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6 March, 2020  ▪  Марк Войджер

The potential winter unfreezing of the Donbas

The strategic winners and losers at Normandy

The entire world was watching and holding its breath two weeks ago, while the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine delivered their statements on the outcome of the long-anticipated Normandy talks. Behind the masks of diplomatic protocol no real breakthrough was actually reached, as was widely expected. Chancellor Merkel proved that at the end of her political career she is preoccupied mostly with prolonging for as long as possible the peace in Europe, or rather the illusion of it, while finalizing the coveted North Stream 2 project; while President Macron was eager to show to the world that France is a geopolitical player that can “handle” Russia – sadly, but not surprisingly, by appeasing Putin at the expense of Ukraine and its pro-Western future. Both Western leaders predictably proved incapable of standing up to Russia and taking a stronger stance in defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Still, from Russia’s point of view, they failed to deliver on what truly matters to Russia strategically – pressuring Ukraine to agree to change its constitution and federalize, thus allowing for a Russia-controlled Donbas to start pushing the country away from the EU and NATO. To be sure, the Ukrainian team yielded on many critical issues, for example, allowing Russia’s role to be put down on paper not as the aggressor in Ukraine and party to the conflict in the Donbas, but as a concerned neighbor; agreeing on the implementation of the “Steinmeier formula”, with all its deliberate vagueness, in the Ukrainian legislation; and accepting to meet in four months to report any progress at a new round of talks, in particular on organizing local elections in the Donbas. All those were strongly criticized within Ukraine as either the prelude for more concessions to Russia or an outright betrayal of Ukraine’s strategic interests. Still, President Zelenskiy remained defiant, at least before the cameras, by insisting that no federalization will ever occur, and that Ukraine will organize elections in the Donbas only after it regains its control over the border with Russia – exactly the opposite of how Russia sees the process of the hybrid takeover of Ukraine. Whether this was a strategic failure for Russia or merely a strategic delay, this outcome should have made it clear to the Russian leadership that they will not win the war against Ukraine only through political means, at least not as quickly as they had hoped after Zelenskiy was elected President in the summer. 

The reason for this political “procrastination” that allowed Zelenskiy to “get off the hook” for now, is that a critical piece was missing from the spirit of these Normandy talks – that of imminent military defeat and the spreading of the armed conflict deeper into Ukraine. This had played so well in Russia’s favor 5 years ago, during the negotiations in mid-February that resulted in the Minsk 2 Agreement – the sense of urgency that Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko felt at the time to reach a ceasefire at any cost in order to stop the advance of the Russian forces across the Donbas after they had just routed the Ukrainian troops at Debaltseve. That tactical objective had inevitably skewed the strategic geometry of the Minsk 2 talks in a way that left Ukraine as the weakest of the three sides in the diplomatic triangle of “Germany plus France – Russia – Ukraine”. With the Europeans pushing for peace at all cost, and Putin playing intransigent, the pressure fell exclusively on Ukraine to agree on an unfair deal that neither Poroshenko, nor any other self-respecting Ukrainian government could ever deliver on. Putin finally pretended to yield and skillfully applied the art of Russian lawfare by imposing an order of implementation of Minsk 2, whereby restoring the control over the Russian-Ukrainian border would come only after Ukraine delivered on an entire range of intractable political issues that fit the Kremlin’s hybrid aggression plan. At the Normandy talks in December, the Kremlin had to acquiesce with postponing the big political steps by several months, but instead it took small, but important ones forward that could enable it to justify, if it feels necessary, yet another cycle of aggression against Ukraine – either hybrid or conventional. 

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From big strategic leaps to small tactical steps – what did Putin actually say?

While the world was busy worrying about the above strategic-level moves, Putin did what he always does best – surprising everyone by shifting the “gear” down to the tactical level by invoking those that the Kremlin always claims it comes to the aid of - the “common people” in the Donbas. While Putin read mechanically the “big picture” strategic items in his list of prepared talking points, the novel element of his statement was his personalized insistence on seemingly innocuous tactical issues, such as the de-mining and de-fortification of the line of contact in the Donbas, as well as the opening of new border control points, in order to relieve the situation of the “common people”, about whom according to Putin, no one talks nor cares about, as everyone is so obsessed with the high-level political projects. To add the sense of drama to his impassionate plea, Putin even signed theatrically before the cameras. The world did not take notice, not even laughed at his antics – and it is high time that Ukraine and all concerned Russia-watchers in the West heed the warning of this seemingly insignificant episode – for the consequences for Ukraine could be dramatic once more in the coming winter months.

