The Ukrainian crisis continues to be the main topic of political and public interest in Moscow, completely overshadowing the world soccer championship. The Russian state TV propaganda machine daily broadcasts stories about pro-Russian “self-defense fighters” in the Donbas region (far eastern Ukrainian oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk), who are battling to oppose the evil forces of the government in Kyiv. According to a recent poll, some 90 percent of Russians “are informed about events [in the news] from TV.” Only a slim minority—about 7 percent of the “better informed” Russians—receive information from differing sources, including the Internet (rg.ru, June 18). On the home front, the Ukrainian crisis has consolidated President Vladimir Putin’s power and popularity; but not all is well in the outside world. The Ukrainian military, supported by newly formed auxiliary volunteer forces, has been pushing back the rebels. The Ukrainian military now clearly has sufficient firepower and seems to be much better organized than last April, when the pro-Russian rebellion began in Donbas. The pro-Russian separatists in Donbas at present control less than a third of the territory of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in which the rebels proclaimed “independent people’s republics” last May (rbcdaily.ru, June 20).
Apparently, Moscow expected that the entire Ukrainian state would collapse after the fall of the corrupt regime of former president Viktor Yanukovych last February. It seems the Kremlin believed that in the ensuing disorder and massive public protests caused by falling living standards, the new authorities in Kyiv would be unable to resist the pro-Russian separatist rebellion in the south and east of Ukraine, induced by the insertion of armed, military-trained Russian volunteers, and financed and supported by Moscow. The Ukrainian military, mothballed and demoralized, would soon be “exhausted” if deployed against the pro-Russian rebels. The Russian government expected these defeated Ukrainian units to either defect or surrender their weapons. A new territorial entity—“Novorossiya” or “New Russia”—would subsequently emerge in the Russian-speaking regions, from Kharkiv in the northeast to Odessa in the south. Novorossiya would become part of Russia ether as a protectorate, or eventually be directly annexed. Today, this “reunification of the divided Russian nation,” does not seem plausible: The Ukrainian military and auxiliary volunteer forces are growing stronger, better organized and more motivated as the fighting continues; the territory of “Novorossiya,” controlled by the rebels, is shrinking into a relatively small enclave in Donbas despite the inflow of volunteers and heavy weapons; while the Kremlin is hesitant to begin a direct military intervention in Ukraine because of its possible high cost in lives, money and the threat of punitive Western sanctions (rosbalt.ru, June 20).
Last week (June 20), the newly elected Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, declared a one-week unilateral ceasefire for the rebels to begin disarming and releasing hostages as part of a previously announced peace plan. The rebels initially rejected Poroshenko’s peace plan, called the ceasefire a sham and announced they would continue the fight (Interfax, June 23). But the Kremlin offered Poroshenko guarded support, calling the ceasefire a step in the right direction. Speaking to reporters during a visit to Austria this week, Putin demanded that the ceasefire in Donbas must be prolonged and “substantial negotiations” should begin, while declaring that it is “senseless to demand the rebels [to] disarm” before the Ukrainian auxiliary volunteer forces begin disarming, too (kremlin.ru, June 24).
The Kremlin seems to have changed its policy on Ukraine and begun supporting a “freeze” of the present conflict. A “frozen conflict” in Donbas—like those frozen conflicts in Transnistria in Moldova, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and in Karabakh in Azerbaijan—would provide Moscow with excellent leverage to control both the separatist self-proclaimed republics and the government in Kyiv (see EDM, June 12). This week, a specially formed contact group began negotiating in Donetsk with representatives of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). The contact group is headed by former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, the Russian Ambassador in Kyiv Mikhail Zurabov, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative Heidi Tagliavini and Victor Medvedchuk, a Putin-connected Ukrainian politician and business oligarch, who has been campaigning for Ukraine to join the Russian-led Customs Union and for the country to be transformed into a loose confederation. Medvedchuk has been named by the Kremlin, and reportedly endorsed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as the chief intermediary in the negotiations of the contact group (top.rbc.ru, June 25). Apparently under Russian pressure, the DNR “authorities” promised to uphold the ceasefire, though constant violations have continued (Interfax, June 23).
As a symbolic gesture of support for the tentative peace process in Donbas, Putin ordered the upper house of parliament—the Federation Council—to rescind a resolution passed last March, allowing a Russian military intervention in Ukraine. The Federation Council, a Kremlin-controlled rubberstamp assembly, obediently passed the needed vote (Interfax, June 25). Of course, the Federation Council could reinstate Putin’s right to invade Ukraine anytime; while in August 2008, Russian troops invaded Georgia without any Federation Council vote at all, in a clear violation of the constitution. To avoid such embarrassments in the future, in 2009 the Federation Council gave the Kremlin blanket authority to use armed force abroad anytime and anywhere it wishes, including Ukraine if needed (Vedomosti, June 25). The recent vote in the Federation Council is, in fact, an invitation for Poroshenko to fall into the “frozen conflict” trap—presenting himself as a peacemaker, while actually doing the Kremlin’s bidding.
The prolonged ceasefire and “substantial negotiations” Putin is demanding do not exclude the continued flow of Russian volunteer fighters and heavy weapons into Donbas. On the contrary, new weapons and men are essential in upholding some military balance in a Russian-style “frozen conflict,” like Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Cossacks and other nationalist groups are continuing to recruit and send volunteers to fight in Ukraine (rbcdaily.ru, June 25). At the same time, the rebels seem to have substantially scaled back their demands for a prolonged ceasefire: instead of demanding a total withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from Donbas, which was clearly unacceptable, they now want to establish a 10-kilometer disengagement zone and prevent aircraft from flying over their positions (news.liga.net, June 26). A prolonged ceasefire would seem to favor the rebels and Moscow, but Kyiv could also benefit—its military needs time to better organize itself, while avoiding provoking a Russian invasion that it is still incapable of effectively resisting. The complicated intrigue and maneuvering over the feeble ceasefire in Ukraine are thus likely to continue.