Vladimir Putin is not planning annexation of Ukraine enclaves, but diplomacy is flailing

May 29, 2015
A woman with a boy looks at a tank as it drives through the settlement Khutor Chkalova on its way to the Russian military training ground 'Kuzminsky' near the Russian-Ukrainian border in the Rostov region

A woman with a boy looks at a tank as it drives through the settlement Khutor Chkalova on its way to the Russian military training ground ‘Kuzminsky’ on the Russians side of the border with Ukraine, May 26, 2015. REUTERS/Maria Tsvetkova

Karl-Georg Wellmann, a representative in the German parliament, flew to Moscow Sunday night on a behind-the-scenes mission to help break the deadlock in eastern Ukraine. But when he landed at Sheremetyevo Airport, border officials denied him entry, without any explanation, until 2019. Wellmann, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, had to spend the night in a transit lounge and was escorted onto the first flight home the next morning.

Wellmann raised a storm in German and Russian media, and Merkel’s government lodged an official complaint with the Kremlin. Although he was known as a critic of Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict, Wellmann said he had been invited by Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s committee on foreign affairs, and Sergei Glazyev, an adviser to President Vladimir Putin. He didn’t have plans to meet with Russian opposition leaders.

It’s a worrisome sign when the back channels of German diplomacy clog up. Merkel, the main guarantor of the so-called Minsk protocol, is doing her best to save the shaky peace agreement between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government. But as the war grinds on as a low-level conflict, the biggest weakness of the deal is becoming clear: None of the parties see it as the start to a lasting peace settlement.

The Minsk agreement, originally signed in September and amended in February, provides useful alibis to all sides: to Ukraine that it’s pursuing the reintegration of breakaway regions by peaceful means; to Russia that it’s just a concerned, peace-loving neighbor; and to the West that it did everything to end the fighting. With the exception of the rebel representatives — who are motivated by Mad Max-style mayhem more than nation-building — all sides tirelessly repeat that “there can be no military solution to the conflict.” What nobody can say aloud is that Minsk is also not the solution; it was only intended to stanch Ukraine’s bleeding.

Russia occupied and annexed Crimea last year in the power vacuum following then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s unexpected flight from anti-government protests in Kiev. When heavily armed pro-Russian fighters then began seizing administrative buildings in eastern Ukraine, the country’s provisional leaders launched a haphazard “anti-terrorist operation”; they were soon caught in the dilemma of repeating the Crimean fiasco or provoking a full-scale Russian invasion. The Ukrainians only started to get a grip on the insurgency after the election a year ago of President Petro Poroshenko, who energized the fight against the separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

By the beginning of July, the Donetsk rebel commander, a former Russian special ops officer named Igor Girkin, was complaining that locals weren’t interested in fighting and called for direct Russian military assistance. In late August, just as it looked as if the rebel supply lines would be cut, regular Russian troops poured across the border to the rescue, routing Ukrainian forces at the rail junction of Ilovaisk. With his army shattered and the strategic port of Mariupol under threat, Poroshenko sued for peace in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

As a peace agreement, there’s nothing wrong with the Minsk document, which includes all the right words about the cessation of hostilities, de-escalation, local elections, and reconciliation. The problem is that Russia plays a double role — as a disinterested observer on paper and an active party to the conflict in the field. Poroshenko has no choice but to play along in this charade or take the blame for a collapse of the peace process. Western powers cling to the accord because they have no Plan B.

Minsk’s first provision, calling for an immediate cease-fire, was never implemented. Even after the original document was signed, the separatists advanced, hammering Ukrainian-held pockets such as the transport hub of Debaltseve and the Donetsk airport. Merkel sprang into action in February as voices grew louder in Washington to arm Ukraine. Concerned about an escalation in fighting, Merkel shuttled to Kiev, Moscow, and finally Minsk. French President François Hollande went along to show that Europe — and not Germany alone — was taking the lead.

The so-called Minsk-2 agreement that resulted from Merkel’s efforts was essentially a reaffirmation of the original protocol. As if to show what they thought of the deal, the pro-Russian rebels continued their assault on Debaltseve and overran the town less than a week later.

The war in Ukraine has since disappeared from the headlines, yet the fighting and the dying continue in isolated spots. No progress has been made in turning the conflict into a dialog — mainly because the pro-Russian forces never had any political demands besides holding a referendum to leave Ukraine. If anything is clear now, it’s that Putin doesn’t plan to annex the separatist regions but use them instead to sabotage Ukraine from the inside. The Kremlin is trying to “localize” the conflict by training and equipping a rebel army that can stand on its own, while insisting that Poroshenko negotiate with Moscow’s proxy leaders.

