Friday, April 03, 2015

Political drift in Donbas suits west but could force Putin's hand

Vitaly Portnikov writes about the current dangerous stalemate in the Donbas.
I have paraphrased what he says below:

The situation in the occupied part of the Donbas is drifting not to a frozen conflict but rather to a stalemate for the Russian leadership.

Talking to Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in Berlin recently Chancellor Angela Merkel once again stressed that the preparation for the local elections in the Donbas can begin once a full ceasefire has been established and only after the complete withdrawal of heavy weaponry has taken place.

Merkel is waiting for confirmation from the OSCE observers but it will be a long wait, because Moscow is unlikely to vacate the territories now under its control, not because it fears a Ukrainian offensive but because it could be preparing for one of its own. And even if this is not the case it wants to give the impression that it is, otherwise mercenaries could drift away from the occupied zone and leaders of the "People's Republics" could begin to quietly start negotiating with Kyiv, possibly even giving some ground, in the search for compromise.

Angela Merkel achieved her aims at the meeting in Minsk on February 11-12 - not a frozen conflict in the Donbass, but rather an end to fighting [almost], and the current stalemate.

For Ukraine, the removal from the occupied territories of the Russian troops and other armed gangs is paramount - only then can local elections be held and dialogue on the status of the territories and welfare payments/civil servants' salaries restarted.

For Russia, it is important for Ukraine to promptly restart payment of salaries and welfare payments etc. After this Puin wants a dialogue to be initiated on the status of the territories, and on changes to the Ukrainian constitution under which fresh elections could be held.

The two conflicting parties therefore have absolutely differing priorities on the sequence of what needs to happen  for resolution of the war.

Ukraine's goal is the restoration of the territorial integrity of the country. This objective can be achieved only when Russian troops and armed gangs are removed from the territory of Donbas and competitive free elections under reliable international supervision take place.

Russia's goal is the creation of a quasi-state on the occupied territory under its own control, and the transformation of Ukraine to a Bosnia-type state after the Dayton Accords, i.e. a shaky union of quasi-states. This can only be achieved if Russian troops and armed gangs remain in the Donbass, the "republics" conserved and elections  undertaken under the supervision of separatist leaders Zakharchenko, Plotnitsky and the Russian FSB.

The economic blockade of the occupied territories is pushing Putin to come to a decision whether to abandon his Donbas adventure or to consider a further large-scale offensive to disguise his defeat.

The goal of the West is primarily to ensure cessation of hostilities continues.

Merkel can afford not to rush local elections in the Donbas, and not press for any dialogue between Kyiv and representatives of the occupied territories on the implementation of points of the Minsk Agreement; her mission is to draw Putin into a bureaucratic morass. The foreign ministers of Normandy format will meet, calls to each of the leaders will be made, reports of the OSCE observers studied, the possibility of holding elections discussed. After this a law on special status passed, and so on.  Russia will insist that first the law is passed, then elections, then "let's meet again soon for further discussions, invite OSCE observers and on and on and on...

And all this time, month after month, the Russian economy will be sinking.

Because of the present cessation of hostilities, this stabilization will lead Russia nowhere except to a final irreversible collapse of their regime, which no one in the West now recognises as being capable of reasonable dialogue.

But in all of this there is one "but." Putin also understands what is happening. He does not have the money to supply the Donbas or moreover rebuild Donbas, and every day he has less and less. A frozen conflict would suit him only if Ukraine restarts payments to the occupied territories.

If Ukraine agreed to this Putin would then not need to start building a quasi-state at the expense of Ukaine and the West. If Russia and the separatists expanded the area under their control, Ukraine would continue to feed these newly occupied areas too, until eventually even Crimea would be reached.

Simply put, Putin will try to escape from the trap set by Western players and the Ukrainian leadership and not just sit by waiting for the deadly western sleeping pills to act.

The most important thing is not to allow him to wake up.

However Portnikov does not speculate on possible consequences for Russia in the event of restart of military attacks against Ukraine, e.g. an attempt to take Mariupol. Apart from major casualties for both warring parties, arming of Ukraine by the US and western powers becomes far more likely. Severe extra sanctions and exclusion from global banking arrangements could be imposed on Russia.

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