The last two times the Russian leadership claimed that it had to step in to protect the “common people” in the Donbas – in August-September 2014, and in January-February 2015 – brought humiliating military defeats, followed by Minsk 1 and 2 – each of them more unfair and tougher on Ukraine than the one before.  During its summer of 2014 hybrid aggression, the Kremlin bombarded the world with a joint information warfare and lawfare campaign claiming that the Russian-speakers in the Donbas were in the midst of a humanitarian catastrophe triggered by the Ukrainian “fascists”, so Russia had the duty to step and protect those “common people”. We all know how it did that back then, and how many Ukrainian lives have been lost ever since. When the military violence subsided in the months following Minsk 1, however, Putin quickly realized that Poroshenko was unable and unwilling to deliver on what he had grudgingly agreed on in September 2014. Subsequently, a second military crisis was engineered by the Kremlin, supported again by simple but effective info-warfare and lawfare preparation of the battle space – this time by accusing the Ukrainian army of having shelled city bus stops and killing civilians in Donetsk, coupled with Putin’s personal missive to Poroshenko claiming that a secret protocol on the exact demarcation of the Donbas to include Donetsk airport had been signed during Minsk 1 that still remained unfulfilled by Ukraine. The theatrical ”topping of the cake” in early February of 2015 came in the form of a “minute of silence” at the Russian Security Council, with Putin and his 12 top lieutenants paying homage in front of the media to the “common people” supposedly killed by the Ukrainian army. The Kremlin’s second conventional invasion in mid-February of 2015 that resulted in Donetsk airport’s being captured after the ceasefire by what Putin asserted were local “miners and tractor drivers” yielded Minsk 2 and its terms, as they are today – humiliating and constraining on Ukraine’s leadership, but also lacking the mechanism to force it to act and deliver promptly, unless pressured by outside powers (Europe, as the Kremlin had erroneously assumed), or compelled by yet another military crisis. 

Five years after those events, the Kremlin’s playbook is clear and well-rehearsed – it could trigger an engineered security crisis during which the death and suffering of civilians is blown out of proportion and blamed solely on the Ukrainian side, with Russia assuming the role of the protector of those civilians as a concerned neighbor and not as a party to the conflict – a position that was codified at Normandy. To top it all, nowadays the situation has changed dramatically in favor of the Kremlin compared to 2015, as Russia already has tens of thousands of “passport holders” in the Donbas that it legally regards as full-fledged Russian citizens whom the Russian army has the obligation the protect. In a potential re-inflaming of the conflict following the above scenario, Russia would not even have to hide its hand when using its troops and military assets, although it could still choose the hybrid method of deploying “integrated forces groupings” by recruiting larger number of local “separatists” (cannon fodder) in the Ukrainian-controlled portions of the Donbas that could then be organized around a core of Russian command-and-control and communication elements, and supported by the infiltration of special forces and “Cossacks”, presumably also through the new checkpoints about which Putin spoke so passionately at Normandy. In that regard, barely a day after the summit, when asked about restoring the control over the Ukrainian-Russian border, Putin asserted that if Russia were to do that, what would follow would be another “Srebrenitza”. Why would then the Russian leadership, that is so concerned that the Ukrainian “right-wing extremists” could commit an act of genocide against the common Russian-speakers in the Donbas, be so insistent upon the de-mining and de-fortifying of the line of contact and making it even more porous by opening new checkpoints? This really makes sense only if the Kremlin’s thinly-veiled plan is to ultimately take over the entire territory of the Donbas by military means, and in support of that objective the so-called “separatists” have openly stated that the entire territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions constitute their legitimate sphere of interest, and not only their occupied portions. Had Putin’s theatrical statements at Normandy remained only on words, that would have been the lesser evil, but now Russia’s “concern for the common people” has also materialized on paper as Point 1 of the Normandy communiqué, whereby Ukraine has four months to report on the strategic issues progress, but only 30 days to deliver on the tactical ones mentioned above. Herein lies the key to the potential for a renewed Russian aggression in the coming winter months, should the Kremlin decide the time has come to stop talking and start acting to “incentivize” the Ukrainian leadership to deliver on the big issues faster and under Russia’s terms.


Stacking the international “deck of cards” against Russia: no political incentives on the table anymore

While Putin bemoaned everyone’s obsession with the big political issues, the analysis of how the “deck of cards” ended up being stacked against Russia at that level clearly reveals that the Kremlin no longer has a real incentive to “behave”, as it has nothing to gain from actually complying with the political process, at least over the coming year, although it will undoubtedly claim that it fully supports its provisions, at least on paper. Several important strategic developments that occurred around, or after Normandy, have made Russia’s acting as a spoiler again the only viable choice for achieving a quick and decisive breakthrough against Ukraine and for breaking free of the politically imposed stalemate of the last five years. Firstly, in Russia’s neighborhood, two of Russia’s top regional integration projects – that of the re-inclusion of Belarus in the Russia-dominated Union State, and of the hybrid takeover of Georgia’s political system – were challenged by massive popular anti-Russian protests that those countries’ governments could not, or did not want (in the case of Belarus) to prevent. In the Kremlin’s experience so far with popular movements in its “Near Abroad”, and given its paranoid political mentality, these would be clear indications of impending “Color Revolutions” that threaten to go our control and push those countries away from Russia yet again. While the Kremlin would likely not act militarily against Belarus or Georgia at this point in time, it could choose to do so against Ukraine to send a strong signal to the all defiant or reluctant governments and societies in the region that Russia will not take “No” for an answer in the process of re-establishing control over its perceived sphere of influence, and that it would be ready to resort to more conventional means in re-building its Eurasian empire, and not only gradual subversive ones. The success of Russia’s “hybrid interventionism” model requires having the will and capabilities to employ all tools at its disposal, not only the covert hybrid ones, but also the overt use of force or the threat of it, whenever necessary, as is the case of Syria, Venezuela, and now Libya.

At the level of global diplomacy, the month of December has also been an utter disappointment for the Kremlin – with all its indecisiveness and willingness to placate Putin, France and Germany failed to deliver fully on what Putin wanted, and on top of that, the week following Normandy, the EU voted to prolong the economic sanctions against Russia for six more months.  Finally, the developments in the United States last week threaten to deal a strong blow on three of the Kremlin’s major geopolitical projects – the European energy one, the American political one, and the Ukrainian hybrid warfare one. First, the US Congress voted to impose strong sanctions on the North Stream 2 pipeline project which are already forcing many European companies to reconsider their participation, which opposes directly the Kremlin’s plan for energy domination of Europe. Second, the impeachment of President Trump that the US Congress voted for threatens to unravel any high-level political influence that Russia has, or thinks it has over the US executive branch; and third, the US Congress approved the largest defense budget in US history that also features a massive aid package for Ukraine to include direct military means that could help Ukraine halt any future Russian advances into its territory. At the backdrop of these highly negative developments for the Kremlin, it is only logical, that Putin might decide to implement a contingency plan to counter or reverse the effects of all three. A potential renewed Russian aggression in Ukraine can only stand to benefit from the US and the UK being majorly distracted in the coming months by their own complicated political issues - the impeachment of Donald Trump and the hard Brexit adopted by Boris Johnson. It would also serve as a proof to the European public opinion that Ukraine with its constant potential for military conflict (albeit stoked by Russia) is an unreliable gas transit state, which will be the strongest argument in favor of North Stream 2. Finally – as the clock is ticking on Ukraine’s leadership to deliver on its Normandy commitments while scheduled to receive more US military aid and IMF assistance, any Russian hesitance to act promptly and decisively now might prevent it from being able to act successfully later. By then, the Ukrainian leadership will undoubtedly feel emboldened by its improved military capabilities coupled with the feeling that it can “play Putin” indefinitely by not yielding to Russia’s pressure and by constantly postponing the implementation of Minsk 2. 

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Political vigilance is needed along with the religious vigils and popular celebrations

The 30-days term for Ukraine to deliver on the tactical steps stipulated by the Normandy communiqué happens to expire around 8th January 2020, right after the Orthodox Christmas celebrations.  Of course, no one can claim with a 100-percent degree of certainty that a new Russian aggression is imminent or irreversible, and any existing contingency plans can be altered or trashed by the Kremlin as the situation evolves and circumstances change. Still, it would be prudent for Ukraine, its government and its friends in the West to start preparing for the worst while still hoping for the best, namely that as the Russian winter moves in from the north it will bring only snow for the coming festivities in Ukraine, and not a new unfreezing of the Donbas during the 2020 winter fighting season.

Mark Voyger, scholar at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Public Engagement, Washington, D.C.

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