photo donbass war

by Gordon M. Hahn

According to the fourth point of the 12 February 2015 Minsk 2 accord, Kiev is required to engage the Donbass rebels in “a dialogue” or direct talks. Kiev has never fulfilled this pivotal step–the first in the agreement with a specific deadline. The dialogue was supposed to begin the day after the ceasefire was consolidated, which occurred back in March 2014, and was to address “the modalities of the local elections in accordance with Ukrainian legislation and the Law of Ukraine ‘On the temporary order of local government in certain areas of the Donetsk and the Lugansk regions,’ as well as with respect to the future operation of these areas on the basis of the Law.”

A full year after the agreement and nearly a full year since the ceasefire and subsequent troop pullback, Kiev has refused to engage a dialogue with the Donbass rebel regions’ representatives: (1) either on the modalities related to conducting elections in the Donbass, (2) or on the Ukrainian law to be adopted according to Minsk-2 ‘On the temporary order of local government in certain areas of the Donetsk and the Lugansk regions,’ or (3) ‘with respect to the future operation of these areas on the basis of the Law,’ or, for that matter, (4) on any other subject related to the crisis.

This is an old story for Maidan Kiev. It undertook no serious attempt to avoid war with the rebels when in March-April 2014 it refused to undertake any serious effort to negotiate with representatives of those who organized the first demonstrations against the Maidan seizure of power in Kiev on 21 February 2014. As demonstrations intensified in March and early April across much of southeastern Ukraine, especially in Donetsk and Lugansk Oblasts of the Donbass, leading to the takeover of several regional and city administration buildings, Kiev continued to eschew talks and instead began talking of carrying out an ‘anti-terrorist’ operation (ATO) against the demonstrators. In mid-April, as demonstrators and in some cases, armed rebels, seized more government buildings and re-took others from which they were driven out of earlier, Kiev declared its ATO and sent tanks, artillery, and air power east towards Donbass. This escalated matters, and the rebels turned more intently to arming themselves, seizing weapons from police and military installations. Civil war had begun.

For comparison, faced with a challenge similar to that faced by Moscow in Chechnya in autumn 1991, Kiev started its ‘anti-terrorist’ operation (ATO) just a couple of weeks after the rebels attempted to seize power in Donbass; Moscow negotiated on and off with ultra-nationalist Chechen rebels for three years beginning its own anti-terrorist operation in December 1994. The reader will note that I have put the word ‘anti-terrorist’ in quotation marks when referring to Ukraine’s ATO but not when referring to Moscow’s operation or civil war begun in December 1994. The reason is simple. The Donbass rebels never intentionally killed civilians for political reasons prior to the ATO’s beginning and have not done so since. In fact, it is the Maidan regime and its ultra-nationalist and neofascist allies who have done so. The Chechens had engaged in attacks on civilians before December 1994 and markedly increased them after the war began, with foreign jihadi elements infiltrating the separatists from the mid-1990s and gradually transforming the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya into a jihadi terrorist organization in good part by summer 2002 and en toto by October 2007 and the declaration of the Caucasus Emirate.

Why has the Maidan regime refused to dialogue and negotiate directly with the DNR and LNR rebels?

First, as long as Kiev refuses to deny the Donbas rebels any agency or recognition, it can continue to falsely claim that the Ukrainian civil war is purely ‘Putin’s war.’ It becomes a war entirely made and prolonged by Moscow and one for which Kiev bears no responsibility. The minute Kiev begins talking with the Donbass rebels directly they have agency, the latter become partially responsible for the the war’s initiation, taking some of the responsibility off Moscow. This undermines both Kiev’s and the West’s claim that Moscow is solely responsible for the war in the Donbass.

This is connected to a second reason for Kiev’s refusal. If the Donbass rebels played a role in causing the civil war, then the logical next question is: What did they do and why did they do it? To find the answer to that question one needs to look at how the war began, parsing the steps taken by Kiev and the Donbass. That search leads to the conclusion that the war was declared without any serious effort to engage moderate elements in the Donbass in negotiations. For example, according to Kiev’s security service itself, the SBU, former FSB major Igor Girkin or ‘Strelkov’–who falsely claims that he started the war and is supported in that claim by Kiev, Washington and Brussels– entered Donbass on April 12th. But days before Kiev already was discussing publicly its plans to carry out an ‘anti-terrorist’ operation against demonstrators in southeastern Ukraine, and it declared that operation on April 13th.

Third, should Kiev begin talks with rebel leaders it will lend them the imprimatur of political legitimacy as representatives of some significant portion of the Donbass population. The war will then be seen even more clearly as a Ukrainian affair rather than part of some Putin master plan to recreate the USSR. As we have seen with the brief outbreak of fighting, now quieted, in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenian rebel forces and the Azerbaijani army, the first reaction of many Western ‘analysts’ was to assert that ‘Putin had opened up a new front in the new cold war.’ The implication of Kiev’s desire to deny the rebel leaders any legitimacy for so long is that ultimately it seeks to prevent them from holding power in Donbass, and the only way to achieve that is to defeat them militarily. That means the war must be reignited one way or another.

Neither Washington, Brussels nor any other Western authority has ever issued a public statement urging Kiev to directly talk with the rebels. This demonstrates that Washington continues to prefer pinning all the blame for the war on Russia over securing the peace. Thus, Western policy wittingly or unwittingly is contributing to the Donbass conflagration’s now slow-burning civil war into another post-Soviet ‘frozen conflict.’ Like the Nagorno-Karabakh case, such a status quo is fraught with a relapse into war with or without any ‘black swans,’ and black swans are all too potentially abundant in the region.

If U.S. President and Nobel Prize laureate wishes to earn the latter status he received for nothing, he ought to issue a statement demanding that Kiev begin direct talks with the Donbass rebels next time he approves another tranche of money and weapons for Kiev. There would be a considerable up side for the president from such a move if it indeed induces Kiev to act accordingly. The inevitable upgrade in the Donbass leaders’ stature will increase their autonomy from Moscow and its local curators in the region. At the same time, the resulting increase in the Donbass leaders’ responsibility and vulnerability just might prompt it to negotiate with sufficient flexibility. This, in turn, perhaps would prompt the same from Kiev and thus offer new hope for a lasting peace for Donbass and the beginning of the end of the nightmarish tumult that is today’s Ukraine.