On the eve of the presidential election in Russia, the Kremlin is looking for ways to build a case for lifting or weakening Western sanctions. Specifically, the Russian government has been trying to demonstrate a purported readiness to engage in dialogue over the “Ukrainian issue.” Yet, the essence of all of the Kremlin’s “peaceful” maneuvers is to extract concessions from the other side while avoiding giving up anything on the Russian side.
On the international front, Russia’s situation remains difficult: The European Union has extended its economic sanctions for another six months (Ukrinform, December 15, 2017); the United States is readying to apply strict sanctions on Putin’s closest associates in February (Ekho Moskvy, November 28, 2017); last fall, the United Nations General Assembly approved an updated resolution that once again condemned the occupation of the Crimean peninsula and rejected Russian attempts to legitimize its annexation (UNIAN, December 19, 2017); while the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a strict declaration against Moscow’s intentions to return to the organization (Tyzhden.ua, December 15, 2017). Russia’s problems in the international arena are aggravated by the difficult economic situation domestically, perhaps most clearly illustrated in recent months by the depletion of the Reserve Fund (RIA Novsti, January 1, 2018).
Taken together, the above-mentioned economic challenges and diplomatic setbacks have been motivating the Kremlin to seek a way out of this situation, which threatens the popularity of the ruling regime and the legitimacy of both its internal and foreign policy decisions. In these conditions, Ukraine remains one of the only areas where some kind of improvement can be found. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Kremlin has lately been demonstrating exceptional capacity for “peaceful” action and a readiness for dialogue on the “Ukrainian issue.”
To establish its supposed good will, last year Vladimir Putin proposed launching an international peacekeeping mission to the territory of occupied Donbas. However, Russia mandated that this force only “protect” the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) already present along the Donbas front line and not be allowed to monitor the occupied portion of the Ukrainian-Russian border. This made the Russian proposal completely unacceptable to both Ukraine and the West (see EDM, September 22, 2017).
However, on January 18, 2018, the Ukrainian national legislature, the Verkhovna Rada, adopted the law on the occupied territories (Law No. 7163), which, inter alia, officially denotes Russia as an aggressor in the conflict. This designation automatically precludes Moscow’s participation in any potential future peacekeeping arrangement in Donbas (Pravda.com.ua, January 18, 2018).
It should be noted that the passage of Law No. 7163 was not at all unexpected. Indeed, for months, the Kremlin had attempted derail the adoption of this legislation while simultaneously promoting peacekeeping initiatives that would meet Russian interests, even if Moscow would not directly take part. In a poignant example of the latter approach, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, speaking at a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, declared last November that Belarus would be ready to send peacekeepers to Donbas (Belta.by, November 15, 2017; see EDM, November 28, 2017). A member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Belarus is perhaps Russia’s closest ally and military partner.
Despite the unacceptability of such Kremlin initiatives for Kyiv and Washington, Putin will likely continue to press in this direction, in particular by involving Russia’s satellites within the CSTO in this process. The latest case in point may have been the recent meeting in Washington of Kazakhstan’s leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, with United States President Donald Trump.
During the meeting, Trump noted that negotiations on Donbas could be moved from Minsk to another place (see EDM, January 29). And according to Today.kz, the Kazakhstani president replied, “Let it be in Kazakhstan, as it should have been from the very beginning.” Nazarbayev reportedly added that he spoke with his US host about sanctions against Russia, though he did not elaborate further (Gordonua.com, January 19). Given this, it is quite possible that, during his visit to the United States, the Kazakhstani leader served as an interlocutor between the Kremlin and the White House. Likewise, Astana’s readiness to host a negotiating group on the settlement of the situation in Donbas was almost certainly preliminarily agreed upon with Moscow.
Ukraine, already accustomed to the Kremlin’s diplomatic maneuvers regarding the bilateral conflict, was not particularly enthusiastic about the proposal to change the venue for ceasefire talks from Minsk to Astana. “In fact, the place of the format is not very important. What is important is the fact that we have not moved forward in our process,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin (Korrespondent.net, January 20, 2018).
In another feigned gesture of goodwill this past month, Putin declared that Russia would be willing to return all Ukrainian weapons and naval vessels captured during the takeover of Crimea (Interfax, January 11). In fact, the return of those weapons, which the Russian military has been systematically destroying since April 2014 (5.ua, February 27, 2017), would have no real impact on the Ukrainian military’s present-day capabilities. On the contrary, these returned ships, in particular, would bring with them unacceptable financial costs for storage, repair and refurbishment. At the same time, this process could put Ukraine in a position of newfound dependence on Russia, while giving Putin a false pretext under which to seek the easing of US and EU sanctions.
The Ukrainian reaction was far from appreciative. The Russian president was offered a simple option: the ships should be returned along with the stolen territory (Nv.ua, January 12).
Despite the failure of the aforementioned diplomatic initiatives by Moscow, and given Russia’s current unfavorable situation, similar such “peaceful” ideas will likely continue to be put forward by the Kremlin as the presidential elections approach ever closer. At the same time, Ukraine needs to prepare itself for the fact that after Putin’s expected reelection in March 2018, Russian pressure is likely to return in full force. Thus, Ukraine should take the present opportunity to prepare for a possible new Russian “march to Kyiv.”