In mid-February 2015, the Ukrainian military was teetering on defeat. A sustained Russian-led winter offensive had begun a month earlier, when the dirt roads and fields in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region were frozen and drivable. The Ukrainians had been ousted from the Donetsk airport and were now semi-surrounded in the “Debaltseve bulge.” Russian anti-aircraft missile batteries effectively denied the relatively small Ukrainian air force access to the Donbas battlefields, while heavy Russian guns and missile-launchers devastated Ukrainian positions using Israeli-designed Forpost (Searcher-2) reconnaissance drones to pinpoint their attacks. If the Ukrainian defense collapsed, the conflict could widen and escalate, directly threatening Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s president at the time, François Hollande, intervened, organizing a summit in Minsk with Ukrainian then-president Petro Poroshenko and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Merkel and Hollande threatened the Kremlin with additional punitive sanctions, while Poroshenko was eager stop the fighting before his defense line collapsed. The so-called Minsk Two accord was signed on February 12, 2015, establishing a ceasefire, the expansion of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) observer mission, and a roadmap for a political resolution to the conflict (Militarynews.ru, December 10)
As Minsk Two was signed, the beleaguered Ukrainian forces were routed in Debaltseve and retreated in disarray; but overall, Minsk Two was a “success” of sorts: Since February 2015, there were no major battles in Donbas, and the line of control to this day remains practically the same. On the other hand, there are constant shootings, bombardments, skirmishes and casualties as well as no progress in political conflict resolution. Both sides blame each other as they differently interpret the Minsk accords. More Russian, Ukrainian, German and French summits were organized in the so-called “Normandy framework” to promote a solution, with little effect. Today, there is no imminent threat of the Donbas conflict escalating out of control, so Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron do not have any appetite for seriously threatening new punitive sanctions to pressure Putin into concessions. On the contrary, German industrialists are lobbying for sanctions relief. At the most recent “Normandy framework” summit in Paris, on December 9, 2019 (the first of its kind in three years), Merkel and Macron seemed to be acting as intermediaries between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who, on his own, has practically zero capability to press the Kremlin into conceding anything. At the final joint presser, Putin was cool and (mostly) seemed in full control of the situation (Kremlin.ru, December 10).
The Paris summit communiqué lists an additional prisoner exchange that may involve up to 300 people (Militarynews.ru, December 10). It also promises a sustainable ceasefire and partial heavy weapons disengagement. The Supreme Rada (Ukrainian parliament) promptly fulfilled one of Putin’s key demands by prolonging for a year the 2014 Ukrainian law on the self-rule status of Donetsk and Luhansk controlled by Russian-backed forces. The Paris communiqué also requires the so called “Steinmeier Formula,” proposed in 2016 by Frank-Walter Steinmeier who was then foreign minister and is today the president of Germany, to be incorporated in Ukrainian law—another key Russian demand (Interfax, Militarynews.ru, December 10). The Steinmeier Formula is a roadmap of step-by-step moves by both sides to end the fighting in Donbas. Former president Poroshenko, now the leader of an opposition faction in the Rada, believes the “formula” is a trap because it is not legally part of the Minsk accords and its implementation may lead to perpetual Russian control of a self-ruled Donbas, preventing any possible future Euro-Atlantic integration for Ukraine, while allowing Putin’s European friends to begin dismantling the European Union’s sanctions (Interfax, December 12).
Putin apparently has Ukraine and Zelenskyy—its inexperienced former-comedian-turned-president—cornered, under growing pressure at home and increasingly isolated abroad. Putin had good reason to be confident in Paris: his long and costly Ukraine adventure may finally have a logical endgame strategy. Still, at the same joint presser in Paris, Putin noticeably lost his composure on two issues: the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) decision to ban Russia from major sporting events as punishment for state-sponsored performance-enhancing drug offences, and the assassination in Berlin, on August 23, 2019, of former Chechen rebel commander Zelimkhan Khangoshvili (see EDM, December 5). The killer (arrested by German police) turned out to be Russian, allegedly connected to the Russian special services (see EDM, December 11). As punishment, Berlin expelled two Russian diplomats, while continuing to demand explanations from Moscow. In the French capital, Putin declared, “I do not know what happened with him [Khangoshvil]. They are bandits—they can do anything. We demanded Germany extradite this mass murderer, but the request was turned down” (Kremlin.ru, December 10). Putin announced a tit-for-tat expulsion of two German diplomats from Moscow. Berlin insists Moscow never requested Khangoshvil’s extradition. Moscow claims it did and accuses European countries of harboring many other “terrorists and murderers from the Caucasus” (Interfax, December 12).
The four-year ban announced by WADA may deprive Russia of coveted gold medals at upcoming Olympic games and world championships. Putin angrily denounced the prohibition as illegal collective punishment, insisting Russian has the right to compete under its own flag and anthem. The WADA ban, according to Putin, is politically motivated and has little to do with alleged doping violations. Russia promises to litigate the case in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) (Kremlin.ru, December 10). Other Russian officials, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Federation Council (upper chamber of the parliament) speaker Valentina Matvienko echoed Putin, denouncing the “treacherous” West and its cohorts for singling out Russian athletes. Matvienko proposed Russia sponsor separate Olympics, “since world sport is in crisis” (Vesti, December 11). Meanwhile, Denis Pankratov—Russian sports commentator who won the butterfly double at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics—insists Soviet and Russian sport has long been riddled with state-sponsored cheating and doping, focused on acquiring gold medals at any cost (Sovsport.ru, December 9). According to independent pollster Levada Tsentr, the Russian public accepts doping and cheating as normal because international sport is part of the standoff with the Russophobic outside world; thus, anything is permitted in this “war” (Nsn.fm, December 7).
Putin’s public persona is to look cool in any crisis situation; but if something is not fully under his control, he is likely to be overcome by almost unregulated anger. This is especially true if the situation inspiring the Kremlin leader’s ire was created jointly by the sloppiness of Russia’s own special services and by their foreign counterparts, allegedly moving in to exploit the opportunity and do lasting harm.