holding Russian passports ? And then a tense peace ? A future problem for someone else to deal with ? And life moves on ?

by: Dmitriy Pantyukhin from: United States
August 04, 2015 23:04
The first sentence from the "Voennoe Obozrenie" article:

"На Украине католики и униаты под руководством сектантов убивают православных, поэтому эту войну следует рассматривать прежде всего как религиозную, а религиозные войны, как известно, имеют свойство никогда не заканчиваться, поэтому надежды на скорое завершение украинского конфликта безосновательны."

While the journal may be influential (among who?), this particular article is full of outrageous claims and ridiculous suppositions. A brief look at other articles on that site reveals content of similar value. I counted 3 Google Ads, 1 pop-up and one side-ad.

This "Voennoe obozrenie" is just garbage. Why would Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty even pay attention to it?


In Response

by: Brian Whitmore from: Prague
August 05, 2015 06:02
Of course most of the claims in the article -- about Banderavtsi and Unitates etc -- are utter nonsense. But what matters are the policy recommendations. And yes, Voyennoye Obozreniye is very influential as policy ideas are often floated in its pages. It's one those publications in which the elite communicates with each other. I find most of what I read in Izvestia to be rubbish too, but I pay attention to it because it gives me an idea of the Putin elite's thinking. Thought that would be obvious.
In Response

by: Andrij from: United States
August 05, 2015 06:58
Trouble reading? They are simply informing us of other proposals and ideas that are floating around in Russia. They were not claiming that the information is accurate or that the plan is a good one.

by: jojnjo from: Dublin
August 05, 2015 02:47
It was never alive to begin with!

by: Aftab Kazi
August 05, 2015 02:54
Minsk or not, the problem is that Ukraine has become a liability. To both Russia and the a West. No one is willing to pay Ukrainian bills. Minsk was the last hope but unfortunately it is melting down. Should Ukraine integrate with West, it will be treated no more than a colony. Moreover, the crisis is now expanding in Western Ukraine and Western neighbors are worried of repercussion.its historical interdependence with Russ has jeopardized and Wes, despite early rhetoric is unwilling to spend money to stabilize, which will likely be a daunting spending task. Besides Greece, several other financial crises appear forthcoming.
In Response

by: Andrij from: United States
August 05, 2015 07:02
" Should Ukraine integrate with West, it will be treated no more than a colony."

"The West" is not a single empire. This statement doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

Minsk was not the last hope - as no one who has been paying attention to Russia for the last 100 years would ever expect them to make this process easy. As expected, no resolution.

And as separatists continue to ignore cease fires - Russians continue to pour in troops and military hardware - what was the point of continuing with the Minsk agreement anyway? Russia was actively ignoring it.
In Response

by: Vladimir from: Russia
August 07, 2015 13:39

"Separatists" protect their loved ones in THEIR territory , they attacked Poroshenko and Kiev, " no! Ukrainian army is shelling residential areas with tanks and missiles , killing innocent civilians who wanted ONLY to speak Russian and FAIR elections in the region! And here Russia?

by: Mike Hilbert
August 05, 2015 09:33
Russia wants to grab more territory, but as the U.S. only sends toy-guns to Ukraine, one must fear Ukraine will die soon.
The only language Putin understands is military force...
Sadly Ukraine, cant wait until 2017 when GOP takes office and sends arm then as Ukraine will be dead already then!!!
In Response

by: Vladimir from: Russia
August 07, 2015 13:45

American mercenaries now fighting in the Donbass shoulder to shoulder with Ukrainian neo-Nazis. Of course, you can now give them nuclear weapons to end life on Earth. What did Putin said that HE will CONQUER YOU? WHEN? Where the mythical Russian army? Fighting whom Ukraine? With the people against the Ukrainian junta! With its citizens! NOT WITH THE RUSSIANS!

by: Fred from: Belgium
August 05, 2015 09:43
The idea that Kiev would let the Donbas go and that this would be good for Kiev, which would quickly integrate the West and bad for Moscow is just plain wrong.
First, Kiev has clearly made the choice to fight for the Donbass, I don't see why they would now suddenly give it up. This would be perceived as a major defeat for the government in Ukraine. Moreover, although the region is in economic decline and has suffered because the war, it is still the economic and industrial heartland of Ukraine. I don't see Kiev giving this up.
Secondly, Kiev will not quickly integrate the West without Donbass and Crimea. Because of many reasons: The Donbass is slpit in two regions. But big parts of the Kiev controlled region is as much anti-Kiev as the rebel controlled region. Moreover also in Odessa and Kharkiv there is strong opposition against Kiev. As long as the country is not stable it can forget investments and thus economic recovery and integration in the West. Moreover Western powers still consider Crimea and Donbass as part of Ukraine.
Third, yes, financing the Donbass would be bad for Moscow, but considering the fact that Moscow is financing territories like Chechnya which are absolutely of no interest, I don't see why they would not want the Donbass: at least there is industry there, there is shalegas, the land is very fertile and people living there are "Russians" (good for demography), etc. Moscow might thus expect some return on investment.
In Response

by: Vladimir from: Russia
August 07, 2015 13:56

About integration of Ukraine in the West YOU say? 60% of Ukraine's foreign trade was with Russia. 40 % of Ukraine's GDP was in the Donbas. The whole conflict in Ukraine was the PLAN of the USA ! Ukraine is managed by the USA and acts to their detriment and to the detriment of relations with Russia . No ECONOMIC goal of Ukraine's integration into the West was not. Now the debt of Ukraine USD 60 billion and prospects for development and trade with the WEST no ! Ukraine - Greece is number 2! The whole idea of the separation of Ukraine from Russia - is a complete bloody failure ! Ukraine is linked to Russia thousands of years of history and every second family in Ukraine Yves Russia - misc . The artificial division of Ukraine on Russian and Western - NOT POSSIBLE! But in the West do not know about it or don't want to know and believe in fairy tales Poroshenko

by: Vladimir from: Russia
August 07, 2015 13:18

What did Ukraine to stop the conflict? Specifically?Nothing!The hundredth time YOU repeat, RUSSIA is NOT a PARTY to the CONFLICT! Ukraine has started the genocide of the Russian population of Donbass and any negotiations for the recognition of the rights of Russians in the Donbass Ukraine does not recognize! The entire article is - nonsense!

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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