Three conflicts occurring simultaneously along separate fronts are currently vying for international attention: Russia and its allies continue to besiege the Syrian opposition forces in Aleppo, and a massive Russian naval force is assembling in the Eastern Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Iraqi and international coalition forces led by the United States are besieging the Islamic State in Mosul. And at the same time, fresh fighting has flared up in the Russian-occupied eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas. Meaningful dialogue between Moscow and the West has been strained, with barbs and insults traded instead of arguments. A planned visit by President Vladimir Putin to Paris this week was canceled after both sides expressed mutual displeasure over Syria. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped in and, on short notice, offered to organize a Ukraine-Germany-France-Russia summit in Berlin on October 19, to discuss the implementation of the Minsk Two peace plan for Donbas. At first, Moscow hesitated. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told the press, “Chances are extremely low for a so-called Normandy format summit on October 19, since little progress has been made by presidential aides in preliminary negotiations” (Militarynews.ru, October 17). But ultimately, Putin went to Berlin.
On October 16, a notorious Donbas warlord, Arsen Pavlov (a.k.a. Motorola), was killed by a bomb planted in the elevator of his apartment building in Donetsk. “Motorola”—a Russian volunteer–turned Donbas separatist, accused by Kyiv of war crimes—was given a hero’s funeral in Donetsk. The separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko declared that Motorola was killed by the Ukrainian military special forces. He said this was a breach of the ceasefire and a “declaration of war.” Donbas separatists threatened to march on Kyiv to avenge the death (Sputnik News, October 18). As the date of the Berlin summit approached, barrages engulfed most of the ceasefire line in the Donbas, with both sides reporting casualties (Militarynews.ru, October 19).
Many other separatist warlords have been killed in the last two years in mysterious circumstances—mostly those who, like Motorola, were part of early 2014 lawless start of the Donbas insurgency. Each time, the Ukrainian military were blamed; but no concrete evidence was ever presented. Motorola’s violent death could have been an inside job, explicitly designed to instill fear of a looming escalation to the conflict (Mk.ru, October 17).
The Donbas unified separatist army is organized in two corps commands (1st corps in Donetsk and the 2nd in Lugansk). All senior command positions are occupied by Russian generals and officers on a rotational basis; all logistic support is provided by the Russian military. A Novaya Gazeta investigation found that, since summer of 2015, Donetsk’s official separatist leader, Zakharchenko, lost all command over the separatist military and cannot begin any “war” without a direct order coming through the Russian military chain of command (Novaya Gazeta, May 27).
Until next January, the Russian military will not be ready for any major ground action in Ukraine, because autumn is beset by bad weather and, in November and early December, over 120,000 well-trained conscript soldiers who have served out their one year of compulsory service are scheduled to be demobilized. Thus the recent scare of an imminent military escalation in Donbas could have been intended to put pressure on Paris and Berlin, whose governments were in turn expected to pressure Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko into political concessions. This seems to have been the Russian game plan for the Berlin summit, which is being hailed today as a success: Putin “in principal” agreed to a possible future deployment in Donbas of an armed (with side arms) “police” mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). But according to leaks from the Kremlin, Merkel and French President François Hollande in return relentlessly put pressure on Poroshenko to make game-changing concessions to Russia. Foreign ministers and experts of the four countries must, by December, produce a “road map” timetable of measures to reinforce the ceasefire and partially disengage forces; while the parliament in Kyiv must change the Ukrainian constitution to allow a “special status” for and regional elections in the separatist-held Donbas (Interfax, October 20).
Changing the Ukrainian constitution and allowing regional elections while the two Moscow-backed separatist army corps are in position would legitimize the Donbas separation. Poroshenko does not have the votes in the parliament to pass such legislation, and any attempt to push it through could cause a political storm in Kyiv, possible regime change, and the total destabilization of Ukraine. An acute crisis in Ukraine and possible state collapse is a true roadmap for Moscow to take over the nation it considers part of its heritage. If Poroshenko resists Western pressure to concede, he may lose political and financial support, thus dooming his regime anyway. Moscow hopes to be rewarded by sanctions relief from the European Union for being constructive. Poroshenko seems to have been humiliated and entrapped in Berlin (Interfax, October 20).
Putin’s well-calculated success was somewhat tarnished by Syria, which he discussed with Merkel and Hollande after Poroshenko was sent packing. Putin was strongly pressed to stop the carnage in besieged Aleppo and later told journalists a previously announced “pause in the bombing of Aleppo” will be prolonged, possibly until next week. In return, Putin demanded the West must help push the former al-Nusra jihadists out of Aleppo and “separate the moderate opposition from terrorists.” During the “pause” in bombing, Russian and Syrian government forces offered “corridors” for civilians to leave Aleppo together with opposition fighters, who are expected to lay down their arms. No United Nations humanitarian relief aid is allowed into the rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo during this “pause.” Merkel told reporters after the summit that a temporary “pause” in bombing is not enough; while Hollande accused the Russian military of committing war crimes (Interfax, October 20).
Russia has been concentrating a large naval task force off the Syrian coast that may, by next week, expand to 20 warships from the Black Sea, Baltic and Northern Fleets (Militarynews.ru, October 6). Russia’s two largest warships—the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and nuclear battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy—with two guided-missile frigates and support vessels are steaming from the Barents Sea to Syria to join the assembled task force (Militarynews.ru, October 15). According to Russian and Syrian sources, by next week the present “pause” will end, and those opposition fighters in Aleppo who reject the last offer to surrender could be “cleansed” (Izvestia, October 20). The present fighting in Donbas may partially subside after the Berlin summit; either way, major action is unlikely until next January. But in Aleppo, Moscow does not seem ready to put its offensive permanently on hold.