Sören Behnke is a Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Circle based in Berlin and is currently enrolled in the ‘Military Studies’ M.A. at the University of Potsdam.
As Winter is settling in across eastern Europe, the war in Ukraine seems to be literally freezing. Some analysts have taken this together with Russia’s worsening economic situation as indicators, that Moscow might be looking for a way out of the conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
Over the last few weeks Moscow’s tone has turned noticeably more conciliatory, going as far as reminding the Kyiv government, that the Donbas region is part of Ukraine, for which they should take on economic responsibility. Russia already has to cope with financing the Crimea region, in which it’s heavily investing into infrastructure development and modernisation, which by August 2014 made up for at least $4.5 billion. Obviously Moscow has no appetite for further financial investment in the once beloved ‘Novorossiya‘ region and thus is trying to get Kyiv to lift it’s economic and financial blockade of the self-proclaimed ‘Republics’. The latter of which has been especially hurtful to what little of an economy is left in the Donbas, as the Russian state run news agency ITAR-TASS notes (offline).
As it could be routinely observed during this conflict, the shift in Russian policy has been visible in a shift in the official and semi-official language employed by Russian officials and news stations, as Vladimir Socor notes in a Analysis for the Jamestown Foundation: “During the month of November, Kremlin-controlled television channels wound down their previously intense propagation of the ‘Novorossiya’ project” (see also Vladimir Socor, “Moldova: Russia’s Next Target if the West Falters in Ukraine (Part Two)“, Eurasia Daily Monitor 11, Issue 98, May 27, 2014). “Russian President Vladimir Putin had not mentioned ‘Novorossiya’ and ‘statehood for Ukraine’s South-East’ since the end of August, but the propaganda outlets persisted longer. The Novorossiya project’s political, military, and ideological exponents have been switched off by now.”
The rift between the Kremlin and the leaderships of the self-proclaimed ‘Republics’ in eastern Ukraine has become more visible over the last month, as the Kremlin recalled prominent Russian figures like the infamous Igor Girkin, also known by his popular alias ‘Strelkov‘. This led to a media clash of sorts, between the nationalist elements like Girkin and his supporters, which the Kremlin employed in the early stages of the Russian-backed insurgency, and the official Kremlin outlets. Another point in this case came, when Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t mention the ‘Novorossya’ in his annual address to the two chambers of Russian parliament in early December, instead focusing only on Crimea and it’s spiritual significance for the Russian Federation.
So what does this tactical shift in the Russian political language signify for the war in Ukraine?
Even though the seizure and annexation of Crimea may have been planned for long ahead as Andrei Illarionov noted in his speech to the NATO Assembly in Lithuania in May 2014, the Russian intervention in the Donbas regions seems to have been rather impromptu and improvised. It might have been, that the Kremlin for some time considered the idea of welcoming these regions into the Russian Federation as well, or was at least publicly ambiguous about it, this is clearly over by now. The Kremlin has seen is strategy of dividing the Ukrainian populace backfire in recent months when public opinion polls showed a growing support for the Ukrainian State and a commitment to the West. This clearly collides with Russia’s strategic imperative of having a at least neutral or defunct Ukrainian State at it’s border, serving as a geographical buffer between itself and the West. Carving out the eastern chunk of Ukraine would make the situation worse for Russia, as the rest of Ukraine would probably become even more committed to joining the EU and possibly even the NATO. Therefore it seems that the Kremlin has settled into the idea of con-federalisation of Ukraine, which would make it’s central government too weak to join the EU and/or the NATO and retain Russia’s influence, an idea it successfully advocated during the Minsk Peace Talks.
In the weeks leading up to the last meeting of the Contact Group on December 24th combat operations nearly halted, indicating the desire of all parties to at least explore political and diplomatic options. Russia signaled it’s interest in a political solution, which in the words of Russian foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov would have to include a ‘constitutional reform‘ in Ukraine, while probably retaining the option of resuming military operations if no deal was to be reached. As the meetings resulted in nothing more than a prisoner exchange between the self-proclaimed ‘Republics’ and the Ukrainian government, the latter part seems to have materialised, and news of renewed violence came shortly after the failed deliberations.
And though it may seem that Russia’s economic woes taken together with the conciliatory signs may signal a breakthrough in the making, it is unlikely that the Kremlin will alter it’s stance on Crimea. This after all is a fact neither the Western nor the Ukrainian government seem willing to accept. Herein lies the main problem for any political solution to the war in Ukraine, because Putin practically overcommitted himself to Crimea by calling it a holy place for Russia in his state of the nation address in December. Putins position inside the Russian system of power rests on his ability to act as a intermediary between different rivalling factions, or clans as they sometimes are called. By overcommitting like this he signalled to his peers and rivals that whatever the cost, he won’t let Crimea be taken from Russia, basically tying his own personal success to Russia’s newest province.
Thus any political solution of the war in Ukraine from a Russian point of view would have to include the West to at least ignore the question of the legal status of Crimea. Obviously this would be hard to swallow for most western leaders, even though a solution could stop short of the west actually accepting Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The scenario for this could lie somewhere along the lines of the Israeli-Syrian Golan Heights Case: no official recognition, no finalised peace deal, but a somewhat stable working relationship. But as long as the Ukrainian government still believes in succeeding with it’s military operations in the Donbas region, it understandably won’t consider giving in to Russia’s demands. And the western States, clinging to the somewhat overrated notion of credibility in international affairs, is not willing to accept Russia breaking one of the most important rules of the concert of Nation-States, namely the territorial integrity of each of them, which they believe might inspire other states elsewhere to probe into the same misbehaviour.
This leads to a paradoxical situation on the ground. Russia, even though it obviously does not seem interested in taking on the burden of more economically unstable provinces, has to keep up support for the self-proclaimed Republics because it needs them as a bargaining chip in any possible deal with Ukraine and the West. And Kyiv, still hoping for any kind of significant military support by the West, won’t give in to a diplomatic process as long as there is hope for altering the facts on the ground in taking away this bargaining chip in Ukraine’s eastern provinces. Not to speak of the different rebel factions and warlords, who clearly do have their own reasons for keeping the hostilities alive.
Currently all the involved parties do have a interest in continuing the war of attrition in the Donbas region, and the NATO states, that could easily alter the fortune of Ukraine, remain indecisive. This means that all the conciliatory signs aside, and in spite all the fruits a political solution could yield, this war will most likely drag on throughout 2015.