Poroshenko has practically no room to maneuver. Putin’s advantage is his unpredictability. The Kremlin has stubbornly denied the presence of active-duty Russian military personnel in eastern Ukraine, even as troops and equipment again mass along the border. Only 37 percent of Russians believe that there are no Russian soldiers in Ukraine, according to a poll by the independent Levada Center. Another 38 percent say that even if there are Russian soldiers in Ukraine, their government is right to lie about it; 11 percent think that denying the presence of Russian personnel is detrimental to finding a peaceful solution.

The mountain of evidence showing the Kremlin’s involvement keeps growing for the world to see. Earlier this month, the Ukrainian army captured two Russian soldiers in the Luhansk region and brought them to a Kiev hospital to recover from their wounds. The two men told their story to Pavel Kanygin, a correspondent for the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, in a series of interviews published over the past week. Captain Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Sergeant Alexander Alexandrov said they were active-duty Russian army soldiers from Samara, contradicting claims by the Russian Defense Ministry that they had resigned. Both men expressed dismay that their government had disowned them and that their relatives were too scared to take their phone calls.

On Thursday, Putin ordered that troop deaths in peace-time “special operations” be classified as a state secret. While the Kremlin denied any link to events in Ukraine, Putin isn’t taking any chances. As much as possible, he wants to increase the burden on his proxies in Donetsk and Luhansk. With European Union sanctions against Russia coming up for review in June, Putin is keeping all his options open.

Merkel, like other Western leaders, has said that no sanctions relief will be considered until the Minsk peace agreement is implemented. What leverage she has left is another question. Just a year-and-a-half ago, German diplomats succeeded in negotiating the release of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Putin’s greatest rival. Today an envoy from Merkel’s party can’t even get out of the Moscow airport.

10 comments

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So the world is dependent on the transient moods of a madman that World War III does not start tomorrow, or the next day? Such an “arrangement does not encourage long term investment in anything but munitions!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Reuters: “A representative in the German parliament… back channels of German diplomacy… Merkel, the main guarantor… Russia occupied and annexed…”
… Phew-phew-phew: how many words, combinations and diplomatic delights! While the reality is much simpler: the United States (in alliance with the countries of Europe, NATO and the British Union) catastrophically lose their positions and claims to the world domination.

Posted by VVS | Report as abusive

A very long way saying nothing.

Posted by aussie66 | Report as abusive

Poroshenko and Merkel both refuse to include the rebel leaders in any talks toward a peaceful solution. The rebels have no incentive to end the fighting, irregardless of what Putin decides to do.

Posted by Owlwit | Report as abusive

” the United States (in alliance with the countries of Europe, NATO and the British Union) catastrophically lose their positions and claims to the world domination.”
1. Where and when did the US, NATO or the UK make claims to “world domination?”
2. You seem to overlook the fact that China is far ahead of Russia in manpower, economy, pace of development, short- and long-term potential and global reach (both military and economic).

Posted by BGDavis | Report as abusive

Obama, Nuland, Kerry, Biden thought they were being clever, and punishing Putin for Syria. Like so much Obama Co. they were cynical, and utterly incompetent.

Putin will decide the outcome – when you dance with a 900 lb gorilla, you stop when the gorilla decides to stop. But the worst is yet to come. Putin can use this to fracture the EU/US alliance. The price for this mess will eventually fall to the EU. Anticipate that European politicians, particularly in Germany, but also Hungary and Bulgaria, make the feckless failure of America an issue.

P.S. I predicted ALL of this on reuters’ blogs, well over a year ago. This was pretty obvious.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

We have now seen two Minsk agreements. Both were concluded when Poroshenko’s army was in a weak position. And in both cases Poroshenko reneged on his promises soon after he had made them with lawyerly subterfuges. The first time he did this by refusing to grant Donbass autonomy while insisting on control of the borders. Now he has again denied Donbass autonomy – with the excuse that first elections should be held – according to Kiev rules.

Anyone who knows the suffocating political environment in Kiev with its press censorship and political violence and killings knows what this means. The main goal of Minsk-II was opening the road to a dialogue where disagreements can be solved peacefully. But obviously the Kiev government isn’t interested in peace. It is a government of oligarchs and extremists that doesn’t care about the destruction of Ukraine.

Posted by musicmouse | Report as abusive

tank on picture has north/south shade cast by the sun…yet woman and child have est/west shade…Ukraine has two suns?

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

Saakashvili is the only chance for Ukraine.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Putin is sinking the Russian economy over this Ukraine boondoggle. Investors are pulling out, deals are headed elsewhere. Putin is standing with his shirt off again, getting laughed at by Pussy Riot and the rest of the world. Poor sad Putin.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive