Russian President Vladimir Putin is ‘undeterred’ not from plans to invade Donbass no less other parts of Ukraine but because he has no such plans. He is using military pressure to solve two problems and if that proves a bridge too far than just one of them. By pressuring the West with a persistent military presence 100 miles from Donbass and Ukraine’s other eastern regions he has forced Washington and Kiev to join him in what is basically a two-tier conflict resolution process. The upper tier talks will produce partial gains for Putin. The lower tier talks with Kiev may produce none at all, and if they do they may spell further destabilization of the political situation in an already far from stable Ukraine.
Moscow’s forward leaning military presence near Ukraine has twisted Western, particularly American, and Ukrainian arms to join him in what is basically a two-tier conflict resolution process. Putin’s chief goal was to draw Washington into the Minsk ‘Normandy 4 process’ in one way or another and get it to negotiate on key issues on security in easter Europe and western Eurasia. He achieved both.
With the newly concentrated minds of Washington and through it with NATO (and less importantly the OSCE), Putin has garnered the West’s acknowledgement that Western arms deployments in the region pose a threat to Russia and, since Russian deployments on its side of the border and potentially in Donbass, given a Kievan provocation, pose a threat to NATO member, it has agreed to talks on NATO conventional and short- and intermediate-range nuclear forces in the region. Moscow will not succeed in getting NATO to push for Ukrainian neutrality or any end to NATO expansion, so the threat of war will remain, intensified each time the West broaches Ukrainian, Georgian, or any other countries’ membership in NATO. However, it can achieve agreements on reduced NATO deployments to eastern NATO member-states.
Up until approximately two decades ago, a wiser West might have pursued a gradual process of bringing Russia into the alliance in return for democratization in Russia and trade agreements, but it is far too late for that. NATO expansion and color revolutions revived Russia’s historical security culture and vigilance norm against Western meddling and military threats and drove Moscow into China’s embrace, and it will not leave that embrace any time soon. A wiser NATO could still pursue some partnership the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, but relations are too strained now and the West lacks the ideological flexibility to pursue such a prudent policy.
The lower tier talks with Kiev may produce some or no results at all. Putin succeeded in getting Volodomyr Zelenskiy to return to talks with Moscow, with its top Minsk negotiator Dmitrii Kozak meeting in Paris on January 26th with the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, Andrei Yermak. They agreed to meet again around February 10th in Berlin to exchange proposals. It was also agreed to reinforce the Donbass ceasefire. There are reports that the two sides will agree on a date when Kiev at long last will begin direct talks with the Donbass separatists. However, Yermak soon denied such an agreement was reached. However, this denial could be an attempt to forestall hardliners’ protests, which could include a neofascist uprising. Kiev refused to negotiate with the rebels in March 2014 and instead declared an ‘anti-terrorist operation’, that is, war against what was then a few hundred rebels. Kiev has refused to negotiate directly with the rebels despite that 2015 Minsk accords’ stipulation that it should have long ago done. Thus, eight years after Maidan there have been no Kiev-Donbass talks. For comparison, when faced with a far more dangerous group of rebels in Chechnya after the Soviet collapse, the Kremlin waited four years before beginning military operations, holding formal talks and maintaining informal contact and discussions throughout. Maidan Kiev refused talks with the Donbass rebels an immediately began what it called an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ against them for having merely taken over a few regional administration buildings.
Kiev-Donbass direct talks, even the intent to set a date to begin them, a real breakthrough for Moscow but one that poses grave risks for Zelenskiy. It will demonstrate that the Donbass conflict is more of a civil war than a ‘Russian invasion’ and provoke great opposition within the elite and among the neofascists. Should a date be set and Kiev fails to begin talks, Zelenskiy and Kiev will be discredited. If representatives of Kiev do talk directly with the separatists, there may be no agreement, but Kiev’s nationalists, ultra-nationalists, and neo-fascists could rise up, even violently against Zelenskiy or engage in provocations along the line of contact in Donbass, scuttling the talks and any renewed ceasefire, perhaps igniting more intensive fighting on the breakaway regions and even a Russian intervention and a larger war. The radical volunteer battalions dominated by Azov and Right Sector (RS) fighters with their respective National Corps and the Ukrainian Volunteer Army (UDA), some who have received US and Canadian combat training, openly acknowledge violating the ceasefire (https://gordonhahn.com/2021/12/03/zelenskiys-theater-of-simulacra-as-coup-hoax-and-the-activation-of-bad-actors-in-and-around-ukraine/). UDA leader and advisor to the Chief of Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Dmitro Yarosh, is spoiling for a fight; just take a look at his Facebook page. You read that right: a neofascist who models himself, his party and independent army, the UDA, on the Nazi-allied fascist Stepan Bandera and the Ukrainian Partisan Army (UPA) of World War II, which murdered tens of thousands of Jews and Poles, has a Facebook page. This Yarosh, with the Facebook page, is the same Yarosh, whose RS men took part in the 20 February 2014 snipers’ massacre, killing police and demonstrators, that the West blamed on Yanukovych and organized the 2 May 2014 Odessa pogrom burning alive and otherwise massacring at least some 45 peaceful anti-Maidan picketers and tent city ‘residents’, an act RS claimed responsibility for twice (https://gordonhahn.com/2016/03/09/the-real-snipers-massacre-ukraine-february-2014-updatedrevised-working-paper/).
It is the far right threat, which in contrast to the US actually exists in Ukraine, that forced Zelenskiy’s Office of the President on Bankovaya Street to deny it requited the Kremlin’s condition for holding the talks when it withdrew from the Rada of a draft law on a transition period for instituting autonomy in the republics, a law on which Minsk requires Kiev to adopt but which still has not been done. That law would have rendered the Minsk requirement of direct talks with the separatist regions, since it required the dismantling of their governments before the regions received autonomy and perhaps even before any direct talks would begin (https://www.eurointegration.com.ua/rus/articles/2022/01/27/7133170/). In addition to Moscow’s coercive diplomacy this is a result of Zelenskiy’s general desire to find a solution for Donbass. It was a key presidential campaign promise of his, and he has made several recent statements expressing regret over lack of progress (https://gordonhahn.com/2022/01/02/zelenskiys-theater-of-simulacra-update-2/). Thus, Putin’s pressure may have opened up some room for Zelenskiy to restart Minsk.
The Zelenskiy administration is extremely weak as is Ukraine’s overall state apparatus, divided by contentious political, ideological, oligarchic and criminal factions. The entire Ukrainian polity is now opposed to Zelenskiy, his popularity ratings have plummeted to 25-30 percent, his party is barely holding third place in opinion polls. According to polls, Zelenskiy would receive 23 percent and his predecessor on Bankovaya, Petro Poroshenko – 21 percent. Zelenskiy’s Servants of the People party leads all parties with 19 percent, but that is compared to 70 percent when the Rada was elected and 14 percent for Poroshenko’s ‘European Solidarity’ party (http://www.kiis.com.ua/?lang=ukr&cat=reports&id=1090&page=1&fbclid=IwAR0-qs5D-9Hli6YNeKunjtR9N-cAnTSISnB2vn5ot3PXmvd4Q5YGoqFxJwA). Zelenskiy’s prosecutors have charged Poroshenko with ‘state treason’ for allegedly buying coal from Donbass during the peak of the war there. This is just one of the cleavage points that could explode Ukrainian politics at any point. There were violent demonstrations against taxes that included an attempt to storm the Rada earlier this week, and the same day there was a shoutout in front of the building of the SBU, Ukraine’s successor to the KGB. Neofascist have promised to overthrow Zelenskiy should he comply with Minsk. It cannot be ruled out that Putin has chosen now to press all these issues precisely because Zelenskiy is weak. This will expose Ukraine’s haplessness at present and could lead to a political upheaval bringing to power a coalition perhaps more amenable to normalizing relations with Moscow.
Talks between Kiev and Donbass will have to resolve a host of issues stipulated under Minsk: adoption of a law on semi-autonomy for Donbass, holding elections in Donbass under Ukrainian election law, returning control of the Donbass-Russian border to Kiev, and other issues. This will take many months, more like a year or several.
Meanwhile, the situation in and around Ukraine is critical. The West pushed Ukraine over the edge in 2014 and threw down the gauntlet to Moscow when it backed the Maidan revolt made on the blood of police and demonstrators spilled by the Maidan’s neofascist wing. Ukraine has not recovered, and a new cold war is sparked. The interwoven complex of strategic security issues, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the Donbass civil war, and instability is an explosive mix. Negotiations are the only way out, but things may have already reached the boiling point. Another rise in temperature could set the pot overflowing and push us all over the edge.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Aspiration, Trepidation, and the West in the Making of Russia’s Security Culture (McFarland, 2021) He has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.