History and Prospects of Ukrainian Crisis Settlement
[Valdai Discussion Club]
The fragile truce in Donbass lasts for over two weeks. Sporadic shelling happens, but the focus of authorities of the unrecognized republics is persistently shifting to peaceful life. How stable will peace in the Southeastern Ukraine turn out to be this time? Towards what final status is the situation in Ukraine and beyond pushing the DPR/LPR?
There are hardly any unambiguous answers to all these questions today. Too much depends on hard-to-predict factors prima facie unrelated to the situation in the Southeast of Ukraine. Will Putin and Obama manage to reach an agreement on coordination of actions in Syria? How cold will the upcoming winter be? Will Europe succeed in elaborating a common migration policy?
But there are also quite conspicuous factors that pave the way to high-precision forecasts of some directions in the development of the situation around the Ukrainian crisis. For example, the economic life of the unrecognized republics is becoming ever more independent from Ukraine – most industries based on intra-Ukrainian orders are reorienting towards Russia and other CIS countries. The monetary system has become almost completely detached from the Ukrainian field and switched to the ruble zone.
On the other hand, the majority of members of Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada are not ready for any compromises with the DPR/LPR. President Poroshenko, whether he wants to fulfill the Minsk Agreements or not, lacks the resources to steamroll bills needed for their realization through the parliament.
The failure of the US campaign in Syria and Putin's taking the lead in the fight against ISIS creates a positive backdrop in searches for a compromise on the Ukrainian crisis between the White House and the Kremlin. The refugee avalanche that hit Europe is complementing the picture, rather bolstering Putin's plans to "pacify" the Southeast of Ukraine on his own terms. Although the conditions are not quite clear, some assumptions about the short-term course of the events can be made. Two stages may be outlined in our story.
Stage one. Europe holds the initiative.
The times when the Ukrainian crisis was only in the beginning, which, in my opinion, started their countdown the moment the Eastern Partnership project was launched, with all the ensuing plans to sign the Ukraine-EU Association, the initiative entirely belonged to Europe. Moscow's attempts to join the process to protect its interests bumped into arrogant disregard. As though Moscow had no part in bilateral agreements between Ukraine and the EU and its attempts to interfere were unacceptable. Consequently, rational considerations drew Russia to trade negotiations between Ukraine and the EU. At the same time, the best Moscow managed to achieve was to postpone the implementation of the Ukraine-EU trade regime, which was in line with the conditions of the Association Agreement.
Since the mass demonstrations in Kiev, after Yanukovych's refusal to sign the Association, Europe has been propping up the Euromaidan: condemning only Yanukovych but not denouncing use of force by the protesters, playing the decisive role in Yanukovych's concessions, threatening him with sanctions. In the end, the EU developed the document to reconcile the government and the protesters and acted as the guarantor of its implementation, yet it became simply one of the instruments of Euromaidan's total victory. Moreover, Europe did not condemn the breach of the "reconciliation" and the forced takeover of power by the protesters.
Such outcome was quite satisfying for Europe, because the initiative to put Ukraine into the field of its exclusive influence (snatch it from the clutches of the Russian "bear") was triumphant! All that was left was to legitimize the regime through off-year presidential and parliamentary polls and that was it – the anti-Russian face of Ukraine was completed, which was done under Europe's moral support and in full disregard of the manipulative elections, with forced cleansing of the field from competitors and so on. The mission of the Eastern Partnership project initiated by Sikorski and Bildt five years ago was accomplished - Ukraine's multi-vector policy has been done away with.
There is a Russian saying: "It was smooth on the paper, but they tripped over the gully."
When the crisis started revving up, but before the mass military actions, PACE passed a resolution entitled "Recent developments in Ukraine" on April 9, 2014, where the 9th point stated: "The Assembly strongly objects to any notion of a federalization of Ukraine and any outside pressures to pursue federalization in future…" It was obviously dictated by Ukraine and its friends. Before that, the idea of federalization in Ukraine had been criminalized, and people had been prosecuted for calling (!) for federalization.
Instead of shifting the discussion to the plane of a federalization model guaranteeing preservation of Ukraine's territorial integrity, Europe basically backed criminalization of the notion of federalization. The rest of the story is clear – Ukraine lost Crimea and is losing Donbass.
De facto, Europe was backing the military solution of the Donbass problem, because it was not stopping Ukraine's offensive in July – early August and changed its position only when it became clear that Ukraine could not win.
Second stage. Putin takes the initiative.
After Ukraine's offensive had been smothered, apparently not without the help of "polite people", the idea of Minsk Agreements appeared, and Merkel took up the burden of convincing Obama to back them. Formally, she succeeded, in my opinion, because Americans did not even care to carefully read the document. Otherwise, they would have probably not voted for it at the UN Security Council. Obviously, complete fulfillment of the Complex of Measures ("Minsk II") allowed Moscow to influence Kiev's policy through the Donbass autonomy, which would have broken the one-vector policy of Ukraine. While Europe, hemmed-in between several crises simultaneously (Greece, migrants), put up with having to reckon with Moscow's interests in resolving the Ukrainian crisis, the US in fact continued playing its game, basically bearing out the imitation of Kiev's fulfillment of the Minsk Agreements. On the other hand, Europe did not resolve to explicitly voice Kiev's blocking the Minsk process, it exerted influence on Poroshenko surreptitiously. Can the US position change because of the need to reckon with Moscow over the failure of Washington's tactic in Syria is uncertain to us, but I will venture to suggest that the American tactic in the Ukrainian crisis may be adjusted.
It stands to mention that the intra-Ukrainian situation is shifting towards chaotization of the political field amid aggravating problems in the economy and social policy, rising crime rate. The camp of victors is breaking into groups at war with each other and with the president and government, resembling bellum omnium contra omnes. That is what should be expected as soon as the first signs of a more or less stable truce appear. The president is losing the little support he had at the beginning of the year and which was largely motivated by the need to consolidate around the power during the war. The prime minister's approval rating is indiscriminative on the background of the survey's margin of error.
So, where are the developments taking them? I assume that forecasts could be made after the situation around the conflict over the local elections in Donbass clears up. Though unlikely, realization of "Morel's Plan", which stipulates conduct of elections in Donbass according to a special law, should not be ruled out. It is a subject of negotiations of the Trilateral Contact Group. If the elections take place and gain Europe's recognition, the situation will change dramatically, Donbass will form a legitimate government, and Kiev will have to enter into a dialogue with it. That will be a moment for an intelligible choice: Kiev will either give the (special) autonomous status of Donbass a go-ahead, according to the Minsk Agreements, or the territories will start tearing away from Ukraine's jurisdiction.